One family’s fight to protect an Anishinaabe grave house

After the family of Devon MacKinnon Ottertail placed a spirit house on her grave, the city objected, saying it violated a bylaw — now this part of a sacred Anishinaabe burial practice could lead to legislative change
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jan 27, 2020
A spirit house is meant to house the spirit of a loved one until they make their journey into the afterlife. (Jon Thompson)

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Dylan MacKinnon Ottertail had never broken down and cried at work — until November 12, when he received an email from his mother that left him so upset he had to take the rest of the day off. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s something that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” he says.

Dylan’s sister, Devon, had died that spring. The day before, he and his family had placed a spirit house, part of a sacred Anishinaabe burial practice, on her grave. The email from his mother included a letter from the City of Dryden: the spirit house, which is approximately two feet high, three feet wide, and five feet long, violated a bylaw and would need to be removed. “It was best described as renewed grief, I think,” says Dylan of the experience.

He took his distress to Facebook; his post about the issue garnered attention and support from the community, which in turn brought it to the attention of officials at the City of Dryden, who had no idea of the structure’s significance. Not long after, Dylan, along with some community members, set up a meeting with city representatives to explain the importance of the spirit house, and an agreement was reached to let it stay.

Officials would come to learn that a spirit house is meant to house the spirit of a loved one until they make their journey into the afterlife. “Each region has its own specific practice, how they make them, sometimes even the colour that they are,” says Cheryl Edwards, a member of the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and the executive director of the Native Friendship Centre of Dryden. The spirit-house tradition is still practised by communities in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, southeastern Manitoba, and northwestern Ontario.

“There is an appropriate name in our language, but we don’t say it. The closest interpretation is spirit house,” says Edwards. As part of the practice, and out of respect for the deceased, the tradition is not usually talked about, but she made an exception in meeting with the City of Dryden. “In this situation, we really needed to advocate and speak of that spirit house and what it really means,” says Edwards. “We did ceremony and prayer, explaining that we were in a position that we had to [speak about it], and we didn’t mean to do that so soon after her passing,” she adds, referring to Devon.

The family, not wanting to attract attention, put the spirit house up under the cover of night. It sits among rows of grey and black gravestones: a rectangular structure with shingles on the roof, with plywood walls painted white, and adorned with symbols that represent Devon’s spirit and 36 years of life. ”Grave houses aren’t supposed to be decorated. Traditionally, they’re just one solid color, and that’s it. And they have a little hole to leave offerings. But Devon lived in both worlds, so we wanted to represent her in both ways,” says Dylan.

Family and close friends in Thunder Bay painted the symbols, inspired by Devon’s spirit and memories that they had made with her. Emily, her teenage daughter, painted a Slurpee to commemorate fond memories of going down to the 7-Eleven to get the icy treat together. Her friends added a portrait of her favourite comedian, Kevin Smith. They had the MacKinnon clan crest and an image depicting her spirit name, Zaagatee’Aunda’Gaashiik, which means Sunshine Through the Trees.

They also created a picture frame with plexiglass for the front of the spirit house to leave photos and items for her; her brother left a dream catcher, and her friends left concert tickets. They also included items, such as a hatchet, to help the spirit with the journey to the afterlife.

Devon’s close friend Lisa Haessler says that building the spirit house turned out to be important for her own grieving: “The process was very intentional, but there was a lot of love and laughter and sharing of memories and celebrating of her life while we built it, and that was really important to be a part of.”

Devon spent almost a year in the ICU with POEMS, a rare blood disorder. During this time, her friends and family spent hours with her, including family from Lac La Croix, who would come to drum for Devon, and her mother, who would sing hymns and folk songs by her bedside. Her cultures were celebrated during her life, her funeral, and her burial.

Dylan and Devon’s father, Everett Ottertail, an Ojibway man from Lac La Croix First Nation, died more than 15 years ago. Their mother, of Scottish and Irish descent, wanted to keep them connected to that part of their culture. “If she was buried in Lac La Croix, they would prepare this grave house for her, and they would prepare it with the intention of giving her spirit a place to rest while making the journey to the other side,” says Haessler. “And, you know, [her mother] felt very passionately that she needed to honour her daughter in the way that her father would have wanted her to be honoured, as well.”

Representatives from the City of Dryden and the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals were unaware of such a structure being placed in any other municipal cemeteries in the province. The city did not have a precedent for how to react but is now working to change the bylaw and present a proposal to council in the first quarter of next year.

“We can continue our normal operations with it there, and I think that was a pretty good outcome for the family,” says Roger Nesbitt, the Chief Administrative Office for the City of Dryden. “There are changes that we’re trying to develop and bring forward for city council’s review and approval.” Nesbitt says the proposed changes to the cemetery bylaw will be presented during February or March 2020.

The family went through the options of where they could lay her to rest — Thunder Bay, where she lived, Lac La Croix, where her father is from — and landed on Dryden, the place she grew up in and a more central location for visiting. “On reserves or historical burial grounds outside of municipalities, of course [spirit houses are] common, but the issue is that, with so many Indigenous people moving out of reserves and moving into urban centres, how can they practise their culture in a municipal cemetery?” says Cynthia Palermo, a friend of Dylan’s who was present at the meeting he had with the city.

“It can be a big challenge to walk both of those paths and to feel like you’re being true to your ancestors and true to your home community while also not living there … but I think [Devon] found a way to do that,” says Haessler. She believes that Devon’s influence lives on.

“She would have been very moved by this, and she would have been advocating for the kind of resolution her brother found.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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