History and Origins
The film excerpts in this theme look at the creation myth of the Wendat, the life of the Mi’kmaq before European settlement, the origin of the word “Canada,” and the question of territory under the English and French regimes.
Comments on Excerpts from Our Nationhood
by Georges Emery Sioui, Historian and Traditionalist assisted by Miguel Paul Sioui, Ecologist and Traditionalist
The Mi’kmaq have traditionally lived in the eastern part of Canada (except for Newfoundland), now called the Maritime provinces, and on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River from around Rivière-du-Loup. They also lived in the eastern part of what is now the state of Maine.
The Mi’kmaq have a very rich spiritual and ceremonial life. They trace their Creation story using symbols whose meanings have been passed down by their Elders. They use drawings that represent the Sun, the Moon, lightning, leaves, circles, and, notably, seven crosses representing the seven branches of their Nation.
The vast Mi’kmaq territory was divided into seven districts, each with its own chief. Their national council was headed by a Grand Chief representing all the Mi’kmaq. The position of chief was hereditary, meaning that chiefs were descended from distinct lines and specific clans. The Mi’kmaq had a patrilineal social structure, but their vision of the world, like that of other Aboriginal peoples, was matriarchal, which meant that women held the central place in their Creation story and in their society.
The Mi’kmaq way of life was adapted to the movements of the populations of animals, fish and birds on which they lived, as well as to the seasons for gathering plants, fruits, and medicines obtained from Nature. Because their lives were organized around frequent movement, the Mi’kmaq observed a code of social rules well set out in ancestral customs, and their Chiefs were responsible for making sure those rules were followed.
The Mi’kmaq had a very rich and varied diet: from the forest they took meat from moose, caribou (a Mi’kmaq word), deer, bear and small game; from the sea, they took salmon, halibut, trout, whale, seal, walrus, lobster, crab, and endless shellfish, as well as a wide variety of seabirds such as swans, ducks, geese, puffins and others. The Mi’kmaq, a people with a circular vision of life, recognized that life came from the animals they took and never wasted their animal “relatives”, or hunted and fished for more than they needed in order to live. According to this vision of Nature, it is people who belong to the earth or to a territory, and not the opposite. Each territory was thus occupied and protected by families who “belonged” to it, under the aegis of the Chief of the family group. The lands were handed down from generation to generation.
The great book of the Mi’kmaq was Nature. By observing Nature, they drew lessons that guided their lives. The wisdom thus acquired made them the strong and prosperous people they were. In the spring, by following the rivers to their mouths, the Mi’kmaq returned to the sites of their great summer gatherings. This was the time when the Chiefs held important discussions about hunting, trading, alliances, and wars. It was during the warmest month that families came together and, under the guidance of the Clan Mothers, dealt with all the issues of families and society, planning marriages and numerous ceremonies with the aim of re-establishing harmony in individual hearts and in their larger society. Of course, it was also a time of many great celebrations and festivals.
When the French, the Basques, and other Europeans arrived in their land, the Mi’kmaq were a well-populated and powerful people with a sophisticated civilization that met all their needs. The coming of the Europeans was an enormous disturbance that abruptly ended their prosperous and orderly world. As we can see in the many political and social crises the Mi’kmaq are currently facing, they live on a day to day basis with the harsh consequences of this disturbance, which shook their society to its foundations.
The French explorer Jacques Cartier first dropped anchor in the harbour at Gaspé in July 1534. There he met two groups of First Peoples, one from Stadacona (where Quebec City now stands) and the second from the Gaspé area. Already used to trading furs for European objects, the Mi’kmaq as well as the Stadacona approached the French ships and began to trade. Cartier’s reflection on the scene says a great deal about what happened next in the history of the two peoples: “These people,” the explorer wrote, “would be easy to convert to our Holy Faith.” Before hoisting anchor to return to France, Cartier surreptitiously took the two sons of the Grand Chief of the Stadacona prisoner.
The rest of the story, right up to today, is not a happy one. Europeans continued to arrive in ever greater numbers. Their linear way of thinking caused them to ignore the fact that the First Peoples had a right to life and to respect. In addition, the Europeans unknowingly brought diseases, and the ensuing epidemics were disastrous for the Mi’kmaq population. More than 80 percent of Mi’kmaq people disappeared from their lands. The survivors were cruelly dispossessed of their lands. Even by 1653, many parts of the Gaspé Peninsula, of what would later become Acadia, and of other Mi’kmaq regions had been conceded to French Catholic colonists.
The policy in New France was to reduce the Mi’kmaq to subservience. Missions were set up where the First Peoples had to learn to live under the missionaries’ rule; to find relief from their misery, they had to prove that they were good Catholics. At the same time, the Indians in the missions had to contribute to the commercial activities of the French colony, using their skills as hunters and trappers. The brave Mi’kmaq men were often and for a long time the front line of defence for the French colonists in the very long war between the French and the English that took place on Mi’kmaq soil. Today, the Mi’kmaq occupy only small impoverished reserves on their former land, and are struggling with serious, interrelated problems affecting their economies, societies, and lands. Their relationships with non-Aboriginals, who are not used to having to consider either their presence or their rights, are difficult.
Georges E. Sioui
Georges E. Sioui, Coordinator, Aboriginal Studies Program, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario. Prof. Sioui received both his MA (1987) and his Ph.D. (1991) in History from Laval University. In May 1990, Prof. Sioui and his four brothers obtained a landmark victory in the Supreme Court of Canada (the "Sioui Case") over territorial and traditional land use rights. From 1992 to 1997, Dr. Sioui was associate professor of Indian Studies and Dean of Academics of the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College at the University of Regina. From January 1999 to December 2000, he was president of the Institute of Indigenous Government in Vancouver. During 2003, he was head of research of the Indian Claims Commission in Ottawa. In January 2004, he became the coordinator of the newly created Aboriginal Studies Program at the University of Ottawa. His writings on Indigenous philosophy, history and education have appeared in several journals, magazines and books, continent-wide and abroad.
Miguel Paul Sioui
Miguel Paul Sioui, a Huron-Wendat currently living in Gatineau, Quebec, speaks Spanish, English and French and is initiated in Mandarin Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese. He has attended the Environmental Studies program at the University of Ottawa. During the summer of 2005, he worked for the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa as a research assistant, conducting a study related to Aboriginal youth and youth organizations across Canada. One of Miguel’s talents is storytelling and he was once a special guest of renowned Native storyteller Joe Bruchac at the Pequot Museum in Connecticut. In 2003, he was the recipient of the Hudson’s Bay Company Aboriginal Futures Scholarship for academic achievement and in 2004 and 2005 was awarded a special grant for Excellence in Sports from his First Nation Council. He has travelled in Europe, China, Colombia and Mexico as well as the United States and all regions of Canada.