A Tribute to Mi’kmaq History Month: The Truth and Reconciliation process is breathing Mi’kmaq Humanities into academia

By Nancy MacDonald, DFA Executive Committee Member and Chair of DFA’s Aboriginal Caucus Committee

Traditionally, the Mi’kmaq geographic boundaries included Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, large areas of New Brunswick, and the Gaspe Bay in Quebec. The seven districts known as Kespe’k (New Brunswick and Gaspe Bay in Quebec), Epekwitk aq Piktuk (P.E.I.), Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie), Kespukwitk (southwestern Nova Scotia/Yarmouth), Umama’kak (Cape Breton), Siknikt (Miramichi/Bay of Fundy), Eskikewa’kik (Sheet Harbour to Canso) were the traditional territories of the Mi’kmaq Peoples. Today, many Mi’kmaq live on one of the 49 distinct reserves created in the territories and are not significantly displaced from their traditional homelands as they are from their lifeways in today’s society.  In Nova Scotia, there are 13 reserves, these include: Acadia, Annapolis Valley, Bear River, Sipenne’katik, Millbrook, Pictou Landing, Potolotek, We’koqma’q, Wagmatcook, Membertou and Eskasoni. 

The Mi’kmaq worldview is relational, where everything existed within a network of relationships and could not exist as a separate entity outside of those relationships.  On all levels of reality, visible and invisible, everything is related. As everyone and everything is related, proper decorum was expected because it was thought that if you harmed someone or something, you ultimately harmed yourself in the process.  One cannot take these relationships for granted, rather each person must express honor and respect in their relationships with others.  This worldview extends to all human relationships, the environment, the animals, and to other beings.  Mi’kmaq ancestors understood that everything is in a continuous state of flux, ever changing and non-static.  The constant motion signifies that everything is in the process of becoming.  It is also understood that these relationships require renewal ceremonies in order to sustain and maintain balance and harmony through the life cycles.

The Mi’kmaq ancestors referred to themselves as L’nu and this term continues to be preferred by Mi’kmaq Elders today.  The term L’nu is at the root of their concept of humanities which is related to being of the earth and being people of the earth.  The continued preference of the use of this term affirms that the foundational L’nu knowledge systems continue to exist in the language, stories, songs and ceremonies.  The original teachings and knowledge keepers taught the people everything they needed to know about how to live in an ever-changing environment.

In a Mi’kmaw’s person’s life, it is important to take responsibility for one’s own learning.  Mi’kmaq peoples believe each person is born with a unique gift(s). It is the responsibility of each person to learn about their own gift(s) and share their gift(s) with the family and community for collective well-being.  The person is then said to be acting in a respectful way as they have learned not to act with carelessness. Mi’kmaq knowledge keepers did not give people commands or detailed answers.  The teaching was constant and a part of daily life. The meanings of the teachings were always covert and fluid. For example, the Story of Creation has been passed down generation after generation and the version may change slightly with each story teller.  Most Mi’kmaq peoples’ today agree that Elder Stephen Augustine’s version of the Story of Creation is the best as it derives from the older stories. This means they are less likely to be influenced by Christianity in the retelling of the story.  Later stories often took on this characteristic.   

Many people would consider the number seven to be lucky but to Mi’kmaq peoples the number is sacred.  It shows up over and over in Mi’kmaq stories, such as in the Creation Story that teaches about the seven levels of Creation. There are seven council fires that represent the seven districts that make up the mawio’mi, otherwise known as the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. The Creation story tells how each of the seven districts, are represented by one of the original seven families. The seven levels of Creation taught the Mi’kmaq peoples about the proper protocols to follow on how to live life. There are deities that show up over and over in the stories, songs, and legends of the Mi’kmaq peoples that teach about these protocols.  The deities include: the Sun (grandfather), Mother Earth, Kluscap (original person), Grandmother, Nephew, Mother and mawio’mi (original seven families).

