Hello From Nova Scotia – Learning About Native Heritage at the Bear River First Nation Heritage

About an hour after my departure from Annapolis Royal after a beautiful drive along the shoreline of the Annapolis Basin and through the early fall colours of the Bear River Valley, (also known as “Little Switzerland”. I arrived at the Bear River First Nation Heritage and Cultural Centre. I was greeted by Wanda Joudry-Finigan and Robert (Robbie) McEwan, while Frederick Harlow was manning the cash register. All are members of the Bear River First Nation, and Wanda and Robbie proceeded to celebrate my arrival with a special welcome song.

Wanda explained that the song invites our mutual relatives, grandfathers and ancestors to join us at this occasion. The lobby of the Centre holds various artifacts and a Heritage Gallery that pays homage to current and former Chiefs and Elders of the Bear River First Nation. Wanda pointed out present Chief Frank Meuse Junior who also operates a lodge for adults and youth alike who wish to learn about the Mi’kmaq culture. Another image was of Agnes Potter, a celebrated leader and respected Elder of the Bear River First Nation.

Then I was invited to view a brief movie about Willie Meuse, Frank’s grandfather, shown in footage from the 1930s on the Bear River. The film also highlighted the construction and launching of the first birch bark canoe built since 1927. The launching took place in 2004 and speaks to the importance of the ancestors.

We left the vestibule and entered a large multi-purpose room housing a variety of interpretive displays about the life and history of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. This room is also used for theatre productions, games of sports for the youth, community card parties, holiday feasts and presentations. Frederick joined me and gave me an overview of the birch bark canoe. He explained that the canoe weighs about 90 to 95 pounds and was constructed using authentic historical canoe-building methods used in the area. The canoe is a sea-going canoe, evidenced by the high rise in the middle. Fresh-water canoes do not feature a rise in the middle of the canoe.

The vessel is constructed of various types of wood including ash and birch and the outside is covered with birch bark. Any potential openings in the canoe’s skin are patched up with a mixture of spruce gum and bear grease. Canoes used to be the main form of transportation for the First Nations People and their navigation skills, fishing and hunting knowledge helped the French settlers when they first came to this area in the 1600s. This life-size canoe was made by Todd Labrador and Cory Ryan who is a seventh generation descendent of Malti Pictou, a well-known Bear River Mi’kmaq guide. Before Cory, he was the last person to make a birch bark canoe in the area.

The next exhibit featured a variety of arts and crafts that are produced here using Mi’kmaq artistic traditions. Robbie came over to give me more insight into some of the local arts and crafts. He explained that leather is worked to produce mittens, jackets, dresses, moccasins and other items. Dreamcatchers are an important symbol to the Mi’kmaq. With their intricate web-like design they are hung to catch dreams floating through the night air. There is a saying that dreamcatchers let the good dreams through but protect you from the bad dreams.

Jewellery is made using a variety of glass beads, bone beads as well as imitation sinew. In the past moose tendons were used to produce the pendants and bracelets. Decorated deer and moose hide are available for purchase as well. Robert indicated that he recently made an ornate dress for a native chief in Newfoundland. His artistic skills are evidenced by some of the most impressive pieces of work: Robert showed me a decorative jewellery box that he is currently working on. The box is made of birch bark and porcupine quills, bordered with sweet grass whose scent I was able to smell. He explained that porcupine quills are easily removed from the animal, and they are essentially used to stitch an elaborate design. For each quill a hole is poked and the quill is pulled through. By the time this item is finished, Robert will have invested over 200 hours to produce the elaborate pattern on this decorative box.

Wanda joined us and took me to a display of a wigwam to explain certain rituals and conventions that would be adhered to in First Nations encampments. Visitors would be invited to sit in the most honourable space in the home or wigwam. The same would go for children so they would be able to see everything to the left and to the right of them in order to be able to learn. During winter mats made from rush would be used for insulation against the cold. Baskets were hand- made in order to harvest scallop, clams, or mussels. Each of these particular baskets could hold up to 10 pounds of seafood. Other baskets made from ash were used for potato and apple picking. These baskets were hand-made in large quantities in the 1900s as a major means of economic survival in changing times. Today these baskets are sold as decorative items.

The tipi also features a variety of furs, including lynx, rabbit, mink, red fox and silver fox. During the 1920s and 1930s silver foxes were a real fashion craze in England and many women had a fox fur, complete with head and legs, draped around their necks as a statement of elegance. The fox’ head would be equipped with a clasp so it could be clipped onto the lapel of the lady’s coat.

