Weber: A Wendat ThanksgivingWritten by Art Weber | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The fire blazed in the fireplace, though it was really more just a place for a fire. An indoor campfire.
No chimney, no hearth. Just seasoned split logs of maple and birch leaned carefully, pyramid-style, flaming in a shallow depression scraped into the middle of a rock-hard dirt floor.
The fire burned in the walkway, which stretched door-to-door the length of the longhouse. The longhouse is the traditional communal structure of the Huron people, one of the great native cultures of North America.
We call them Huron, the name given them by the first French explorers to come up the St. Lawrence River. It’s a familiar name to Ohioans, where it survives as name for cities, counties, even a great lake. The culture left with the Huron people, who long ago moved on or were absorbed into the populace.
But this is Canada – Quebec — their native home. Here they call themselves and their language Wendat, the people of the great island. They call their land, just north of the city of Quebec, Wendake. The word means the great island. More than half the nation still lives in Wendake.
Thanksgiving is every day in Wendake, where traditional ways and beliefs survive comfortably alongside modern life. A Catholic Church fills with devout Wendat parishioners who also tell the Wendat story of a world created and a people saved on the back of a great turtle.
The huge longhouse – a replica built to modern fire standards that, though large, would have been dwarfed by its genuine predecessors – is built within sight and earshot of the roaring rapids of the Akiawenrahk River.
Outside in the darkness, the Akiawenrahk – the “river of a thousand meanders” — boils past before dropping over a great falls – Kabir Kouba – and into the deep narrow gorge, a place possessed of extraordinary natural beauty that is the inspiration for many Wendat myths and legends.
In the longhouse Okia, a Wendat storyteller and a guardian of the Wendat’s ancient wisdom, shares those myths and legends.
Okia’s face was harshly lit by the stark light of the flames, her words and gestures carried softly over the campfire and echoed in the dark recesses of the longhouse. The smoke wafted as freely as the fire burned, rising slow and free past three stories of sleeping racks, lingering in the rafters where it permeated the stretched skins of wolf and bear before searching for an exit in the roof of the big longhouse, the traditional communal structure of the Huron people.
She shared the ancient ways of her people, the stories filling the air like the smoke of the fire, her dramatic gestures swirling the rising wisps. She speaks of the Wendat’s unbreakable bond with the earth, and shares the sacred story of the great turtle. She sprinkles her stories with the Wendat language, words rarely heard since the death of their language a century ago, only to be recently rebuilt, inspired by its roots in the language of the Mohawk.
The longhouse is just one example of how the modern Wendat have chosen a different path, shunning the gambling casinos that have become commonplace on so many native lands. Instead they have chosen to showcase their culture by constructing a four-star resort, which began by building a small hotel with every room focused on the natural beauty of the river.
Those who want to fully immerse themselves in the culture can add a visit to the museum, savor meals and drinks based on native fare and served in their extraordinary restaurant, and opt to participate in heritage storytelling, overnight in the longhouse, and hands-on traditional skills from the making of a birchbark canoe to crafting your own speaker staff and tending to a garden of the Three Sisters – corn, bean, and squash planted together on a mound, providing a healthy sustainable basis for Wendat agriculture.
Quebec has officially designated Wendake as a signature experience.
“We’re not a hotel,” said Jason Picard-Binet, Wendake’s tourism and marketing coordinator. “We’re a cultural resort. We have a museum, we have workshops, summer shows, and outdoor theater.”
And it’s all first class.
You can reflect on all that as you stare into one of several fires kept burning on the grounds outside Restaurant La Traite. If it’s too chilly they’ll even loan you a wrap of wolf or bearskin to ward off the cold.
Until then, Onhey – pronounced oo-nay – Wendat for goodbye, nice to meet you, safe travels.
Look for more information at www.TourismeWendake.com.
Tags: Akiawenrahk River, Akiawenrahk – the “river of a thousand meanders”, Art Weber, birchbark, Canada, canoe, Catholic Church, cultural resort, Huron, Quebec, St. Lawrence River, the longhouse Okia, Wendake, Wendat, Wendat storyteller