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Silas Rand on the Mi’kmaq People – Part 2: To Every Thing There is a Season

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Silas Rand on the Mi’kmaq People – Part 2

Rand 2

Mi’kmaq Camp at Pointe de Lévy, ca 1839

From the McCord Museum

This is a repeat of the introduction used for Part 1.

Silas Rand, 1810-1889, was a Baptist who devoted much of his life to missionary work among the Mi’kmaq people of the Maritime Provinces. He is less remembered for this missionary work, however, than for having preserved a record of 19th century Mi’kmaq culture. He mastered the Mi’kmaq language well enough to compile a dictionary, and used this knowledge to advantage.

His evangelical leanings reveal feelings of pity, as he saw it, for the reduced state of the native people and by a strong conviction that they should adopt Protestantism. Today, and for me at least, he is remembered for his cultural work; for his missionary style of writing in English; for his collection of Mi’kmaq legends; and for his views which were remarkably progressive for their time.

Progressive or not, Rand was a man of the 19th Century. Some of the words that he chose are not the ones that we would use today. I have read several period descriptions of native people at that time, and many of them cannot be repeated for their inherent bias and racism. It is shocking to hear Rand refer to some of those attitudes, but it is also inspiring to witness the energy with which he refuted them. Still, his solutions were of-the-time, and were not correct by modern standards. There was an over-reliance upon ‘uplifting’ the Mi’kmaq and too little attention to supporting them along their own paths.

Other readers may find Rand’s work melodramatic. The choice is yours, but, in either case, here is the second of three excerpt from his Short statement of facts relating to the history, manners, customs, language, and literature of the Micmac tribe of Indians, Halifax, 1850. The title of the excerpt is mine.

To Every Thing There is a Season

All the Indians of North America, except the Esquimaux, strikingly resemble each other, in their features, their languages, and their manners and customs. These are, of course, all modified by the approach of civilization. Any treatise on the customs of any of the tribes of Canada, or New England, when they were first discovered, will apply equally to the Micmacs. Our business, at present, is with the existing generation. In many respects they are now different from what they once were. Formerly they dressed in skins, and painted their bodies, adorned themselves with shells, and feathers; used bows and arrows, stone axes, and stone arrow heads; lived chiefly by hunting and fishing; and delighted in war. They have now very extensively changed not only the material of which their clothing is made, but also the fashion; adopting that of their white neighbours. The latter part of this statement is more particularly applicable to the men than to the other sex. They now make baskets, buckets, and barrels, and beg. In some places they till the land on a very limited scale, and dwell in houses. Drunkenness is fearfully prevalent among them; though not so much of late years as formerly; and other vices resulting from the proximity of what we proudly call “civilization;” a civilization which too often seeks its own interest and gratification, regardless of either the temporal or spiritual interests of others; caring for neither soul or body. But while we mourn over some of these changes, there are others which call for different emotions. There are no wars with bordering tribes. No ambitious chieftain gains immortal fame by pursuing for months his enemy, way-laying him, and killing him. The Micmac chief does not reckon among his sakamoundel, or regalia, the scalps of his slaughtered foes: and there are no torturings and burnings of prisoners. Chiefs are, however, duly elected. The Indians assemble on such occasions to give their votes, and anyone who knows any just cause why the candidate should not be elected, is at liberty to state it. Councils too are held, to which ten different tribes, extending from Cape Breton to Western Canada, send their delegates; and they seem to consider the affair as important as it ever was. The mystic dances, too, of the ancient Indians, are not wholly omitted. Part of the ceremonies of their great annual religious festival of St. Ann’s day, consists of the wigubaltimk, and neskouwadijik, the “feast” and “mystic dance” of the sakawachkik, “the Indians of olden times.” At the proper time a chief comes out of a camp and sings a singular tune, and dances a singular step, and is responded to by a singular grunt from the assembled crowd. And they assert that during the ceremony the body of the dancer is impervious to a musket ball; but woe betide the audacious wight who might venture on the experiment of attempting to shoot him.

