A Rare and Ancient Place
Mnjikaning is one of the oldest human developments in North America. At about the time that construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt was beginning some 5,000 years ago, the installation of the first fish fences (at what is now the Atherley Narrows) was under way. From that time until a navigation channel was dredged in 1857, and even up until the years preceeding World War II, a complex system of underwater fences was used by aboriginal peoples for harvesting fish.
In the Ojibway telling of the creation of the world, the Creator gave each species of living thing on earth a different purpose to fulfill. The fish were told to come together at certain times of the year and to hold council. At these times, the people could more readily access them for food. Remarkably, in spite of all the changes the Atherley Narrows has undergone over the centuries, the fish still hold to their role in creation and come together at Mnjikaning every spring and fall.
The Mnjikaning site was more than a place for fishing. Over time, it became a traditional meeting place for Indigenous natiions, a place where agreements would be struck, treaties made, useful information shared, goods exchanged and given, stories told, spiritual ceremonies conducted, and festivities enjoyed.
What is Mnjikaning?
“Mnjikaning” is a word in Ojibway, the language of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. It has several interpretations, but is usually taken to mean “fish fence”.
At least as early as 5,000 years ago, Indigenous fishers drove alignments of wooden stakes, called weirs, into the bottom of the Narrows (the channel between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching in Orillia, ON). The early fishers who put them in place wove brush and other vegetation among the stakes to form a complex arrangement of fences that guided fish into accessible areas where they could then be speared, netted, or kept alive for future use. These weirs were an extremely efficient food-gathering technology.
Today, such wooden weirs are rare. Though remains of stone weirs can be seen in British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Northern Canada, the wood weirs of Mnjikaning are among the few known in Canada.
The Chippewas of Rama First Nation value their traditional role as stewards of the weirs. According to their oral history, many hundreds of years ago, the Anishinaabe people’s nomadic ancestors visted the area during a long migration from the Atlantic coast and learned the weir operation from the Wendat people. Later, after the Wendat were dispersed from the region, the Anishinaabe returned to settle at Mnjikaning and assumed the management of the weirs.
The Chippewas of Rama are celebrated and revered by other Indigenous peoples in different parts of North America for their important stewardship role.
Scientists have established that some of the hudreds of weirs still in place at the Narrows have been there for thousands of years, preserved by their underwater environment and by layers of protective silt.
In recognition of this rare and ancient place, in 1982 the federal government officially declared Mnjikaning a National Historic Site of Canada. A plaque, seen below, can be found off Bridge Street next to the bridge spanning the Narrows.