From Powwows to Porcupine Quills – A Cultural Itinerary

By Carolyn HellerMarch 22, 2016

Curious about aboriginal culture? Northeastern Ontario’s Manitoulin Island is your place.

Home to eight First Nations, the Manitoulin region is also the headquarters of one of Canada’s most-established aboriginal tourism organizations, the Great Spirit Circle Trail, which offers traditional and contemporary aboriginal cultural experiences, from hiking to horseback riding to canoe tours, with local First Nations guides.

To get you started, we’ve outlined an itinerary for a weekend of experiences, from powwows to porcupine quill weaving. Catch the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory (the boat’s name comes from an Ojibwe word meaning “Big Canoe”), or drive over the island’s swing bridge and begin exploring.

Check Into A Teepee

Teepee campground at the Great Spirit Circle Trail.

Teepee campground at the Great Spirit Circle Trail.

What better base for a weekend of cultural adventure than a traditional native dwelling? You can sleep in a teepee on the Great Spirit Circle Trail’s wooded property in M’Chigeeng or at Endaa-aang “Our Place,” on the nearby Aundeck Omni Kanng First Nations reserve. Or, if you’d prefer a more traditional hotel accommodation with an added dash of cultural flavor, book a room at the First Nations-run Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre in Little Current.

Take a Hike

Views from the top of the Cup and Saucer Trail.

Views from the top of the Cup and Saucer Trail.

Once you’ve settled into your accommodations, it’s time to get outside. One of Manitoulin’s best hikes is the climb up the Cup and Saucer Trail, which follows the Niagara Escarpment to a viewpoint with spectacular vistas across the island. You can do this hike on your own—the trailhead is off Highway 540 at Bidwell Road between Little Current and M’Chigeeng—or take this hike with a guide from the Great Spirit Circle Trail. On this guided “Mother Earth Hike,” you’ll learn about how native plants are used in traditional medicine and cooking as you walk through the forest to the lookout point.

Great Spirit Circle Trail guides typically start their activities with a smudging ceremony, lighting a mix of sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco and chanting to the spirit guides. The smoke is used as type of spiritual cleansing, designed to release negative energy and open your mind to the experiences that you’re about to have.

Explore Native Art

Weaving boxes and baskets with brightly coloured porcupine quills is a traditional native craft. The best place to see this intricate handiwork is at Lillian’s Porcupine Quill Basket Museum in M’Chigeeng, which is part souvenir shop and part art gallery. Lillian’s back room exhibits one-of-a-kind porcupine quill works by local master craftspeople.

Weaving intricate porcupine quill baskets is a traditional First Nations art.

Weaving intricate porcupine quill baskets is a traditional First Nations art.

For other native crafts stop into the Ten Mile Point Gallery, off Highway 6 in Sheguiandah, high on a point overlooking the island’s eastern shores. Besides taking in the views, you can browse for jewelry, prints, and leatherwork by First Nations artists or books about aboriginal culture.

Go To Church

Symbols on the door of the Wikwemikong Holy Cross Church.

Symbols on the door of the Wikwemikong Holy Cross Church.

Manitoulin has several churches that combine native and Christian traditions. In M’Chigeeng, stop into the distinctive round building that houses the Immaculate Conception Church. The yellow sun with four rays in the shape of a cross on the blue front door is an indigenous religious symbol. Other aboriginal paintings and carvings decorate the interior.

On the Wikwemikong reserve on the island’s eastern side, the ruins of the Holy Cross Mission, dating back to 1844, are a ghostly landmark. Open to the sky, the stone walls are all that remain of this historic structure. Next door, a reconstructed Holy Cross church still has an active Catholic community.

Go To A Powwow

On the powwow grounds in Wikwemikong.

On the powwow grounds in Wikwemikong.

Try to time your Manitoulin visit with a weekend powwow. The island’s First Nations communities all host these lively celebrations of dance, drumming, music, and food, and visitors are welcome at these annual events. The Wikwemikong First Nation holds the largest powwow, the Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival, the first weekend in August, and the smaller community-oriented Wikwemikong Traditional Powwow in June. Others take place around the island between June and September. You can get a schedule of Manitoulin powwows from the Great Spirit Circle Trail and learn more about the powwow experience at Powwow 101.


Travel writer Carolyn B. Heller is the author of Moon Handbooks: Ontario, a 480-page guide to the best activities and experiences, lodgings, food, and fun across the province.

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