Searching for Gnebigoog on Bkejwanong Territory

The wondrous world of snakes, or gnebigoog, as we say in Anishinaabemowin, was explored last July when Ontario Nature’s Brittney Vezina and Christine Ambre met up with a group of youth from the Bkejwanong Eco-Keepers (BEK) program for a knowledge sharing and training event all about snakes.

The Bkejwanong Eco-Keepers is an ongoing Indigenous environmental stewardship summer program for youth at Walpole Island First Nation, or Bkejwanong (“Where the waters divide”). Part of the program’s objective is to connect youth with local Knowledge Holders and professionals in the environmental field to exchange and transfer knowledge.

Keep reading to find out the highlights of our event.

Early morning gathering in a Bkejwanong meadow, giving thanks, learning about Gnebigook snakes
Early morning gathering in a Bkejwanong meadow © Christine Ambre

The day started early, at 6 a.m., with the BEK team first giving thanks to the new day and all of creation. Before heading out, Brittney and Christine presented to the group a little bit of information about the various species of snakes that might be found on Bkejwanong. Participants then hiked to the transect location to complete a cover board survey.

BEK Leaders set up the transect earlier in the year in tallgrass prairie with training from Brittney based on Ontario Nature’s Long-Term Monitoring Protocol (LTMP). The LTMP uses plywood cover boards placed in open habitats to find snakes that shelter beneath them. Unfortunately, that day the team discovered that some of the transect cover boards were missing. But they carried on with LTMP training, and while there were no snakes, we were greeted with plenty of mosquitos that morning.

As participants continued along the transect, one of the youths found the missing cover boards piled together in the tall grass. We think someone passing by must have thought they were helping by picking up the boards. Maybe we’ll add a marking to the boards to let everyone know what they are and what we are doing. Hopefully, next year we’ll be able to find more snakes when all 24 cover boards are in place.

Safely handling a Dekay’s brownsnake © Christine Ambre

Luckily, we found a Dekay’s brownsnake nearby, so participants were able to learn how to safely handle a snake. With guidance from the Ontario Nature team, they determined that the snake was pregnant and would most likely give birth the following month.

Miigwech (thanks) gnebig for the opportunity to learn from you!

Ron Sands, local knowledge holder © Christine Ambre

After parting ways with the Dekay’s, participants headed back to the Walpole Island Heritage Centre (Nin.Da.Waab.Jig) to meet up with Ron Sands, a local knowledge holder. Ron shared stories on the role of gnebigoog as protectors of the land, water, and medicines. Youth and Ontario Nature staff also shared their experiences with snakes. Everyone shared positive stories, which was encouraging, given the usual negative perceptions of snakes.

Even though we didn’t see as many snakes as we were hoping to find, getting to learn all the new knowledge about snakes and their preferred habitats, and being out in nature exploring our beautiful island made for a truly good time.

Everyone enjoyed the activity, and we can’t wait to try it again this spring!

This blog and event are generously supported by the Government of Canada, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and Ontario Power Generation.

By Waabigonii Altiman and Montana Riley

Waabigonii Altiman has led the BEK crew for two years as a Team Leader. Currently, she is learning Anishinaabemowin in an adult immersion program in her community and is on her way to becoming a language teacher.

Montana Riley is the Eco-Education Coordinator at Nin.Da.Waab.Jig/Walpole Island Heritage Centre and has been helping coordinate the BEK program since 2020. She is very interested learning and sharing the Anishinaabe cultural teachings of snakes. Montana is also a member of the Youth Circle for Mother Earth’s Coordinating Circle.

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