Busy Grandmother Keeps Tradition Alive for Family
By EDITH CAMERON
Sault Star Bureau Writer
THESSALON —The Thessalon Indian Reservation's oldest resident celebrated her 80th. birthday this past week.
Mrs. Philomene Wabigwan, mother of Chief George, his brothers Adam, Eli, Sam and Angus and sisters Bernadette and Mary came to the reserve 62 years ago. She has lived there ever since.
Philomene Kabeshking came from South Bay Manitoulin to Thessalon as her uncle's cook. That was in 1906 and they were returning from Detour Mich.
"We had been fishing, In those days, the Indians used to travel long distances to get food. We sold baskets too. As we came up the Thessalon River we saw them loading a barge at the lumber mill east of the town. That's when I first saw the man I would marry. I smiled at him, the aged Indian woman recalled.
That did it. It must have been love at first sight for Oliver Wabigwan and the orphan girl from the Manitoulin were married two weeks later.
The couple lived on the reserve, fished, hunted and farmed — and as the years rolled on raised a family of 15 — 10 boys and five girls. Much later there were 17 grandchildren. Still later 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
Oliver Wabigwan was "quite a fisherman," according to his family. "I fished a lot too," Mrs. Wabigwan said:' "We got big fish in the big lake (Lake-Huron) — nice trout 10, 12 and 15 pounds and, very large whitefish. They were plentiful but they have been no good since 1942."
Chief George gave the reason, at that point in the converstation, "The lamprey killed them."
"We used to peddle the fish. We had a team of horses, could sell my baskets too or trade for clothing or food," Mrs. Wabigwan.
Mrs. Wabigwan has made thousands of baskets, she believes. For years she supplied Thessalon and area residents- with clothes 'baskets, clothes hampers, picnic baskets and even bassinettes. Not too many years ago, she made a special bassinette with pink trim for a doctor.
Dyes were bought in the stores to add color to the strips pounded from the six or eight inch tree-trunks of the black ash. Her sons found that their mother wasn't easy to please when they began hunting for the "just right" trees. They had to have a certain type of grain — not too coarse — not too fine. Too, they selected trees with few limbs on the trunk.
After the trees were cut down, the parts to be used were pounded with the back of an axe.
"That was hard work." The Chief explained. "It took two or three days to get enough to make a good supply of baskets. It can be kept for over a year, then dampened when needed. Mother processed as much as she wanted each time. There would be three different layers to sort out according to the types of baskets.
Sewing baskets and novelty items such as table mats were decorated with sweet-grass and porcupine quills. Mrs Wabigwan also tanned hides her husband and sons being good hunters.
"I made buckskin mocassins, gloves and mitts, These were beaded. Most traded for food and clothes. I hunted rabbits using snares. (Rabbit stew we like). Sometimes we cooked porcupine parboiled and then roasted.