It is the mid-17th century and the roar of Niagara Falls can be heard for miles.
As thousands of tons of water crash over the brink and down the Niagara River, reshaping and eroding the waterway, the Neutral Indigenous peoples stand watching the forceful rapids and ever-changing river.
Travis Hill is a member of the Beaver Clan of the Haudenosaunee, with ancestors from the Neutral Confederacy, who lived along the Niagara River and what is now Hamilton.
On Thursday, July 21, Hill told an audience at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum how important the river has been to Indigenous people.
Artifacts found in the region play an important historical role, proving the existence of the Neutral peoples and how they survived in Niagara, he said.
Water and the Niagara River have a long history, Hill said.
“Water has a spirit, an immediate connection when looking at it, like it is speaking to you. We always have been drawn to water because of this reason.”
His presentation was called “By Foot and Paddle” and he noted the connection between the spirit within the water and people can be negative or positive.
When looking at how water affects people today Hill said many people feel drawn toward the water and that could be a reason why so many lives have been lost at Niagara Falls.
The Niagara River was formed by a melting glacier and “my mind always goes to our people watching it erode,” said Hill, who works for Niagara Parks and is the manager of the Old Fort Erie heritage site.
Hill also imagined what it was like for the Neutrals in the 17th century and said what they must have seen when looking at the Niagara River has always amazed him.
Because the water was often too dangerous to navigate, the Neutrals created trails or paths that they used to migrate, he said.
Paths from that era went through Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines and as far as Hamilton, said Hill.
Artifacts showed the Neutrals might have been attracted to the area by the abundance of fish in the waters, he said.
Canoes used by the Neutrals were much different from conventional ones, he said. They had a flat piece at the stern, which Hill said was probably to help navigate all of the marshes and obstacles that were in the water.
Paddles were another artifact that allow us to understand the type of environment the Neutrals were living through, said Hill.
Fishing artifacts used by the Neutrals also have been found.
One, a spear, was made from 17th-century bone and was tied by a string to a large pole. When the Neutrals would spear a fish the bone piece would detach, allowing the string to be used like a fishing rod when pulling in dinner, said Hill.
Hill said there remains much to be learned about the Neutrals, but history books say nothing about them after the 17th century.
Toward the end of the Neutral area, many of them were adopted or forced to join surrounding Indigenous nations and most of the Neutrals were wiped out by disease brought in by Europeans, he said.