Rastia’ta’non:ha stands on the site of the mounds that he and his group claim are burial grounds.
Rastia’ta’non:ha, a soft-spoken man with a head of dark black hair, wears a multicoloured tunic-like shirt that trails ribbons, and he carries a walking stick. He’s not a particularly imposing person, but when a handful of kids using some dirt BMX ramps located on a hill at the southeastern corner of High Park see him and some of his compatriots coming, with a few reporters in tow, they hop on their bikes and bolt straight away. They know why he’s there.
“It’s disgusting what they’ve done,” he says, gesturing at a series of ramps scooped out of the hillside. “The shape of it—this part here used to be round.”
Where the BMXers see a prime biking spot, Rastia’ta’non:ha (pronounced RAH-SAH-DUH-NON-HA), a member of the Seneca, sees a travesty. He and others in his organization, the Taiaiaiko’n Historical Preservation Society (many of whom refer to him simply as “Dave”), contend that the bike ramps are located directly on top of what they call “Snake Mound,” an Iroquoian burial mound, possibly 1,000 years old, or even older.
Whatever the mound was 1,000 years ago, right now it’s absolutely a BMX park. Bikers have sculpted the steep dirt slopes into an obstacle course surprising in its scale and complexity. It’s hard to imagine it having been built without backhoes.
“To us, it’s sacred,” continues Rastia’ta’non:ha. “We know there are ancestors here, and it’s sacred. You wouldn’t want a BMX course in your cemetery, I’m sure.”
Chief Arnie General, an Onondaga elder also on hand to speak to reporters at the mound Monday evening, is even less charitable. “Little punks, that’s all they are,” he says. “They got no respect and their parents got no respect.” He leans on his metal cane and points away, through the trees, across a nearby pond. There are the bikers, watching, presumably waiting for us to leave.
On closer inspection, they’re all about 14 years old. Their first reaction when a reporter calls out to them is fright. But one of them, a boy named Alex, who is pint-sized but brave, steps forward and handles the interview.
A barrier at the edge of the site with a City of Toronto sign prohibiting entry, with a hand-written addition.
“I know what they mean,” he says, after acknowledging that the complaints of the First Nations activists have been well known to cyclists who use the site since about two years ago, when Rastia’ta’non:ha’s group began to pursue the issue. “I wouldn’t feel nice if someone was riding over my grandma’s grave.”
“I’m fine with them taking their lands. All I want is compensation.” By which he means other places to ride. There’s a BMX park at Wallace Emerson Community Centre, by Dufferin and Dupont Streets, and there are some BMX trails in the Don Valley. But Alex and his friends live in the west end, and they consider High Park their only reasonable option, at the moment.
Alex says he’s heard that BMX riders have been using the mound for 20 or 30 years. (Other users of the site said they’d heard the same.) Building ramps in the area is prohibited by City bylaws for environmental reasons, but there wasn’t much interest in enforcement until the Snake Mound controversy came to the fore.
Constable Scott Mills, a TPS officer who is involved in the BMX community, agrees that riding spots are scarce. He’s been working with the organizers of Toronto BMX Jam to install riding parks across the city, but with limited results. “We’ve got four tractor trailer loads of BMX bike ramps that are in storage right now because we don’t have proper locations for them,” he says.
“We always seem to not have the proper funding and structure to get it going.”
Another thing Alex says he and his friends want, aside from another riding space, is proof that the mound is, in fact, a burial site.
Alex, a High Park BMX rider, shows off his bike tricks on a mound of wood chips.
Rastia’ta’non:ha, for his part, has been cataloguing evidence on the Taiaiaiko’n Historical Preservation Society website. On Monday, he narrated a PowerPoint presentation of some of his most compelling proof to an appreciative audience at a Roncesvalles Avenue café. He has oral history; he has astrology; he has an arrowhead, and some fragments of what might be bone or ceremonial objects, but could also just be rocks (DNA analysis on the bone is, he says, pending). He also has some interesting but inconclusive ground studies by an archaeologist allied with his organization. What he doesn’t have is independent verification of his claims.
It’s widely thought that High Park may contain undiscovered First Nations artifacts, but there is little reliable data to prove or disprove that supposition. Some First Nations burial sites were reportedly discovered near the park’s Grenadier Pond in 1921. In 2010, the City included all of High Park, along with countless other locations across Toronto, on a map of sites with “archeological potential.” The City conducted studies of parts of High Park in 2008 and 2009, but the results are available in full text only by special request from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Also, the province has included another rumoured High Park burial mound, known as “Bear Mound,” on its register of archaeology reports. But none of these things mean that High Park definitely does contain buried First Nations remains. They mean only that officials are open to the possibility.
At this point the dispute is a matter of belief. Members and friends of the Taiaiaiko’n Historical Preservation Society have all the proof they require, and have in fact been holding ceremonies on what’s left of Snake Mound. The next one is scheduled for May 1.
But they’re not alone in their displeasure over the land’s upkeep. Back at High Park, Alex tells us that adults sometimes use the mound to party, and that he’s heard rumors of drug use, and people finding discarded syringes. “I think it’s disgusting, seriously,” he says.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
This article originally stated that the City was in the process of conducting archaeological studies of parts of High Park, and that the results are not publicly available. In fact, those studies are complete, and the results are available in redacted full text from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture, by request. The article has been amended to reflect this.