“There were no Indians here…”

Correcting some common misperceptions about history…

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the positive feedback and all those who shared my column in various forms of social media. It seems as though many people read and enjoyed it! I can only hope that I maintain momentum in the coming weeks and keep producing material everyone can enjoy and learn from! I would also like to thank everyone at The Independent again for making this happen, you’re all awesome!

That being said, amongst the mainly positive comments made on last week’s column, there was one not-so-positive post. I couldn’t be bothered to really address it in the comments section because I was writing my MCAT that day, so instead I decided to address it in this week’s column. I won’t bother to go back and quote it in its entirety, but the basic message was: “There are no first peoples of Newfoundland.”

I was floored.

I thought to myself, ‘There is no way people actually believe that there was and is no native presence in Newfoundland!’ In this day and age, with so much information freely available for everyone to access, I had hoped that people at least understood that there was always a First Nations presence here. Sadly it seems that this is not the case.

That comment reminded me of an incident that happened to a friend from my reserve. He went to a hardware store one day and asked the employee if they accepted status cards. Status cards are given to those defined as “Indian” under the Indian Act, which gives us certain rights outlined in said Act. The employee looked at my friend and said, “There’s no Indians in Newfoundland, only Beothuk people. But they’re all dead – you came from the mainland.” Well, at least in this case the man acknowledged an aboriginal presence here. The Beothuk (or Peta’kewaq in Mi’kmaq) were a First Nations group that occupied the central and northeastern part of Newfoundland. However they were not the only presence here: the Mi’kmaq also had settlements along the west and south coast of the island and still live in these areas today.

Land Across The Water

You know how Canada is made up of provinces? Well, before all that existed the Mi’kmaq people had what we call districts, different areas that collectively make up “Mi’kma’ki”: land of the Mi’kmaq, all over the east coast. Our presence in Mi’kma’ki has been dated back to nearly 10,000 years ago and with eight districts in total, Taqamkuk (‘Land across the water’, aka ‘Newfoundland’) is a district in Mi’kma’ki on its own. Oral tradition states Mi’kmaq people have moved back and forth between Unama’ki (‘Land of the Fog’ aka ‘Cape Breton’) and Taqamkuk for hundreds of years via birch bark canoes. The distance between these two points is 70 miles, with an island (Tuywe’kan nmikuk) only about 20 miles from Cape Breton, which gave the travelers a night to rest and recoup for the rest of the trip. The story goes that once the canoes landed on the island, a group of the more experienced paddlers would then make the last leg of the trip, and then make a large fire on the shore of Newfoundland so the other less experienced paddlers could then complete the journey.

We felt that finally others would understand the will and determination of our people.

This story was criticized by many, who argued the trek would be too dangerous in a vessel made of bark, but this was disproved when members of my reserve made the journey from Cape Ray, Newfoundland to Chapel Island, Nova Scotia in 1999. Imagine paddling a large canoe made only of traditional items from the earth down through the Atlantic! I still remember meeting them with my family and other members of the community that went down to Nova Scotia as they paddled up to the island. We felt that finally others would understand the will and determination of our people.

You can ask any member of my community, or any Mi’kmaq on this island for that matter, how long we have been here. Most likely the answer will be along the lines of, “we’ve always been here.” Some will even mention Sa’qewe’ji’jk (our ancestors), which comes from the root word sa’qewey, which means ‘ancient.’ Our stories usually involve these people, who resided here hundreds of years prior to any colonial contact. This isn’t hard to believe, since we could accurately describe much of the island and had traditional Mi’kmaq names for areas in the early 1600’s.

As the years went on and more newcomers wanted to explore the island, Mi’kmaq guides would always be employed due to their vast knowledge of the interior. The first exploration of Newfoundland’s interior by a European was completed thanks to Sylvester Joe, a Mi’kmaq from Miawpukek in 1822. Our people were usually referred to as the “natives” by early explorers because that is what we were – native to this land. There are many historical documents describing Mi’kmaq presence here in Taqamkuk for hundreds of years, and archaeological data placing our ancestors (Maritime Archaic) here 4,000 years ago. So why do people still feel as though ‘there were no Indians here’?

Erasing history

I think it comes down to education. Now, in my school we had our own curriculum, which placed a lot of emphasis on Mi’kmaq culture. Our history class was one of Mi’kmaq History so I don’t know what other schools taught in their respective courses. But from conversing with people (especially those who pass through my place of work in the summer – the Mi’kmaq Discovery Centre), it seems as though many were taught that the native population of Newfoundland was killed off, and any mention of Mi’kmaq, past or present, is very scarce. As sad as this is, it’s not overly surprising considering there was no mention of the aboriginal population of Newfoundland when it joined Canada in 1949. It took nearly 40 years for the Mi’kmaq of Miawpukek to gain recognition as a reserve and become entitled to the rights the Indian Act guarantees us. And there are many more Mi’kmaq on the island still fighting for that recognition to this day.

…the education system needs to review its history curriculum, keeping in mind those of us…who are descendants of many generations of Mi’kmaq people who called this land their home.

I believe that in order to properly inform the people of this province of its deep aboriginal roots, the education system needs to review its history curriculum, keeping in mind those of us still living here today who are descendants of many generations of Mi’kmaq people who called this land their home. If people really need more convincing to believe that there were Indians here, a simple conversation with someone like my own grandfather would suffice. He would tell you about life as a Mi’kmaq living in Newfoundland. You would hear about the traditional medicines they took from the earth, the traditional tools they would use, the language they spoke, the history they learned and the adversities they overcame. You would hear about our language here on the island and how it differs from Mi’kmaq as spoken on the mainland. There are some pronunciation differences but in other instances we have completely different words for the same thing. This comes as a result of being separated for so long and evolving on our own, right here.

I titled this column, There Were no Indians Here because my grandfather wrote a similar letter to a local newspaper with the same title a few years ago, following in the footsteps of his father who wrote a similar article to The Telegram in 1967 discussing much of what I discussed here. That’s three generations of our people trying to inform the public! This is dedicated to my father, grandfather, great grandfather and all generations of First Nations people of this island because I could not think of anything more disheartening than to live your life as an indigenous person to this island, only to have people think there was no such thing.

I just hope someday our presence here will be celebrated, and not debated.

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