On June 24th, 2010, the Mi’kmaq peoples celebrated 400 years of Sante’ Mawiomi which signifies the baptism of Grand Chief Membertou into the Roman Catholic religion. This event signifies the beginning of Mi’kmaqand European acceptance of the newcomers’ religion. To some Mi’kmaw, this event marks the beginning of a deep spiritual relationship.  To other Mi’kmaw, it represents the beginning of a political alliance that continues to be built upon even today. Elder Daniel Paul (1996) who wrote We Are Not The Savages: Collision between European and Native American Civilizations suggests that Grand Chief Membertou agreed to the baptism in order to influence the Europeans on how to live in this environment.  This argument seems to be more in keeping with how the Mi’kmaq perceived their relationship to the land and the newcomers.   

There were many changes to the life ways of the Mi’kmaq Peoples after the newcomers arrived in their territory, such as the efforts of the missionaries to “civilize” the Mi’kmaq peoples. To the missionaries, this meant to induct them into Christianity. Within a century of Grand Chief Membertou’s death in September 1611, many Mi’kmaq people followed their great leader into the induction of Christianity.  The Mi’kmaq peoples were long familiar with Christianity when the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School opened its doors in 1930 and forced their children to attend “industrial” education.  The Catholic priests worked in partnership with the colonial government to make the little children think and act like them.   

In 1883, Sir John A. MacDonald decided to separate children from parents in order to break the link to their culture and identity.  The colonial government wanted to extinguish their fiduciary responsibility that they inherited with the Confederation of Canada.  In 1920, the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott reinforced this objective when he said the objective was “to continue until there was not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” (TRC, 2016, p. 2). In the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, approximately 2,000 little children were taken from their parents and communities, generation after generation until 1967. Thereafter, colonial government decided that the “best interest” of Mi’kmaq children was to attend the public schools.  With integration, religious instruction may have been reduced for the children, however, their history, perspectives and worldviews remained absent.

Seven generations after the opening of residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established.  Intent on telling the truth for all Canadians to see, the process of reconciliation is a process of becoming.  For the university, that means it is becoming inclusive with its commitment to indigenize the curricula and improve outcomes for all students. Today, Mi’kmaq peoples want their knowledge, perspectives and histories to be taught to their children as part of the core curricula.  The Mi’kmaq peoples continue to have hope that the ancestors’ visions will be fulfilled.  Despite the trauma of colonization, Mi’kmaq teachings and stories have endured, through written and oral traditions.  Twenty years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find any Mi’kmaq scholars or written information produced by Mi’kmaq scholars in universities.  “Real” diversity seemed an illusion and although we have started a journey to indigenization, the road will be long and winding.  The analysis must lead to the deconstruction of Eurocentric narratives that continue to dominate all disciplines in our University.

Mi’kmaw scholar, Marie Battiste (2016) is the editor and a writer in Visioning a Mi’kmaw Humanities: Indigenizing the Academy.  She has a dream that Mi’kmaq Humanities will be taught in all universities teaching Mi’kmaq students.  She tells us that teaching about Mi’kmaq Humanities is vital to both Mi’kmaq teachers and students. It is also important for all teachers and students. This means going past an Indigenous Studies program and teaching about the conflictual relationship between Mi’kmaq and European peoples.  Mi’kmaq scholars want to broaden the spectrum of knowledge systems to be inclusive for the benefit of everyone and every living thing. We are at a time where our living systems are declining. There is not an abundance of resources in the world. Eurocentrism has come to pose a danger to Mother Earth so that she is on a path of impending planetary doom.  We have reached a time that the humanities need to expand and be inclusive. To respond to the global ecological crisis, we need to work together.  The Mi’kmaq teachings and stories have taught us that all people have a responsibility to leave a legacy of survival for the future generations. 

To end this tribute to Mi’kmaq History Month, I will leave you with a quote by Marie Battiste (2016) about education. “Better education, the enhancement of collective wisdom by understanding knowledge systems, the work of tolerance, sympathy and indulgence for the manifestation of human diversity are the attributes that will pave the way for solutions to our shared crises” (p. 13).   Wela’lin (Thank you)!

Nancy MacDonald, (MSW, RSW, PhD Candidate), is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie’s School of Social Work.  She is a member of the DFA Executive Committee and is Chair of the DFA Aboriginal Caucus Committee.