CURVE LAKE — Revered Anishinaabe elder and former Curve Lake First Nation chief Douglas Williams (Gidigaa Migizi) is being remembered as a kind and generous knowledge-keeper who dedicated his life to protecting and preserving traditional language and culture.
A sacred fire has been lit in Curve Lake following Williams’ recent passing.
In 1972, Williams became one of the first graduates of what is now called Indigenous studies at Trent University.
He went on to play a vital role at the university, imparting his wealth of knowledge to students through on-the-land teachings. Williams was an associate professor and director of studies for the Indigenous studies Ph.D. program.
As a trapper, hunter, fisher, sweat lodge keeper and ceremony leader, Williams was active in his home community of Curve Lake, where he worked to pass on traditional Anishinaabe culture and teachings.
Former Curve Lake chief Phyllis Williams, Williams’ cousin, remembers the late elder as a kind and patient “brother-like” figure who shared a special bond with the community’s youth and elders.
“He was a pivotal figure and he radiated happiness. He always wanted to share and give. He was quite the giver,” Phyllis said.
“(Williams) was one that would always be there for people to learn from — be it hunting, fishing or gathering, but also in regard to the history and keeping the language alive. He always encouraged the young ones to learn. He was a great leader.”
At his home in Curve Lake, Williams was known to conduct birthing and naming ceremonies. “He was there whenever he was called upon,” recalled Phyllis.
With Trent being “near and dear” to her cousin’s heart, Phyllis said he often brought students to Curve Lake to immerse them in traditional teachings — from maple syrup harvesting to wild rice gathering and processing.
“He opened his heart, he opened his home and he opened the community for anyone to come and learn,” she said. “He really touched the lives of many students.”
In 2018, Williams penned “Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg: This is our Territory,” edited by Peterborough-based singer-songwriter, novelist and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Told through a uniquely intimate lens, Williams’ writing married key events with personal narratives to map the history of Anishinaabeg and other Indigenous communities.
Simpson told The Examiner that Williams was an “exceptionally kind” mentor who helped shape her creative path.
“(Williams) was the most profound influence on my writing, scholarship, music and my life. For over twenty years, he spent time with me on the land, teaching me language and ceremony, hunting and fishing, harvesting medicines, collecting wild rice and making maple syrup,” Simpson said.
“His work at Trent University with students, all over our territory and in his own community of Curve Lake was cherished. We will carry on his profound love of this land, story, our culture and our language in everything we do,” she continued.
Curve Lake First Nation Chief Keith Knott, in a statement made Thursday, said Williams “showed strength in every way.
His wisdom and strength will continue to guide and inspire us moving forward.
For his entire life, he walked with us, learning about, sharing, caring for, protecting, and giving life to the teachings, our way of life, our history, and all wisdom he collected along his journey. For this, those he touched will continue to carry on in this way,” Knott stated.
“(Williams) long-standing relationship with Trent University as a professor, adviser and Elder has and will continue to benefit many faculty and learners for many moons to come.”
As Curve Lake mourns, Phyllis finds solace in knowing Williams’ legacy will live on — his teachings, passed down from generation to generation, are ingrained in the community’s fibre.
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him at email@example.com.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner