December 31, 1999 Halifax Herald
Overview of Mi’kmaq History: In the beginning ... Mi'kmaq
Overview of Mi’kmaq History: In the beginning ... Mi'kmaq
During the first half of this millennium, in the pristine, abundant forests of eastern Canada, the Mi'kmaq forged an egalitarian, spiritual society that helped to transform the very European nations that would soon savage the hemisphere's diverse native cultures.
FROM THE DAWN of the Nation's creation to the arrival of the Europeans, the history of the Mi'kmaq was passed down orally by the Keepers. Fortunately for posterity, many early colonial European scribes recorded detailed accounts of the gems provided to them by these historians. This delightful account of the Nation's genesis by a colonial missionary is a fine example:
"The story of the Mi'kmaq is one of the most fascinating studies that a person can take up. His legends carry you back from the first sight of the Big Canoe, as they called the white man's ship, to the dawn of Creation when Glooscap, the master, lay prone on his back, head to the rising Sun, feet to the setting of the Sun, left hand to the south, and the right hand to the north.
"This wonder worker was not Nisgam, 'Father to us all,' nor Gisolg, 'Our Maker,' nor the 'Great Chief,' but he was, par excellence, the Mi'kmaq. He was co-existent with Creation."
When Europeans first dropped anchor off the shores of eastern Canada near the middle of this millennium, they found a rich Mi'kmaq culture already as much as 10,000 years old occupying what is now the Maritimes and parts of eastern Quebec and the Gaspé. Following is a description of the ancient Mi'kmaq territory, their government, alliances and lifestyle.
Mi'kmaq territory was divided into seven districts. The names of those districts (translations are as close as one can come to conveying their true meaning in English) and the approximate boundaries of the vast territories governed by each are shown on the accompanying map. District villages were each populated by 50 to 500 people. The number of villages and total population within each district are subject to conjecture.
District governments comprised a district chief and a council. Esteemed men served as chiefs, elders, village chiefs and so on. District chiefs were the men who constituted the Mi'kmaq Grand Council.
At an unknown time in the distant past the grand council was established by the districts to resolve mutual problems, promote solidarity, and to act as dispute mediator of last resort. District chiefs elected one of their number as grand chief. The grand council's influential strength was derived from the esteem in which the district chiefs were held.
Districts also belonged to a larger association known as the Wabanaki Confederacy. It was formed by the Northeastern First Nations for the purpose of providing mutual protection from aggression by Iroquoian and other hostile nations. The decimation of its member nations by wars with the English and European diseases during the 17th and 18th centuries caused its demise.
NATO is a modern equivalent of the confederacy. To discover how the ancient Mi'kmaq lived is not as difficult as might be supposed.
After weeding out the chaff and biases about their lifestyle and legends that are included in the documentation bequeathed by early European explorers, missionaries and others, loads of valuable information can be culled. This data, supported by oral information, provides the basis for the following assertions about the lifestyle of the pre-Columbian Mi'kmaq:
COMMUNITY: The Mi'kmaq abided and prospered in a region where a wide variety of food was plentiful. Starvation was not for them - as it was for many of the world's diverse peoples - a constant spectre.
Aided immeasurably by their healthy food supply many lived to great age - centenarians were not rare. Consequently, they lived in harmony with Mother Nature, enjoyed life immensely, revered free expression, the liberty of man, and a joy for the company of one another that is rarely found in any society today.
POLITICS: Politics and its practitioners did not disturb the tranquility of the Mi'kmaq. This was so because, in stark contrast to the political system of the aristocratic ruling class that evolved in Europe, they were governed by a citizen-controlled system. This guaranteed freedom from heavy handed governors.
It is now widely accepted that the democratic political systems developed by North American First Nations were the models progressive thinkers used to fan the flames of democracy in Europe during the 1700s. Jack Weatherford, in a chapter entitled Liberty, Anarchism, and the Noble Savage, wrote: "During this era (the 1700s) the thinkers of Europe forged the ideas that became known as the European Enlightenment, and much of its light came from the torch of Indian liberty that still burned brightly in the brief interregnum between their first contact with the Europeans and their decimation by the Europeans. . . ."
Among the most prominent of 18th century white thinkers captivated by the democratic tenets of First Nation cultures was renowned American historian and political radical Thomas Paine (1737-1809). During his illustrious career, Paine paid the ultimate compliment by using their "people rule" principles as models for political systems designed to replace European autocratic rule.
One would think that such a gift to humanity would by widely acclaimed. It isn't.
However, one notable step has been taken to rectify this sad state of affairs. In November of 1988, the United States became the first white jurisdiction to acknowledge publicly that First Nations cultures were influential in spreading democratic government. It did so by passing a Congressional resolution stating that the country's constitution and Bill of Rights were modelled to a large extent upon the dogmas of the constitutions and bills of rights of the Iroquoian and other Amerindian Nations.
This was an enormous show of humility by the most powerful nation on Mother Earth. Now the question is: which country will muster the courage to follow?
POWERS OF LEADERS: Because the use of force to compel the people to obey their wishes was not an option for a Mi'kmaq leader, his only recourse was persuasion. Thus he became an eloquent and persuasive speaker - witnessed by these descriptions:
"The Mi'kmaq is a poetic child. His distances are measured in rainbows. His words sound the sense. His fancy is illimitable. He is a born orator. He loves justice and hates violence and robbery. He is courteous, and Father Biard says: "never had we to be on our guard against them."
"They are very eloquent and persuasive among those of their own nation, using metaphors and very pleasing circumlocutions in their speeches, which are very eloquent, especially when they are pronounced in councils and public assemblies."
