Manitoba History: Book Review: E. Leigh Syms, Stories of the Old Ones from Lee River, Southeastern Manitoba: The Owl Inini, Carver Inini and Dancer Ikwe

by Margaret Bertulli
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 80, Spring 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This striking book is an engaging read and will attract people from varied backgrounds, especially those interested in Anishnaabe lifeways before contact with Europeans and archaeological explorations. Stories of the Old Ones from Lee River delves into the recovery and analysis of the remains of three ancient individuals (two men and one woman) from the Rivermouth site, located on the Winnipeg River System in the Lac du Bonnet area of southeastern Manitoba. This region has a significant and complex occupational history over 5,000 years. The Elders say that when eroding burials are ‘discovered by archaeologists’ it is with the permission of the ‘Old One,’ and the archaeologist must strive to comprehend the significance of the buried individuals and their time, a responsibility which this book well fulfills.

The project benefitted from the collaboration of many individuals and institutions including the Sagkeeng First Nation (particularly heritage monitor Ray Tuokko and Elder Mark Thompson); the Manitoba Museum and its Foundation; the Historic Resources Branch of the provincial government as well as federal agencies; and analytical experts in various fields.

The book is divided into sections: descriptions and analyses of the three interments and the Rivermouth site; the culture history of southeastern Manitoba and its surroundings from ancient times (11,000 years ago) into the post-contact era; non-technical explanations of the scientific analyses conducted to extract information about these individuals from their bones and associated objects (i.e., aging, sexing and genetic analysis of skeletal remains; isotope analysis and diet; dating methods); two appendices adumbrating the flora of the area and the plants used by various Anishnaabe groups; and a fairly extensive bibliography.

The Owl Inini’s incomplete remains were discovered in 1987 from an eroding bank along with grave goods and camp debris. He was a left-handed, middle-aged man, 35 to 45 years of age, about 5'7" to 5'10.5" in height, and with a clubfoot which caused him to walk on his right heel and may have caused his spine to curve. He was arthritic and, at some point, had suffered and recovered from a traumatic head wound. His diet was high in protein, the likely source being fish, and his teeth showed abrasive wear and chipping, probably from biting down on hard objects. The Owl Inini lived about 1600 years ago and was a member of a group that archaeologists call the Laurel Culture―hunters, fishers, gatherers, and makers of the earliest pottery in the area. He was called the Owl Inini because his interment contained two owl talons that could have been in his sacred bundle. Owls were considered auspicious portents. The author infers that because of his physical distinction the Owl Inini possessed spiritual gifts and would have been well regarded in the community.

The remains of the Carver Inini and the Dancer Ikwe were both recovered in 1996 from the same burial pit, which was about three feet deep and covered by flat stones. They had been buried at the same time and were found not to be related matrilineally through mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis.

The Carver Inini was about 5'5" to 5'8.5" in height, lived for 30 to 35 years and had several healed wounds. He was placed in the pit on his back with his arms curving around a heavy spherical rock and, in his hand, was a stone arrow point whose purpose, identified by Elder Mark Thompson, was to cut through the ‘curtain’ to reach the spirit world. Elder Thomson also shared that the rock’s meaning, along with a hawk beak, were symbols of the man’s name. Long before his death, the Carver Inini’s left shoulder blade had been punctured by a bone tool, which had not been extracted. It may have been a surgical implement used to introduce medicines under the skin.

Several utilitarian objects lay beside him, as well as an impressive cache of 102 beaver incisors, which are often used for carving and incising, hence the appellation ‘Carver.’ The size of this cache suggests that the Carver Inini was a successful hunter who would have been respected for this skill, as it implies a mutually beneficial rapport with the animal spirit world.

The Dancer Ikwe was healthy and active, slightly over 5' in height, and 16 to 20 years old at the time of her death. She was found with seventeen antler armbands, which represent a considerable investment of labour and would have been attached to clothing to jangle while dancing. Her teeth indicate a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates, with health stressors in her first three years of life. She had spina bifida and probably walked with crutches, as indicated by injuries to the skeletal structure of her torso and upper arms.

Both the Dancer Ikwe and the Carver Inini died about 400 years ago. They belong to the Winnipeg River Culture (1300 CE until European contact), which is ancestral to Anishnaabe. The remains of all three individuals were reburied, and the grave items were replicated for educational exhibits for Sagkeeng First Nation and The Manitoba Museum.

This book’s value also lies in its chapter summarizing the culture history of southeastern Manitoba, based on Elders’ oral knowledge and the archaeological record. E. Leigh Syms begins with the time before humans, and develops a chronological sequence for the area; illustrates technological changes through time in pottery and stonetool making; discusses archaeological techniques such as water flotation and encrustation analysis as methods for learning about diet; reviews ‘sacred symbol sites’ including petroforms, pictographs and petroglyphs; and outlines the changes brought by contact with Europeans.

The author’s style remains concise and clear as he explicates complex scientific analyses and principles. The illustrations are relevant and aesthetically pleasing, although several are duplicated throughout the book, likely for the reader’s ease of reference: pottery making (pp. 33 and 83); comparison of male and female skulls (pp. 18 and 94); examples of isotope values from various animals from a Lake Baikal study (pp. 21 and 99); calibrated and non-calibrated radiocarbon dates (pp. 69 and 102). One is triplicated: comparison of male and female pelvises (pp. 19, 40 and 93). The book gives the reader a detailed entry into modern archaeological work conducted in conjunction with First Nations people. As the author says, the Owl Inini, the Carver Inini, and the Dancer Ikwe “have made it possible to share their lives, as part of a long, rich and exciting local history” (p. 92).

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 July 2020