Canada is filled with fascinating Indigenous experiences but nowhere is better than the Great Spirit Circle Trail of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. This tour takes you around the largest fresh water island in the world where the Anishinabek Peoples have traded and settled for thousands of years.
The Anishinebek Nation is comprised of the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Pottawatomi peoples who have welcomed visitors to their land to share their culture with everyone.
The Anishinabek People of Manitoulin Island
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Canada’s First Nations People are the foundation of our country, and too many of us don’t know enough about them.
There is a reason for that. For more than a century the First Nation’s culture was repressed and people were forced to live separate from society.
1. A Dark history of Residential Schools
Dave and I only recently learned all about residential schools that were operating until the 1990’s here in Ontario. These schools were funded by the government and run by the Christian, Catholic, and Anglocan churches of Canada.
Residential schools removed native children from their families, forbade them to speak their native tongue, and stripped them of their cultural identity. The abuse was widespread and common and many children died within the system and grew up with severe trauma.
It has only been recently that the Aboriginal Culture has started to heal. They are now starting to preserve their heritage. Indigenous languages are being taught again in schools and old customs are being embraced and practiced throughout the land.
We learned so much while this tour and have come away richer from our experience. Not only through the knowledge that we gained, but the friends that we made.
2. Great Spirit Circle Trail
If you want to visit Canada and learn about its indigenous culture, Manitoulin Island’s Great Spirit Circle Trail is definitely the place to visit. There are seven reserves on Manitoulin Island and they are open and ready to talk to you about their traditions.
We were inspired by their sincerity, their spirituality, and their generosity. You’ll come away with a better understanding of Aboriginal Culture and you’ll have made new friends too! We had some incredible cultural experiences around the world and Great Spirit Circle trail is up there with the best of them.
Here are our picks for what you should do on Manitoulin Island while experiencing Indigenous Culture.
Indigenous Experiences on Manitoulin island
Exploring The Great Spirit Circle Trail gives you the chance to take part in Aboriginal Activities and learn about their ways first hand.
3. Ojibwe Cultural Foundation
One could get lost for hours in this museum featuring a teaching lodge, Aboriginal art, historical artifacts and facts about the Anishnaabe people.
Having our guide Falcon talk to us about the culture made for an even more fascinating experience.
Once you are finished in the museum, you can cross the street to visit Lillian’s Arts and crafts where you can buy Aboriginal arts but also browse its small museum in the back.
Both of these centres are located in M’chigeeng
4. Local Church Visit
A visit to the Church of Immaculate Conception is an interesting stop on the Great Spirit Circle Trail. It is the local church of the Anishnabek people infusing Indigenous Spirituality with Christianity.
The church is in the round reminding me of a teepee. All seating is in a circle and is theatre style surrounding the altar. It’s a beautiful building to sit in contemplation. I was particularly drawn to the wooden door filled with animal carvings.
5. Medicine Walk and Talk
There are several hikes and activities around the island, but to hire a local Anishinaabe guide will offer plenty of insight to the history of the region.
Not only do you learn about different ceremonies such as the smudging ceremony mentioned above and the tobacco ceremony where you give thanks to Mother Earth, you also learn about the legends of the area.
Like many aboriginal cultures around the world, the Inishinabek People use the local plantlife for herbs and medicine. Your guide will show you the uses of several plants in the forest.
You could easily walk the scenic trails on your own, but to have a local guide tell you about the medicinal plants and local legends makes it a richer experience.
6. Cup and Saucer Trail
Even though we did many adventures, each and every one of them had something to do with culture. One of our favourite adventures blended with Aboriginal culture as hiking the Cup and Saucer Trail.
We were thrilled to learn that This is Manitoulin Island’s signature experience.
It’s a challenging hike up rocky staircases and cliffside trails, but the views are worth the discomfort as once you arrive at the top, you are treated to a panoramic display of the Niagara Escarpment, a World Heritage Site from 70 metres above the island.