The social status of chief and other high office: Many of the scribes of old made awed comments about the equal among equal status of the people in native societies. Perhaps Sieur de Diereville expressed it best: ". . . here there is no inherited position due to birth or lineage, merit alone uplifts. He who has won exalted rank, which each himself hopes to attain, will never be deposed, except for some abhorrent crime.
"No wise noteworthy are the honours paid his high estate, for he is merely first among a hundred . . ., more, or less, according to the size of his domain."
RELIGION: The Great Spirit's directives were the nation's eternal light. The people's religion was blended into daily life - it was lived. No initiatives were undertaken without first requesting the Creator's guidance.
COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE: As the following quote reveals, Mi'kmaq women were permitted to make personal choices.
Such must have been a great shock to 18th century "civilized" European males who mostly treated their women and children as chattels:
". . . if the father finds that the suitor who presents himself is acceptable for his daughter . . . he tells him to speak to his sweetheart in order to learn her wish about an affair which concerns herself alone. For they do not wish, say these barbarians, to force the inclinations of their children in the matter of marriage, or to induce them, whether by use of force, obedience, or affection, to marry men whom they cannot bring themselves to like.
"Hence it is that the fathers and mothers of our Gaspesians (Mi'kmaq from Gaspé) leave to their children the entire liberty of choosing the persons whom they think most adaptable to their dispositions, and most conformable to their affectations. . . ."
DIVORCE: This response given to a missionary when he preached the indissolubility of marriage is precious. "Dost thou not see," they will say to you, "that thou hast no sense? My wife does not get on with me, and I do not get on with her. She will agree well with such a one who does not agree with his own wife. Why dost thou wish that we four be unhappy for the rest of our days?"
CIVILITY: This virtue governed and guided all aspects of Mi'kmaq existence. Respectful relationships with others were paramount. This civility is convincingly documented by diverse 18th century scribes. The quotes from their efforts contained in this narrative are only a small example of the reams available.
HONOUR: This was the ethical principle that guided the society's citizens in their human exchanges: "For a young man to rise in the esteem of this people, it . . . was necessary for him to be superior in hunting, to be among the bravest in warfare, to be generous and hospitable to all the people in his camp and to visitors, stripping himself of all his wealth, and seeking only the affections of his people. It was . . . absolutely necessary for him to remain unpretentious and humble."
GENEROSITY: This trait was paramount in permitting Europeans to become numerous enough in the Americas to batter natives into submission. ". . . generosity even extended to the abstract realm of ideas, theories, stories, news and teachings. The native host prided himself on his ability to entertain and give assent to a variety of views, even if they were contrary to his better judgment. In this institutionalized hospitality lies the key to understanding the frustration of the priest, whose sweet converts one day were the relapsed heathens of the next. Conversion was often more a superficial courtesy, rather than an external commitment. . ."
GREED: Goods and services being shared equally, it didn't exist. This situation frustrated European explorers and traders who couldn't bribe a Mi'kmaq. A French officer observed: "Honours and goods being all in common amongst them, all the numerous vices which are founded upon those two motives are not to be found in them."
RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS BIASES: Such didn't exist either. These two quotes from the speeches of chiefs reveal why. (A) "That is the savage way of doing it. You can have your way and we will have ours; every one values his own wares." (B) "Brother: We never quarrel about religion. . . . We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you, we only want to enjoy our own. . . ."
SEAMANSHIIP: The recent fishing dispute caused by the Supreme Court's Marshall decision revealed that many non-Mi'kmaq people believe the ancient Mi'kmaq only fished in inland and coastal waters. To them this should come as a shock: both the English and French deemed the Mi'kmaq to be great seamen. A missionary wrote: ". . . it is wonderful how these savage mariners navigate so far in little shallops crossing vast seas without compass, and often without sight of the sun, trusting to instinct for their guidance." Some scholars suggest that the pirates of the Caribbean learned their seafaring skills from the Mi'kmaq.
DEATH: Funerals called for ceremony and feasting. At the Feast of the Dead, the deceased was eulogized by friends and relatives. The chief spoke first: "(he reviewed) . . . the good qualities and the most notable deeds of the deceased. He even impresses upon all the assembly, by words as touching as they are forceful, the uncertainty of human life, and the necessity they are under of dying, in order to join in the Land of Souls with their friends and relatives, whom they are now recalling to memory. . . ."
Others spoke after the chief: ". . . each one spoke, one after another, for they never spoke two at a time, neither men or women. In this respect these barbarians give a fine lesson to those people who consider themselves more polished and wiser than they."
By 1497, the year that John Cabot set the stage for the European invasion of northeastern North America, the citizens of the Mi'kmaq Nation already enjoyed guaranteed individual freedoms. This enlightened state enabled them to live in harmony with each other and with the universe around them.
The idyllic lifestyle that the pre-Columbian Mi'kmaq enjoyed lasted for only about a century after Europeans began arriving in large numbers. The poison alcohol, introduced by early European fishermen and traders, was the first calamity that befell the Nation, thousands died from it. Then came wars with the English, followed by starvation, malnutrition, alien diseases, racial persecution and the imposition of an alien culture.
Ideas of racial superiority were the key factor that spurred the British to attack the Mi'kmaq. Sadly, that racial oppression still troubles Canadian society today.
Let's hope that such fates as those that befell the Mi'kmaq and other persecuted peoples around the world during the past 1,000 years will become a thing of the past.
Perhaps, early in the new millennium, the Great Spirit will - if we prove worthy - give us the wisdom to set ethical standards that will mean equality, justice, peace and prosperity for all the Creator's peoples. Imagine living peacefully side by side, respecting one another's cultural and personal differences!
Daniel N. Paul