Mi’kma’ki At 13,500

Ta'n Weji-sqalia-tiek: from where we sprouted
Shubenacadie Grand Lake, 1853-54 LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA


As the 2017 celebrations that extol the virtue of Canada’s past, present and future steal upon us it is imperative that we take a moment to reflect upon and reconcile a 13,500-year history experienced by Mi’kmaq with the notion of Canada 150.

This narrative attempts to explain the need for reconciliation and serves to provide a chronology of a Mi’kmaq place in Nova Scotia. Jeffers Lennox suggests in Homelands and Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690–1763 that maps are a tool from which to project historical knowledge, but they also exemplify power and dominance of one culture at the expense of another.

Historians have consistently pointed out that the Mi’kmaq occupied well-defined sites year after year but there has been little effort to delineate these sites. In fact, colonial correspondence rarely identified geographical areas occupied by the Mi’kmaq. This responsibility has fallen upon the shoulders of the few pre-contact archaeologists practicing in this province.

If history is grounded in chronology and periodization, then the concept of Ta’n Weji-sqalia’tiek: From Where We Sprouted serves to enlighten us about the Mi’kmaq place in history. Dr. Bernard Francis, Mi’kmaw linguist and Elder, explains that Ta’n Weji-sqalia’teik: From Where We Sprouted expresses a dynamic relationship between Mi’kmaq and their ancestral landscape–a landscape integral to the cultural and spiritual psyche of the people.

The Mi’kmaw verb infinitive, weji-sqalia’timk, is a notion deeply engrained within the Mi’kmaw language–a language that grew from the ancient landscape. It expresses the Mi’kmaw understanding of their being rooted here. The Mi’kmaw exclusive form weji-sqalia’tiek means they sprouted from this land much like a plant sprouts from it.


This land did not let me go

As I write this essay, I cannot help but reflect upon the recent loss of a community elder, Virginia Ann “Geno” Knockwood, a cherished matriarch in the community. We remember her not in books, but in our hearts. Winona La Duke eloquently writes in The Winona La Duke Chronicles: Stories From The Front Lines In The Battle For Environmental Justice, “I have now more winters behind me than before me. It has been a grand journey. I am grateful for the many miles, rivers, places and people of beauty … this land did not let me go.”

Mrs. Knockwood also had many winters behind her and enjoyed a splendid journey. She saw her life in the context of the plant that sprouted from this place–Mi’kma’ki. Like Winona La Duke, she knew that this land and her people’s history did not let her go.

Each of us creates our own memory of history. It is important to keep this in mind. There are two horizons of history in Mi’kma’ki; one a 13,500-year Mi’kmaq experience and the other a colonial experience. One is no less or more important than the other.

Sparing the reader a prolonged Mi’kmaq pre-contract history lesson, suffice it to say that they were settled along all 42 principal rivers Nova Scotia. The earliest evidence of human occupation in Mi’kma’ki can be found at Debert (13,500 years). Blended on the landscape and along its many rivers are a myriad of other Mi’kmaq use-and-occupancy areas, representing a long tenure of human activity dating from 13,500 years ago to present, or, from Sagiwe’k L’nuk (Ancient Ones) to Kiskukewe’k L’nuk (Todays People).

The Mi’kmaq were autonomous on these rivers and used multiple plans and strategies that could be extended or modified to exploit multiple resources in a succession of habitats. The attraction was the seasonal and overlapping availability of resources found in each. The reciprocal relationship that existed between them and the environment also influenced how they organized themselves socially, economically and technologically and, from a broader perspective, impacted settlement and mobility patterns.

As Jeffers Lennox notes in Homelands and Empires, Moses Harris’s “porcupine map” of 1749 is dominated by wildlife and imperial symbols, rather than actual geography.


Jeffers Lennox notes that maps and mapmaking reveal much about the politics, personalities and ideas behind their creation, as well as the physical territory they claim to represent. He notes that geographic knowledge, in its broadest sense, informs us of political decisions, influences imperial relations and shapes how we come to understand government, allies and enemies.

Before the arrival of the colonialists, maps and artificial boundaries had never defined Mi’kmaq territory. It was defined by geography or physiographic determinants, the most significant being water divides and watersheds, which gave rise to a realistic Mi’kmaq cultural landscape that was more homogenous than variable.

All rivers in Nova Scotia are the vehicles through which Mi’kmaq culture and history was and continues to be transmitted. Something as simple as standing along a riverbank, from which you were removed in 1821 to an “Indian Reserve,” still evokes experiences and memories.
A cultural landscape is premeditated by a specific group of people and evolves over time. In fact, the cultural landscape may still be evolving. Landscapes derive their character and meaning from human responses. They also contain invaluable information about the histories and character of the people who first used it and were eventually displaced from it.