At the end of the climb, we took part in a tobacco ceremony to give thanks to the earth and we do that by sprinkling raw tobacco on a rock while giving thanks. “Meegwich”
7. Song and Dance Performance
Watching Rolling Thunder Dance Traditions accompanied by the vocal and drum stylings was definitely the highlight of our time on Manitoulin.
Anyone can book a private dance performance through the Great Spirit Circle Trail.
It gives you the chance to talk to the performers and gain intimate knowledge of the meaning of the dance and the clothing they wear.
7. Bareback Horseback and Teepee Stay
We have done many a trail ride in our travels, but never on bareback. This Aboriginal Excursion takes a trail ride through Manitoulin’s interior and ends with a bareback ride into an inland lake. We then have the opportunity to swim with horses.
The day ends with a stay in a Teepee after a hearty campfire meal and night of storytelling.
9. Evening Traditional Canoe
An evening paddle through the heart of Manitoulin Island doesn’t get any more traditional than this!. The tour takes you through island history and local legends as you paddle along the shore showcasing different points around the island.
Each adventure includes bannock (traditional bread) and tea. It was a privilege to have a front row seat at our private performance. It’s very relaxed and fun, but also informative and captivating.
You come away from the dance performance feeling better about everything. I think we smiled throughout the entire performance. The dancing and the singing lifted our spirits.
10. Song of the Drum
Making your very own traditional drum to take home is a special experience. But getting to learn about the history and importance of the drum in Aboriginal culture is a real treat.
Plus, the staff that works at the Great Spirit Circle Trail are all accomplished performers and story tellers. While making our drums in a traditional Teepee we were entertained by two talented musicians. The afternoon flew by as our guide Steven told jokes intertwined with storytelling and made us feel relaxed while sharing detailed accounts of his Inishinabek heritage.
- For aboriginal experiences on Manitoulin Island visit the Great Spirit Circle Trail website.
11. Smudging Ceremony
This is a ceremony where local herbs and tobacco are placed in a bowl lit just enough to create smoke. The smoke is used for cleansing. As it rises to the air, it reaches the creator and their ancestors taking away any bad energy of the day.
The bowl is passed around and each person silently spreads the smoke over their five senses performing a silent prayer or affirmation. We did many a smudging ceremony during our experiences on Manitoulin Island.
Above, we give thanks to Lake Huon by sprinkling tobacco into the lake while saying “megwich” which means thank you. It’s up to you how much you want to take part. Nothing is made to make you feel pressured.
12. Aboriginal Feast
An Aboriginal Feast is a fun and interesting way to be immersed in First Nation’s culture. Sitting around a campfire, the meal begins with a smudging ceremony.
We then sit in a circle and discuss what brought us to Manitoulin Island and to discuss Aboriginal Culture and our lives. It was a wonderful bonding moment.
Having this experience at the end of the week helped everyone to feel relaxed. We laughed and joked and the lifelong friendship bond was solidified.
See our full Great Spirit Circle Trail Experience on Manitoulin Island
When traveling to Canada, it is important for visitors to enjoy an Aboriginal experience. It’s a culture that is very open to speaking to outsiders about their heritage and history and they are very cool and hip people too.
They have plenty of stories to tell and talents to share. If you enjoy immersing in culture when visiting a country, a visit with the Anishinabek People of Manitoulin will be a very fulfilling experience. Plus, you’ll have a lot of laughs and moments to remember forever too.
We came away from Manitoulin Island with a better understanding of our First Nations neighbours and we made new friends that we hope to continue. You can guarantee we’ll be back.
For more information on Manitoulin Island and the surrounding area visit North Eastern Ontario Tourism
- Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre – Little Current: The conference centre also has an excellent dining area with patio overlooking the harbour.
- Anchor Inn – Little Current
- Season Family Restaurant – M’Chigeeng
- Gary’s Family Restaurant – Little Current
Our trip was provided by Outdoor Ontario as part of the Best of Ontario Outdoor Contest.
Read next: 11 Things to do on Manitoulin Island