I learned that the wigwam is made of birch bark. Wigwams were lightweight, which made them easy to move from one location to another and water-resistant. Encampments would be set up near the mouth of rivers, which would provide a plentiful opportunity for food and means of travel. A large part of native diet consisted of fish; the rest was made up of berries, fruits and meats. Often fishing weirs were used for catching eels. Wanda explained that in the last few years about 800 encampments have been found in Nova Scotia with more than 4000 artifacts dating back 2,500 to 4,000 years.

Mi’kmaq hunting traditions included bear traps that were baited with fish. Once the animal was caught, women would remove the guts, the hide and the sinews and carry it back to the camp to prepare it. Excess meat and fat would be scraped off the skin with scraping tools, stones or shells. Wanda informs me that women were very highly respected in First Nations society, as they were life givers. Meals were cooked in a hollowed-out log that held red-hot stones that had been heated over a fire. Water would be poured over the food and the hot stones to cook the meal. Spices were gathered in the forest, and instead of potatoes a plant called the Jerusalem artichoke would be served with the meat. Fish and meat were dried or smoked, and eggs were gathered from marsh birds.

We moved over to a display on Mi’kmaq language and Wanda mentioned that there were 7 Mi’kmaq districts, each with their own chief. The Bear River Reservation is located in a place called “Kespukwik”, meaning “where the water stops flowing”, referring to the Bear River flowing into the Annapolis Basin. Mi’kmaq language is based on action verbs, and pronouns are important indicators of belonging and possession. For instance, the words “mother” or “sister” can never be said by themselves, they always require a pronoun to indicate whose mother we are talking about. The Mi’kmaq words would say “your mother”, “my mother”, or” his/her mother” etc.

At the next display we saw a 1936 picture of Wanda’s great-grandmother, Sarah Fossey who lived until 1961 to the ripe old age of 101. Wanda has fond memories of Sarah who used to bring her grandchildren and great-grandchildren oranges as a special treat. Sarah was captured in a movie from the 1930s that was displayed at the Bear River First Nation Heritage and Cultural Centre. Wanda was overwhelmed when she first saw moving images of her great-grandmother in the movie.

We also discussed life as a Mi’kmaq today. Wanda explained that Mi’kmaq society was matriarchal until the arrival of the first Europeans. In recent years, from the 1920s to the 1990, the government instituted a policy of residential schools where young native children were taken away from their families and taught the “white man’s ways’. This led to a significant loss in culture and heritage, women’s status eroded as a result and Mi’kmaq family structure suffered. The government wanted to force native children to “integrate” into mainstream society and in the process an ancient way of life was destroyed. Siblings were often not allowed to talk to one another and families were torn apart. Many of the native children suffered from mental, physical and sexual abuse in the residential schools. As a result of these policies, today many elders are learning the Mi’kmaq language from the younger generation.

Today there is a counter-trend where young First Nations people are rediscovering their language, culture and heritage. Of the conditions at the Bear River Reservation Wanda says that it is a managed forest and there is no poverty on the reserve, which holds about 100 people. Wanda herself has lived off the reserve for her entire life and has been self-efficient.

Wanda also explained that having “native status” is an important issue in First Nations communities. Native status confers certain benefits in terms of health care, taxation and schooling. Bill C31, introduced in 1985, improved native women’s status in the sense that they could pass native status on to their first generation children, even if the children were from a mixed native/non-native marriage. Men on the other hand can pass on native status indefinitely through the generations, even if they marry a non-native wife. This often creates economic inequality and friction within the same family where one set of cousins could have native status whereas another cousin would not officially be considered native. Even fairly recent legislation prolongs the European tradition of favouring male bloodlines.

Wanda gave me the names of several books that would provide further education about First Nations life and communities and when I said goodbye, she generously gave me two books to read as a present: “L’sitkuk – The Story of the Bear River Mi’kmaw Community” by Darlene Ricker, and “We Were Not Savages – A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations” by Daniel N. Paul, excellent reading material to educate myself further about native culture and history. As a parting gift she gave me a handcrafted medicine pouch that she had made herself, an example of the Mi’kmaq tradition of generosity and peacefulness.

I thanked Wanda and the entire team at the Bear River First Nation Heritage and Cultural Centre for their most interesting introduction to Mi’kmaq heritage and culture and resolved to read these books soon to educate myself. I started driving down the hill and all the people congregated at the local Bear River Band Office waved goodbye to me. It was time for me to continue my drive along the Evangeline Trail to tonight’s final destination: Yarmouth.

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