It’s National Aboriginal Day, a day to honour and celebrate the heritage, cultures and achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada. As important as celebration, however, is learning. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called on non-Indigenous Canadians to learn as a step toward reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians.
Halifax Poet Laureate Rebecca Thomas puts it this way: “I ask that for today, non-Indigenous Canadians take a moment to read up on treaties, learn whose territory they are in, have a meaningful conversation with an Indigenous person, or learn a bit more about the first peoples of Turtle Island. We are still here.”
Much of this place, which we often call Atlantic Canada, is the territory of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Peskotomuhkatiyik (Passamaquoddy), Abenaki, Penobscot (Panawahpskek), Beothuk, Innu and Inuit.
There are many ways for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn more about these First Peoples, who are not merely historical footnotes but are in fact still here. With our focus on books, Atlantic Books Today recommends the following resources for insight and occasional enlightenment on the historical and contemporary Indigenous peoples of this land:
Now in its third edition, Daniel Paul’s We Were Not the Savages is a history of the Mi’kmaq and colonialism in this region, from the Mi’kmaq perspective, which is both essential and underrepresented. It proudly represents the complex, vibrant, egalitarian and healthy society that existed prior to the arrival of European colonists, and the rapid decline of that society afterward, due to disease, land and food grabs, scalp bounties and warfare. Today, we see the strength and resilience of the Mi’kmaq in the form of healing and cultural revival.
Trudy Sable and Bernie Francis explore the closeness of language and land use in shaping a culture in The Language of This Land, Mi’kma’ki. This work serves as a definitive resource for understanding the historical significance of land and geography in Mi’kmaw culture. And while it won’t teach you the language, it offers valuable insights on its active, dynamic nature and its focus on relationships between individuals and with non-human things.
In Ni’n na L’nu: The Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island, Jesse Francis and A.J.B. Johnston provide a pictorial and written history of the Mi’kmaq on PEI, or Epekwitk, “cradle on the sea.” Looking at the lives of individuals and providing anthropological, archival, narrative and geographic information, this work explores the culture’s resilience and adaptability in the face of constant change since the arrival of European settlers. The importance of the land remains paramount here.
Now in its fourth edition, Isabelle Knockwood’s Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, is one of the seminal works on the residential school experience for Indigenous children in Canada, and the lifelong, multi-generational impacts after the fact. The school took children from across the Maritimes. Knockwood’s book is essential reading for anyone hoping to positively contribute toward reconciliation.
Back in 1997, Lesley Choyce teamed up with revered Mi’maw poet Rita Joe to edit The Mi’kmaq Anthology, “the most comprehensive single volume of Mi’kmaq writing available.” It includes essay, memoir, poetry and traditional story by contributors including Don Julien, Elsie Charles Basque, Noel Knockwood, Helen Sylliboy, Marie Battiste, Theresa Meuse, Isabelle Knockwood, Daniel Paul and Rita Joe herself.
You may have to dig a bit to find this one, but it’s so worth it. The final proof of Stones and Switches was on its way to Elsipogtog author Lorne Simon when he was killed in a tragic car accident in October 1994. The family chose to proceed with publication and we now have a little-known great Mi’kmaw novel about a young man struggling with life on a fictional reserve during the Great Depression. The storytelling is nimble, engrossing and peppered with Mi’kmaw words. We lost a master 22 autumns ago and sadly most of us still don’t know his work.
In Bear River poet Shalan Joudry’s debut collection, Generations Re-Merging, she deftly explores the tightly wound threads holding together identity, loss, trauma, healing, language and the land, all with an eye to the way these things ravel and unravel through generations, how the hurt of one hurts the other and, conversely, the healing of one can help the other. The work is primarily in English but intertwined with Mi’kmaw while explicitly addressing the “struggle to learn / one more word L’nueiei* / teach my tongue to soften at the back of my throat / and make scaffolding out of language / to hold up a nation once beaten into submission / and to go on.”
*in the Mi’kmaw language.