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“It’s opening up knowledge about our past”: Mi’kmaw Chief

By: | January 17, 2016

Stephen Augustine, a Hereditary Chief on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, says a new free online course he is teaching from Cape Breton University about Mi’kmaq history and culture presents an important opportunity for those exploring their Mi’kmaq heritage and identity.

Stephen Augustine talks about the Mi'kmaq Creation Story during the first "Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi'kma'ki" class. Screenshot, Cape Breton University.

A First Nations leader in Nova Scotia says a free online course he is teaching out of Unama’ki College at Cape Breton University (CBU) presents an important opportunity for many people in Newfoundland with Mi’kmaq ancestry to learn about Mi’kmaq history and culture.

Stephen Augustine is an Honourary Chief on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council and Dean of Unama’ki College and Aboriginal Learning at CBU. For two and a half hours every Monday evening, until mid-April, he and Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, an Assistant Professor in Community Health at CBU, are taking students and others who join in online through 12 weeks of teachings about the Mi’kmaq and Mi’kma’ki.

Speaking with The Independent last weekend, Augustine said the course, Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki, is in part a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which among its 94 calls to action advised that Indigenous history and knowledge be incorporated in various levels of education.

“This is one of the ways to address the issue of indigenizing universities as well as providing relevant truthful, cultural, historical information about treaties, creation stories and ceremonies about First Nations communities, and more specifically the Mi’kmaq communities and our experience here in the Maritimes,” he said.

CBU has been teaching Mi’kmaq Studies for over 30 years, but with this new pilot project Augustine said he hopes the course will become required learning for all students completing a degree at CBU.

He said he also hopes other universities follow the lead and introduce courses that teach students about local Indigenous Peoples, their histories and cultures.

Indigenizing post-secondary institutions

Augustine began his university degree in the mid-70s as a 27-year-old mature student.

“A group of us, Mi’kmaq students and Maliseet students, were interested in learning more about our culture and our own history,” he said, explaining that through courses in anthropology, sociology, history and political science he was able to learn about Indigenous groups in Canada and the United States, but not about his own people.

“Lo and behold there was no information about our own local history, so we proposed a local Native Studies program,” he recalled. “So they started incorporating information about Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people, [and] today we have full-blown Native Studies and Indigenous Studies and Mi’kmaq Studies courses here at some of the universities in the Maritimes — and more specifically at St. Thomas [University] and here at CBU.”

The process of indigenizing the university, Augustine explained, is to “make the faculty more aware of the students they are teaching, who may be Mi’kmaq or Maliseet, to know about their culture and history, treaties, language, and so on and so forth — all the things that are part and parcel of our oral history, our traditional ways, our ceremonies, life on the land, the legacies of the residential schools, governments, centralization issues and problems, and the whole collective historical experience of Mi’kmaq, Acadian, French, English settlers who have collectively experienced the last 400 years together.

“So basically it’s opening up knowledge about our past, to be more inclusive and to more or less celebrate our diversity as Canadians — to say, yes, they are Indigenous people, there are now Syrian immigrants, and there have been immigrants coming over from England, from France, from Ireland and Scotland, and so on and so forth, here to North America.

“We have a collective history and we should know about each other so we can ruminate and do away with the [problems] of discrimination and racism because society is ignorant or is not knowledgeable about those realities; sometimes people make comments that are not well-informed.”

An opportunity for people in Newfoundland exploring their Mi’kmaq heritage

In the first class, last Monday, Augustine taught about the Mi’kmaq Creation Story, which he calls the “constitutional foundation of Mi’kmaq culture and society” because it explains “how the world was formed for the Mi’kmaq people, and how the Mi’kmaq people related to the animals, plants, fish and birds, and how the Mi’kmaq people more or less negotiated their survival from Mother Earth with these living entities that we always term as our brothers and sisters: the winged creatures, the four-leggeds, the two-leggeds and the rooted ones, and the ones that swim in the water.”

This Monday’s class (Jan. 18) will look at the history and treaties of Mi’kma’ki, and subsequent classes will deal with various other elements of Mi’kmaq knowledge, philosophy, teachings and history, concluding April 11 with the significance of reconciliation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and calls to action.

With all the controversy surrounding the enrolment process for the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band—including membership criteria set out by Canada that contradicts Mi’kmaq convention and has prompted the Mi’kmaq Grand Council to appeal to the United Nations for help in dealing with the situation—Augustine said understanding Mi’kmaq history, culture, philosophy and teachings such as the ones he is offering in the new course is “very, very important” for those who identify as Mi’kmaq.

“To me it’s the core element of being Mi’kmaq, to be able to know this and have the opportunity to expand your mind around who you are, and your culture, and that we originate from the land here in the Maritimes, what we call Mi’kma’ki,” he explained.

“And it’s important to identify yourself [as] coming from the land and being part of the geography of the area. It kind of gives you roots and a foundation, and in our stories, our descriptions and experiences on the land with each other as Mi’kmaq and with the cultures that arrived. So we know and understand our basic successes and downfalls together as Mi’kmaq and Canadian society. I think it’s very important for us to understand that.”

Toward a better society and future of inclusion

Augustine said learning about Mi’kmaq knowledge and the history of Mi’kma’ki is open to everyone — Mi’kmaq, other First Nations and Indigenous Peoples and settlers alike — and that the more Indigenous knowledge prevails in Canadian society, the better off everyone will be for it, particularly when faced with new situations, like the growing global problem of forced migration.

I think it’s important for all of us to understand there are First Nations or Indigenous groups that are integral to the land, but they also welcomed strangers,” he said, explaining the Mi’kmaq were historically a “welcoming society,” and that although some in the Mi’kmaq Nation have their “own prejudices too…somehow we have to arrive at an understanding that everybody’s here to stay and nobody’s going anywhere.

“I think we need to somehow develop an understanding of our cultures, not just for white people but for our own Indigenous people as well.

I know that it’s hard for a lot of our leaders to sit down and say let’s open our doors,” he said, explaining many Mi’kmaq live in poverty. “But still, humanity must prevail, and we are a [still] welcoming society.”

Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki is a free online course offered by Cape Breton University. Classes stream live each Monday evening from 6:30 to 9 p.m. NST and all classes are archived and can be viewed at a later time.Visit the school’s website for more information and to register for the course.

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