National Aboriginal Day: Humble Learnings from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki

Happy National Aboriginal Day!

This  post began with a whole series of false starts. How can I speak about National Aboriginal Day? Who am I to speak about National Aboriginal Day? As a Scottish/Irish/Canadian/Cape Bretoner, my connection to the aboriginal people in Canada is growing, but shaky at best. What could I share that was thoughtful or poignant?

I can only speak from my perspective, and the only thing I can say with certainty is that we need more discussion and encouragement of discussion around aboriginal issues in Canada. So here, I humbly offer my learnings as a ‘settler student.’

Earlier this year, I took part in the fantastic Cape Breton University initiative to hold its “first free, online, open-access, share-with-the world Indigenous course” MIKM 2701: Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki. The idea was brilliant and important, following directly from the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of course, in this era of busy-ness, I wasn’t sure I had the time or attention or timezone for it. I missed the first class. Thankfully, I had electronic encouragement from a very very wise friend to join her, trans-Atlantically, in the course. With the handy video archive, I caught up and I’m so glad I did.

The course was one of the first significant and purposeful steps in my personal efforts to better understand the indigenous community at home in Cape Breton, the Mi’kmaq. I had grown up with very limited knowledge of the Mi’kmaq culture and knowledge. As I grew older and discovered more of our island, I learned here and there about Mi’kmaq life, but never in a deeper way. I learned about indigenous history in academic ways, in school, and in media, but as a history somewhat removed from my own community. This course provided the first step in deepening my appreciation for a culture and a people who have shared their island with my people for hundreds of years.

CBU Mi'kmaq Course Studying in Budapest

The course, though in a scholarly setting, was a divergence from academia in its storytelling and intensely emotional and personal content. The format was dialogical. At first, this took some getting used to for me, as I was expecting more to standard academic lectures and the way I am used to receiving media in colonialist North American society. The story format of the lectures forced me to slow down and really listen. It was appropriate as knowledge has been passed down by oral history traditionally, and the course provided a kind of introduction to that educational format.

Hearing Chief Stephen Augustine tell the Creation Story was powerful, intricate, meandering and beautiful. The story has so many elements and each one has such significance that the whole Story can only be woven together by someone with a rich connection and understanding. The story pulled in the values of gratitude to ancestors and responsibility towards future generations. The Creation story shares a worldview so connected and holistic that it was humbling to hear.

In the classes to follow, the stories shared told of the residential schools, missing and murdered indigenous women, systemic racism, decades-long court battles, fear, pain, and hatred. These stories were so heart wrenching and difficult, it is heartbreaking to know that they are not ancient history. They are disturbingly recent or on-going, even today. These accounts were buoyed by stories of hope, success, knowledge, compassion and incredible resilience, in spite of everything Canada and Canadians did. The Eskasoni mental health successes after a devastating series of suicides in 2009. Albert Marshall’s Two-Eyed Seeing, intertwining the tenants of modern, western science with the tenants of Mi’kmaq traditional knowledge. These stories were a powerful combination that I heard. To paraphrase the Thomas King quote shared in class, now that I have heard the stories, I cannot claim that I have not.

Mi'kmaq at Lumiere Art at Night Festival

The course also helped me appreciate the importance of language. Living in Hungary now, I am learning Hungarian to better communicate with the local community. I put a personal value on learning the language of where I am visiting, and this course allowed me to realize the importance of learning the languages where I am from. I better understand the Mi’kmaq language, not to speak it, but how it developed, how it’s a noun-based language which indicates the connection between the speakers and the world around them, how much work there is yet to be done to allow the language to be as common as it should be as the first language of the Island.

I understood more the power of words.  It was surprising to me to hear Eleanor Bernard say, “Don’t indiginize us. Please.” I had thought this term was a proper, modern one. However, she highlighted that this term groups large and distinct groups of indigenous people together under one phrase:  it doesn’t show the real understanding that the term would like to indicate. The history and needs and concerns of the Mi’kmaq are different from the Cree, and are different from the Squamish, and so on.  To cast broad strokes over the groups does not push to the nation-to-nation-to-nation conversations. It’s these sweeping statements that we should be breaking down. For her, decolonizing was a clearer term. Her statement reminded me that words are important. Be thoughtful because your words are powerful.

This course gave me a deeper understanding of Mi’kmaq knowledge and taught me how much I have left to learn. On National Aboriginal Day, I am thankful to the aboriginal communities across the country for their rich culture and their literally incredible resilience. Reconciliation will be a long process, but learning the truth and listening to the stories is powerful. Our modern excesses have caused and continue to cause damage to our society and our environment. Aboriginal communities have a connection to the Earth from which we can learn a lot. The Mi’kmaq Creation Story’s lessons are deep and layered and we would do well as Canadians to listen.

Margaree Vally in Unama’ki

I highly recommend this course and it’s still available for free(!) online. You can register (to let CBU know you’re using this valuable resource) and  access the classes video archive. Perhaps you’ll celebrate NAD with the first class. Or with the first Mi’kmaq language lesson!

How will you celebrate National Aboriginal Day?