Cultural landscapes also have spiritual associations. Specific landscape features, such as “grandfather and grandmother” rocks come to mind. These features occur often on a landscape but are invisible to those unfamiliar with them. These are sites where offerings were left to ensure good fortune of travel, harvest and health of the people.

The Mi’kmaq established the characteristics of the cultural landscape of Mi’kma’ki 13,500-years ago–long before the arrival of Europeans. It can be seen in the names they used to describe places of importance. The Mi’kmaq language, being descriptive in nature, details activities and events that occurred over the landscape. The language describes places to hunt, fish and gather other resources, as well as places of spiritual significance.

Jeffers Lennox notes that Indigenous homelands existed as lived spaces where they resided, hunted and traded–places through which they travelled and from which they developed a sense of community among and between themselves. He also speaks of a contested landscape. Yes, treaties ended colonial conflicts but they also ignored, as Lennox points out, Mi’kmaq territorial rights and saw to the assertion of imperial authority over the Mi’kmaq and their lands.

As a pre-contact archaeologist, who just happens to be Mi’kmaq, I have travelled this province’s many rivers, extensively examining the Mi’kmaq cultural landscape. I can appreciate the seven words written by La Duke, “this land did not let me go,” and Lennox’s assertion of Mi’kmaq homelands as lived spaces. My personal experiences on the landscape evoked emotions. I can think of no better way of expressing that experience than by using this poem entitled:


Thank You Ancient Brother Man

As man, today, I greet you ancient brother man and point with gratitude to these artifacts you made in eons past.
The signature of man’s slow rise on each and every tool, on each point, and axe.
We can sense the human impact still. Who smoked this pipe? Who played this flute?
Who used this hoe? Who threw this spear? And was it made for deer or foe?
As man today, I kneel upon a mountain circled flat to feel ancient ashes yellow and see a kinship gift for which you have left for me.
I grasp within my hand a perfect tool, so long ago chipped carefully from stone and now but for the timing of our fates it might have been my own.
I touch with care its edges keen and fine. For once where you once placed your thumb there I now place mine!
(Nora Bromley 1973)

c. 1791 watercolours by HN Binney. Rivers were and are the “vehicles through which Mi’kmaw culture and history was transmitted.


“Terra Nullius”

If we consider the stories of Daniel Paul and Winona La Duke, as well as the writing of Jeffers Lennox, are we prepared to ask ourselves a profound question as we move towards Canada 150 celebrations? Considering an acknowledged 13,500 Mi’kmaq experience on the land, when and how did Mi’kmaq ancestral lands become the property of somebody else?

The English “terra nullius” doctrine suggested that Indigenous people were not settled. It supposed where Indigenous people did not cultivate the land and neither did they parcel it up, it followed that the lands were empty. The Supreme Court of Canada stated that the terra nullius doctrine (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

To add to this conversation, Wilbur Zelinsky (1921-2013), a cultural geographer, proposed the “Doctrine of Effective Settlement,” which essentially declared that the first ethnic group to sustain a viable self-perpetuating settlement in an area established the characteristics of that landscape. If we embrace these types of assumptions a pattern unfolds. The concept of Ta’n Weji-sqalia’tiek: From Where We Sprouted serves to enlighten us of the Mi’kmaq place in history. What we know of the Mi’kmaq today is to a great degree constructed, shaped and guided by the notion of colonialism.

The forerunner to Colonial Indian policy in Mi’kma’ki arises from the fall of Port Royal in 1710. As Lennox suggested, the task of establishing the boundaries of a British colonial Nova Scotia, which up to that point did not exist, began in earnest. Early Peace and Friendship Treaties (1726, 1752, 1760/61) signed between the British and the Mi’kmaq people are indicative of the level of influence Mi’kmaq retained over their lands. However, as L.F.S. Upton wrote in 1975, by the year 1783 the Mi’kmaq were no longer to be courted or feared.

David McNab would later argue that nineteenth-century Indian Policy served to ‘insulate’ the Mi’kmaq and confine them to reserves established in Nova Scotia as early as 1821. By 1841, McNab points out, “Indian Policy” was more regional in practice but firmly established four alternatives to the “Native question” including extermination, slavery, insulation and amalgamation.

By 1844, Moses Perley, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs of New Brunswick, was successful in passing an Indian Act in this region. This, McNab points out, turned out to be a colossal failure. After 1867, the responsibility for First Nations was delegated to the Dominion government pushing Mi’kmaq further into a state of destitution. In 1873, Native peoples in this country had to deal with a national Indian policy–the Indian Act, as we know it today.

