Save the Falls
Over this week I’ve come to understand a lot more about a specific location and its associated place names in what is today known as the city of Ottawa. In 1613, Champlain observed this place, writing, “the water fall
s…..with such impetuosity on a rock that with the passage of time, it has hallowed out a wide, deep basin…..the water whirls about to such an extent, and in the middle boils so vigorously, that Indians call it Asticou, that is to say, a kettle.” (Free the Falls, 2018). The French name for this place, which remains in use to this day is Chaudière, which is translated
as “a boiler,” or a potin which one cooks or boils liquid. The Mohawk name is kana:tsio, likewise meaning something like “a boiling pot” (Maracle 2001, 2003). Both are a reference to what is sometimes called a whirlpool in the Ottawa River, where the waterfall has eroded the rock below it to create a depression into which the water spills and swirls, creating the “boiling” effect.
However, the Anishinaabeg name is somewhat different, and this name is an excellent example of how language, land and culture are all tied together. In Anishinaabemowin, the falls are known as Akikpautik, which can be translated into English as “pipe bowl” (Gehl, 2016). It is also a reference to the rock basin or whirlpool. But, where Champlain and others saw the falls as a boiling kettle, the Anishinaabeg saw the indentation of the rock and the resulting water mist as a pipe. This, according to Lynn Gehl, is the location of the first pipe, given by Creator to the Anishinaabeg, and the being responsible for bringing forth this pipe is Nanaboozhoo, one of the central figures of Anishinaabeg literature (Gehl, 2016). In addition to literally being the first sacred pipe of the Anishinaabeg, Gehl goes on to highlight why the falls remain sacred to this day: “As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe community member rooted in my ancestral oral teachings I have heard that Wìsakedjàk’s [also known as Nanaboozhoo] footprints remain inscribed along the Ottawa River and so we know he was at Akikpautik.” The name Akikpautik is the linguistic marker for the culture and spirituality embedded on the land in the forms of narratives and ceremony.
In 1908, a dam was built which now hides Akikpautik. In 2015, Energy Ottawa began building a generating station on Chaudiere Island. While the linguistic marker remains, the cultural and spiritual significance has become disregarded. The area is now slated for the development of a massive condominium complex which, if it succeeds, will sit atop the site of the First Sacred Pipe of the Anishinaabeg people.
Before his death in 2011, Grandfather William Commanda, former Chief of Kitigan Ziibi, Algonquin Elder and Wampum Keeper, proposed an alternative to further development which included, “re-naturalizing Pipe Bowl Falls and the three islands downstream. His plan included the removal of the large ring dam imposed, and the creation of a park, historic interpretive centre, peace building meeting site, and an Indigenous centre” (Gehl, 2016).
Algonquin Elder Albert Dumont writes “We have a right as human beings to access a circle containing the many things we believe are sacred to us…Our circle holds special places for human beings to go to, such as where the trees grow and the birds sing, so they can communicate to Creator through honour songs their respect for all which has been placed here for human beings to live well. There is no place more sacred in my ancestral land than Asinabka (Akikodjiwan). People have gathered there at the waterfall since time immemorial to better themselves in their spirituality” (Dumont, 2015).
At this point in time, a number of individuals and organizations are working to reclaim Akikpautik and restore it to Grandfather Commanda’s vision. I invite you to learn from them directly via the links provided below, and to join Elder Dumont at the Spirituality is Unity Walk to be held on June 22, 2018 on Victoria Island.
For more information:
Clibbon, J. (3 Aug 2011). “Keeper of the wampum: William Commanda, Algonquin elder”. Accessed at
Dumont, A. (2 Nov 2015). “Asinabka (Akikodjiwan)”
Free the Falls. (2018)
Gehl, L. (8 June 2016). “Chaudière Falls: Creator’s Sacred Pipe”. Accessed at
Maracle, D. K. (2001). Karoron ne Owennahshonha: A Mohawk thematic dictionary. London, Ont.: Kenyen’keha Books.
————(2003). Akwekon Tetewakhanyon: Let’s Put It All Together Mohawk Language Course Dictionary. London, Ontario: Kanyen’keha Books.