'I rescued my ancestors': Anishinaabe anthropologist brings archival recordings back home

Bimodoshka Annya Pucan was doing undergraduate research at the University of Western Ontario, when she discovered archival recordings of Robert Thompson - a medicine man born in 1876.

Recordings thought to be the oldest known of the Anishinaabeg of Ontario

Robert Thompson was born in 1876, and was a medicine man, mill worker, and fiddler who lived at Chiefs Point reserve in southern Ontario, which is part of Saugeen's traditional territory. (Provided)

Originally published on March 5, 2020. 

Bimodoshka Annya Pucan calls it destiny.

In 2011, the anthropologist from Saugeen First Nation was doing research for her undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario, on the Anishinaabeg involvement in the war of 1812.

Her professor gave her a book from 1944, written by Dr. Edwin Seaborn. The book, The March of Medicine in Western Ontario, included a story about the War of 1812 that sounded eerily similar to one her grandmother used to tell. In that story, two Anishinaabe men escaped from American soldiers by shape-shifting into turtles. 

It also mentioned wax cylinder recordings of a man from her community, named Robert Thompson. He was born in 1876, and was a medicine man, mill worker, and fiddler who lived at Chiefs Point reserve in southern Ontario, which is part of Saugeen's traditional territory. 

At first, Pucan recalled being hesitant to hear the recordings. As a powwow dancer, she had spent a lot of time with her grandparents and elders, learning about medicine and traditional knowledge.

"I feared the power, I suppose, that could be contained in those recordings," she recalled. "We don't record our traditional or sacred knowledge and our sacred songs, we don't do that. So how could these recordings exist?"

But her community encouraged her and eventually she found them at Museum London, in London, Ont. The recordings had been donated in 1975, and sat untouched for decades. Due to the fragility of the wax cylinders, they were sent to Northeast Document Conservation Center in Maryland, where they were digitized.

Once they were returned, Pucan finally heard the voice of Thompson. 

Bimodoshka Annya Pucan was doing her undergrad at University of Western Ontario when she first heard about the archival recordings. (Supplied)

"When I first heard his voice I screamed, 'I can hear you!' And I really did scream loud and I was crying tears," she said. "I felt an incredible connection."

There are 19 different recordings that include sacred songs the community has decided not to share publicly, songs that can be shared, information about plant medicines, family history and even moments of humour. Pucan said this collection contains the oldest known recordings of the Anishinaabeg of Ontario. 

Pucan planned a week of workshops with elders and community members to re-introduce the songs and stories. She also curated an exhibit with Museum London in 2018 that was open to the public.

Bringing the recordings home has had a profound impact on Pucan.

"I had a sense of victory, that we won. I rescued my ancestors, I was bringing them home, they were finally free. That was a very powerful moment for me," she said.

And the story about the shape-shifting turtles that sounded so familiar to her? 

Pucan wanted to understand Thompson's authority in telling these stories, so she researched his genealogy. In trying to find out who he was, she also discovered something else. One of the two men who escaped the American soldiers was Thompson's grandfather, Sahgachewayosay. 

"The person that he was fighting alongside was Mandawoub, and that is my great-great-grandfather," she said.