That period from the late eighteenth century onward has been an incessant struggle for the Mi’kmaq. Frustrated by their conditions and encroachments upon their limited land base, the Mi’kmaq petitioned regularly to the colonial office in Halifax and Whitehall in London, but with little promise of resolution:


To His Excellency John Harvey, K.C.R. and K.H.H., Lieut. Governor of Nova Scotia:

The Petition of the undersigned Chiefs and Captains of the Micmac Indians of Nova Scotia, for and on behalf of themselves and their tribe humbly showeth:

That a long time ago our fathers owned and occupied all the lands now called Nova Scotia, our people lived upon the sides of the rivers and were a great many … tired of a war that destroyed many of our people, almost ninety years ago, our Chief made peace and buried the hatchet forever. When that peace was made, the English Governor promised us protection, as much land as we wanted, and the preservation of our fisheries and game. These we now very much want … before the white people came, we had plenty of wild roots, plenty of fish, and plenty of corn … the skins of the Moose and Carriboo were warm to our bodies, we had plenty of good land, we worshipped “Kesoult” the Great Spirit … be not offended at what we say … but your people had not land enough, they came and killed many of our tribe and took from us our country … you have taken from us our lands and trees and have destroyed our game … you scare away the fish … you have made dams across the rivers so that the Salmon cannot go up, and your laws will not permit us to spear them … in old times our wigwams stood in the pleasant places along the sides of the rivers … these places are now taken from us … we have never been in a worse condition than now … our old people and young children cannot live … where shall we go, what shall we do? We will ask our Mother the Queen to help us … we beg your Excellency to help us in our distress …, and help us that we may at last be able to help ourselves. (Translated and written for us by our Mal-waa-laa-weet and Commissioner [Abraham Gesner] at Chebucto, the 8th day of February 1840.

Pelancea Paul [François Paul], his mark A CROSS [Chief at Shubenacadie]
Colum Paul [Goreham Paul], his mark A PIPE [Captain at Shubenacadie]
Piel Toney [Pierre Antoine], his mark THE SUN
Louis Paul, his mark A HEART
Cobliel Bonus [Gabriel Bonis], his mark A TREE
Saagaach Meuse [James Mius], his mark AN ARROW [Chiefat Bear River]
Louis Luxie [Louis Alexis], his mark THE MOON [Chief at Yarmouth?]
Sabatier Paul [Xavier? Paul], his mark A CANOE
Piel Morris [Pierre Maurice], his mark A PADDLE
Pelancea Paul [François Paul], his mark A SPEAR


Winona LaDuke is one of the world’s most tireless and charismatic leaders on issues related to climate change, Indigenous and human rights

Historical Amnesia

Jeffers Lennox alludes to it but Daniel Paul and Winona La Duke speak more openly of what is called “historical amnesia.” Author and Professor of Social Policy John Clarke, in his 2012 paper, “Historical Amnesia: Linking Past, Present and Future in Politics and Policy,” explores problems associated with historical amnesia. He states there is an intrinsic problem tied to forgetting our past and ultimately how knowledge and history is produced. He notes that there is value in and lessons to be learned from our past. History can be ugly and unpleasant, but it educates us. Clarke also notes there is no urgency in surrendering a past to glorify a present.

Canada 150 is not about the Mi’maq experience. Our identity was not shaped by Confederation 150 years ago, but rather by Ta’n Weji-sqalia’teik: From Where We Sprouted–13,500 years ago.

Alfred Taiaiake and Jeff Corntassel, in their 2005 article “Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism,” point out that we are indigenous to this land and there are challenges in being Indigenous today. The dilemma faced by Mi’kmaq people and likely all First Nation peoples in Canada today is that we still live within the constraints of a more modern form of colonialism.

The new buzzwords in the 2017 academic world are “Indigenization” and “decolonization.” Yes, there has to be a shift in how we think of First Nations people in this country. But we as Mi’kmaq people have to reconstruct our own past, our being and our presence on this land, on our own terms and from our own perspective. As Taiaiake and Corntassel suggest, that is the only way we can make sense of the historical conundrum that most people would prefer to push under a rug.

One would hope we have matured enough, in 150 years as a country, to share timeless bonds of a common history.

Written By

Roger J Lewis is a Mi'kmaw historian and research archaeologist, a curator of ethnology with the Nova Scotia Museum and a member of Indian Brook Mi'kmaq First Nations community. He specializes in pre-contact Mi'kmaq land and resource use.

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