September 6, 2008

Between past, present and future in Bear River

I’d decided to stay in Digby, Nova Scotia – a lovely little seaside town, known as ‘The Scallop Capital of the World’ (apparently a valid claim as it boasts the largest scallop fleet anywhere) My first few days in Nova Scotia were spent engaged in genealogy research. I combed the documents and records housed at the O’Dell House Museum in the colonial town of Annapolis Royal with the help of their historians and genealogists. The searches were not at all difficult due to the fact that my Colonial ancestors here were prominant citizens and are both well-known and well-documented. Having been Loyalists during the American Revolution, they were rewarded by the King of England after the war with substantial grants of land in Nova Scotia. Yet, the region’s English Colonial history is an uneasy one. Just below its glorified surface lies another truth involving the dis-enfranchisement of the Acadians and the slaughter of the native Mi’kmaq.

The O’Dell House historians helped me locate a number of ancestral gravesites and I headed off to the Old St Edwards cemetery in Clementsport. I still felt a bit disconnected and uncertain about my tasks in Nova Scotia and found myself standing at their gravesites and asking my ancestors what they want me to do. On the way home to Digby, I felt a strong pull to drive through Bear River – an ancestral place, but only marginally - and stopped at a local museum. This one, too, presented history that had a decidedly English bias, and I left feeling no real connection and as if a deeper story remained untold.

My last day though took a remarkable turn. I woke feeling energised and knew immediately that I wanted to go back to Bear River, but this time to visit the Bear River First Nations (Mi’kmaq) Cultural Centre.

The history of the English settlement of Nova Scotia is a shameful one. Whereas the French lived in relative harmony with the native population, the English wanted nothing more than to rid the place of its native inhabitants and set about instituting a series of eradication policies: It began during colonisation with Cornwallis, 1st Governor of Nova Scotia (and considered some kind of hero), when he enacted a law that set prices for the wholesale killing of Mi’kmaq natives: 50 pounds was to be paid for each adult male scalp, 40 pounds for each adult female, and 60 pounds for every child’s scalp (wipe out the next generation and you wipe out the problem). Unbelievably, this law was still on the books until it was recently removed due to pressure from the Mi’kmaq community. only recently (within the last couple of years) formally removed from as was the renaming of the district – the area that used to be called Cornwallis, has now reverted to its native name – as one Mi’kmaq man said to me, referring to the area as Cornwallis was akin to having a Hitler Blvd run through a Jewish neighbourhood. When Cornwallis’s policy failed to solve the pesky native problem, they were denied access to their ancestral hunting, planting and fishing grounds (places teeming with life) and forced instead to live on reservation lands – the poorest land in the area – set on hard rocky ground (which was absolutely untillable) and without access to water. Still the Mi’kmaq managed to survive starvation, so they were give blankets infested with smallpox which dropped their numbers almost – but not quite - to extinction. When policy after policy meant to wipe out a people failed, policies were instituted to wipe out their culture. Children were sent to Indian Schools where they were not allowed to dress in native clothes, speak their native language, follow any sort of traditional ways, nor associate with their siblings or other family members. Scores of children died, those who didn’t struggled with issues of identity – neither white enough to be white, nor Indian enough to be Indian. Those are issues still being unravelled today.

I went to the Bear River First Nations Cultural Centre where it was my great good fortune to meet a Mi’kmaq woman named Wanda whose life has been dedicated to relearning the old ways, reclaiming the dignity and pride of her heritage and passing both on to the younger generation. I am extraordinarily grateful for the generosity she showed to me in sharing her stories and her culture. She first told me – in more general, but unequivocal terms - about Mi’kmaq history, but as our conversation deepened, she shared her own experiences. She is 53, so the same generation as I am. She told me that she and her sister were the only native kids at her school and they had been given a pretty hard time. She said that early on she became a warrior – both as a means to protect her sister and to stand up for herself. She also told how – as a 15 yr old – she once wrote a history assignment about Kejimkujik park – a local National park that was ancestral ground for the Mi’kmaq and a place filled with the petroglyphic evidence of their habitation. Rather than gather facts about Keji from books in the school library, Wanda wrote an essay based on information she gathered from her grandmother. When her teacher returned her paper to her every page was marked with a X drawn through it and the grade assigned was a big, fat, red 'zero'. Despite Wanda’s mother’s attempts to intervene on her daughter’s behalf, the school refused to change her grade and Wanda (then 15) decided to drop out. 30 years later, not knowing who she was or her history with the place, the new principal asked her to come to the school and teach the kids about native drumming and song. He also asked if she knew anyone who could teach the students about basket-making. Wanda asked her sister to come. Her presentation was such a success that the principal asked her if there was anything he could do for her. She asked if she could walk through the halls playing a healing song. He agreed and she said it was one of the most powerful moments of her life. When she finished her story, she had tears in her eyes. So did I.

Everything Wanda said, she said from the heart and our conversation felt more like the affirmation of an old bond than the forging of a new friendship – maybe it was a bit of both. I told Wanda about my travels and my quest and shared some of my ideas and inclinations regarding what I need to do for/with my ancestors. She immediately understood it’s significance and importance. I asked her if there are things the Mi’kmaq do to honour ancestors that I might incorporate. She talked about preparing yourself for any sacred work by smudging – cleansing your mind body and spirit with the smoke of sweetgrass and sage – so that your eyes see the good, your heart feels the good, your ears hear the good, your mind thinks the good and your mouth speaks the good.

She went on to talk about language and said that she feels not only is it her particular duty to preserve and perpetuate the beautiful Mi’kmaq language, but to speak it properly so that her ancestors will understand her. That resonated for me with my sense that when I sing to my ancestors it needs to be in their first language. In a sense it has felt like to proper way to honour them and to show my respect. After walking around the centre’s displays and talking after we’d spent a couple of hours sharing stories, ideas, tears and laughs, she told me the real meaning of the word Kejimkujik...but I can’t say, because I promised I wouldn’t tell!

I spent about 3 hours looking through the displays and talking with Wanda (more talk than anything else) and Wanda said she wanted to sing me a song before I left. Her song was beautiful. Her drumming, rhythmic and concentrated, her voice crystal clear and strong. Her song was a prayer to the ancestors asking them to help us, to help our children and to help us heal the world. she told me that there was a Gathering being held nearby at Stone Bear a camp run by the former Chief Frank Meuse and said I should go. She said that Frank is the most deep, clear, kind, centered and quiet person she‘s ever known. Frank is no longer the chief: that post is now held by his sister Theresa.

Just as I was leaving, I found a book about Mi’kmaq glyphic-symbols...they are very beautiful – almost like Sanskrit - and as I was paying for it, she gave me a Mi’kmaq 1st nations pin and a little DIY Inuit inuksuk paper sculpture kit. I asked her if she’d inscribe a message in the book for me, which she did. We hugged, exchanged contact info and found it hard to part.
I went to Stone Bear and Frank came outside to meet me. He told me about the camp, said that everything is informal and open-ended, but that sometime later he’d be leading a walk through the woods if I’d like to come along. He also said that there was a sacred fire up the path and that if I wanted to I could go there an introduce myself to the fire keeper. That sounded immediately appealing, so I walked up the path and there was a man and 2 women sitting near the fire. I asked who was the fire keeper and one of the women said, “I guess I am”. She came over and introduced herself as Theresa and asked me if I knew about sacred fires. I said, “not much”and she said that the first thing she’d do is smudge me and then she’d explain the hows and whys of Mi’kmaq prayer: what the directions and colours mean (yellow for east and the rising sun, red for west and the setting sun, black for south and the ancestors, white for north and the community/world) how to walk the sacred circle around the fire (clockwise) and that there is no right prayer – but hers always begin with a thanks to the creator. She also said that each prayer is offered by sprinkling the fire with sacred herbs – sage & sweetgrass – the smoke carrying the prayers up to the creator. This is something I’ve always known and always done. She explained smudging – like Aboriginal smoking ceremony it cleanses your heart, mind and body of negativity, She smoked me and I picked up a handful of sacred herbs from a bowl by the entrance, then walked the circle: first, standing at the east point, thanking the creator for the gift of being on this journey, and in this place with these people and sprinkled herbs on the flames. I moved clockwise to the south point to pray for my ancestors and was engulfed in smoke momentarily stopping my breath and making it impossible to see. I made my prayer asking for their forgiveness and promising not to forget them again then threw more herbs on the fire. moving to the west point, I prayed for Max’s safety, and for health, happiness and a good future for Max and Ebbie; Julia Chris and Ella and all the generations to come after me – then sprinkled more herbs into the fire. They crackled and sparked and flames shot up. Moving to the north point, I prayed for the world – that it become a kinder place, that it shift it’s focus from the profane to the the sacred. I sprinkled the last of my herbs.
Frank told me that the Mi’kmaq consider stones as our grandmothers and grandfathers – and Theresa added that all stones are sacred because you never know which stones your ancestors may have walked on and which were used for the sacred fire. It’s also believed that the heat of sacred fire releases the spirits of the ancestors from the stones that circle it so that they can more easily speak to us. I told them both about my travels, my sense of needing to shift stones around in an effort to reconnect my ancestors with their native lands and we laughed about the fact that I am consequently dragging around a suitcase full of rocks. Theresa said ”Here’s another one and handed me a beautifully round piece of granite covered with (painted) sacred symbols. I was incredibly touched and walked around for the next hour or so, with that stone cupped between my hands.

A bit later, Frank led us on a walk through the woods. Following happily and aimlessly like children – with no particular schedule or place I had to be -I learned how to stop and listen, to be careful where I stepped. Frank is a man of few words, but he listens intently. I told him that the work I’m doing now makes me feel like a pivot point between the past and the future (my ancestors and my descendants). Like it’s my job to forge the links, build the bridge. A sign tacked to a Birch tree says that Birch is a pioneer. In the Ogham alphabet, birch is my symbol. I feel like a pioneer here. At the end of the trail I stop to read a sign that is tacked to a tree. It's about crows and says that crows connect past present and future. I told Frank that all over Ireland, I kept seeing crows and kept picking up crow feathers. He replied – that’s what you just told’re connecting the past, present and future.
I walked back to the fire and sit with Theresa. I wanted to share more stories with her, but changed my felt better to listen. Theresa invited me to stay the night – she said she’d find blankets for me, a corner to sleep in, extra clothes if I needed and that I was welcome to supper. I was sorely tempted. I told her I'd come back and next time I'd stay with them.

As I said goodbye to Theresa, she handed me a bundle of sacred herbs, tied in a red cloth.

During the night I woke twice feeling confirmed somehow: I remembered Wanda telling me that speaking Mi’kmaq language was important to her because she wanted to be sure that her grandmother understood her properly and it confirmed my feeling that I must sing to my ancestors in their language. I had also told her that my inclination was to sing to my ancestors – and asked her what she sang about when she sang to hers. She told me she thanks them and she asks them for help – for the sick, for guidance, for the young and the needy and sometimes to heal the world. I told her I felt that I needed to start with an apology, because mine have been so long neglected and she smiled and nodded ‘yes’.

I thought, too about Frank and how he moved us through the woods: how quietly attending to his surroundings, stopping, looking and listening every few yards allows him to tune in to all of what’s there. He said that walking through the woods in that way always makes him wonder how his ancestors experienced the places they walked though and whether they had passed through this same piece of ground. He seemed to be saying that ALL of the land you move through is sacred...not only because of the possible presence of human ancestors, but because nature itself is our ancestor.

In talking to me about stones, Theresa seemed to confirm my feeling for how stones relate to my pilgrimage and the work I feel drawn to do for my ancestors. In handing me a marked stone, she also confirmed my inclination to carve glyphic messages.

All of these lessons were subtle and indirect: no one ever said, ‘you’re right. That is how it should be done’ They simply told me how and why they do it. Often, without me even asking. Our conversation simply seemed to move in directions that went suddenly bone deep and have worked their way under my consciousness as confirmations of intuitions I’ve had about how I might attend to my ancestors and to the sacred in my own life. Best of all, it seemed to confirm that it doesn’t matter so much where or how, but that I do it. and that I do it with my whole heart.
Driving to Halifax Airport, I kept seeing crows and thinking of them as reminders of my task. My clothes still smelled smokey from the sacred fire. The scent reminds me of my ancestors and the feeling of welcome I felt on the Mi’kmaq reservation. Along the way, I listened to Dar Williams sing ‘Road Buddy’and recalled scenes from ‘Smoke Signals’ I was thinking about the scene where Victor is transformed through his experience of running all night for help and realised that yesterday’s experience with Wanda, Frank and Theresa – like so many others on this journey – is transforming me. I am meeting people with an open heart and have been welcomed wholly and with joy. My eyes filled with tears and my heart was was suddenly flooded with a sense of connection and deep, deep gratitude. I said aloud, “I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful” and I am.


Katie and Emir said...

well that beats the heck out of eating apples! and of course it made me smile and tear up and all that. you are really someone special Sandy!

Max, Ebbie and the Fuzzheads said...

Well, wow. Another gobsmacking wellspring of greatness from left field. That's just amazingly cool, what else can I say?

ibu kate said...

This is such a beautiful post Sandy. All of them are great but this one is really special. We are too grateful for being given the chance to experience your transformation by your incredible to ability to communicate your thoughts and feelings.