by Kathleen Keefe
Archeological evidence indicates that long before John Howard called it “High Park”, this land had been travelled and inhabited by thousands of Indigenous people since the last ice age glaciers receded 11 000 years ago. Indigenous feet and paddles created the trails and water routes that would eventually become the networks of European fur traders.
Maintaining the Ecosystem
The remnant Black Oak Savannah that remains the heart of High Park today once stretched from what is now Royal York Rd. over to Roncesvalles Ave. and from Lake Ontario up to Lawrence Ave. This ecosystem was a landscape in which the inhabitants and the natural environment became extensions of each other over some 4 000 years. Through the use of carefully timed controlled fires, Indigenous people maintained Black Oak Savannahs, simultaneously improving the health of both humans and the ecosystem.
The original caretakers of this land understood that the environment was their teacher and were perceptively aware of how they engaged with and contributed to it. Their judicious management of fire stimulated the growth of plants valuable to them such as fruit and nut producers and tall grasses. The fires opened up the landscape, inviting game animals like deer, caribou, elk, black bears and turkeys, while discouraging biting insects. Less dense vegetation also allowed easier movement for humans. (See also Prescribed Burns in High Park.)
Using Oak Savannah Plants
It’s almost certain that because the Black Oak Savannah was maintained so well for so long by Indigenous occupants, it is still an intact ecosystem that includes many of the same plants that were useful to them then. According to oral histories, some of these include: oak, willow, hemlock, maple, pine, beech, cedar, sassafras, hawthorn, cherry, dogwood, sumac, milkweed, jewelweed, wintergreen, hairy bush clover, woodland fern leaf, wild lupine, nettles, purple coneflower, cylindrical blazing star, pearly everlasting, columbine, lichens and big bluestem grass.
Any or all parts of a plant could be used by humans, including the bark, sap, flowers, seeds, roots, leaves, fruits and tubers. Whether the taking was for medicine, ceremony, food or utility, gratitude was customarily offered to the plant and explanation given to it regarding who needed its gift and why. Indigenous people who once engaged so intimately with this land, understood that all of nature, including land, rock, plant and animal, has spirit and consciousness and needs to be considered with respect. According to their teachings, plants and animals are regarded as older relatives who have valuable lessons to pass on to us about living in harmony with specific environments. Knowledge could come in three ways: passed on from generation to generation, gained by personal observation or given as a gift through spiritual and dream revelations.
Learning from Indigenous Stories
Indigenous creation stories teach humans how to live ethically with the rest of creation. We are no more or less important than all the other components of the natural world. Indigenous prophecy includes a future in which North Americans seek Indigenous wisdom for a more balanced, healthful and sustaining approach to life.
The Indigenous stories and traditions that connect to High Park can teach all of us a great deal, but they remain especially vital to the Indigenous people who count on these connections to their heritage for meaning and holistic wellness in today’s world. Although it is not possible to live the traditional life of their ancestors here, it is important to keep practicing their traditions. Currently, the Indigenous population of Toronto is nearly 70 000.