But we pass to their social habits. In few places are the principles of order, “a place for every thing, and every thing in its place; a time for every thing, and every thing in its time; a station for every one, and every one in his station;” more fully carried out than in the Indian’s wigwam. One unacquainted with their customs, would not suspect this. He looks in upon the beings in human form—“caricatures of humanity,” as he possibly considers them—and everything is so different from his own ideas of order, that he may suppose that all is, in reality, in as much confusion as it appears to him. Little does he suspect that the tittering and chattering, going on among the youthful members of the group are probably at his own expense, occasioned by his apparent ignorance of good breeding. “Well,” said an Indian, who was assisting me in translating Luke 14, “Well, I would like to read that to some of the Scotchmen. I think they might learn a little manners from it.” He referred to verses 7—11, where Our Saviour gives directions for the exercise of humility and courtesy. Paul’s habitation happened to be in the neighborhood of a Scotch settlement; but men of any nation would need some knowledge of Indian etiquette, as well as the “Scotch people” in order to avoid giving offence, or being laughed at, on visiting a wigwam. “When they come to our camps” said he, “they neither know where to go, what to do, nor what to say; and they commence asking questions, ‘what is this? what is this? what is this? We say nothing to them about it; but we speak of their ignorance and ill-manners among ourselves.” “They think us about on a level with the beasts,” he continued, “but in reality an Indian thinks as much of his camp, as the Governor does of his palace.”

In speaking of the customs of domestic life, it may be as well, for the sake of preserving some degree of method, to commence where domestic life commenced, in Paradise at the wedding. According to their traditionary tales, very little ceremony, besides a feast, occurred in ancient times, when a man received his wife. The old people had the disposing of their daughters. If the young man’s suit was favorably received, the father of the girl thus addressed him as he entered the “camp,” “kutakumugual n’tlusuk,” “Come up to the back part of the camp, my son-in-law.” This settled the matter. A feast was then prepared; all the neighbors were invited; they ate and drank; danced; and then engaged in various sports, and finally dispersed. The young man then took his bride home with him. They now, of course, call in the aid of the ceremonies of the Catholic Church.

The wigwam is a curious structure. No little skill is displayed in its erection. The frame is first raised and fastened. The rows of bark are carefully put on. In the winter it is lined on the inside with spruce boughs, and a thick coating of the same material put on the outside, to prevent the cold winds from entering. Boughs are neatly spread down inside “the camp,” forming an admirable substitute for carpets, cushions, and beds; and the doorway, in winter, is also partly closed with them, placed so as to spring back and forth as you pass and repass. A piece of a blanket hangs over the doorway. Every post of the wigwam, every bar, every fastening, every tier of bark, and every appendage, whether for ornament or use, has a name; and all the different portions of the one room, their appropriate designations and uses. The fire occupies the centre. On each side is the kamigwom. There sit, on the one side of the fire, the master and mistress; and, on the other, the old people, when there are old people in the family; and the young women, when there are young women, and no old people. The wife has her place next the door, and by her side sits her lord. You will never see a woman setting above her husband,—for towards the back part of the camp, kutakumuk is up. This is the place of honour. To this place visitors and strangers, when received with a cordial welcome, are invited to come. “Kutakumagual, upchelase” they say to him, “come up toward the back part of the wigwam.”

The children are taught to respect their parents. Many a white family might take a lesson from them in this respect. The rod is applied unsparingly, to tame their rebellious spirits, and teach them “good manners.” They do not speak disrespectfully of their parents. The ordinary word for being drunk, katheet, a child will not use when stating that his father or mother is in that state; but he says welopskeet, a much softer term—though it is not easy to express the difference in English. They do not pass between their parents and the fire, unless there are old people, or strangers, on the opposite side.

The inmates of the “camp” have their appropriate postures as well as places. The men sit cross-legged, like the Orientals. The women sit with their feet twisted round to one side, one under the other. The younger children sit with their feet extended in front. To each of these postures an appropriate word is applied. The first is chenumubasi, I sit down man-fashion, i.e., cross-legged. The second is, mimskulugunabase, I sit down with my legs twisted around. The third is, sokwodabase, I sit with my feet extended.

When a stranger, even a neighbor, comes into the wigwam of another, if it be in the day time, he steps in and salutes them. “Kwa” is the usual word of salutation, resembling both in sound and signification the Greek salutation kaire!, hail! Should it be in the night or evening, this is uttered while standing outside. In that case the response is, “Kwa wenin kcl”,Who art thou? You give your name. And if they know you, and are glad to see you, you are invited in at once. If they either know you not, or care not for you, they again ask, “Kogwa pawotumun” What is your wish? You must then, of course, do your errand, and go about your business. When you enter, in the day time, you will not  “go and sit down in the highest room,” or the “most honorable seat,”—that is to say, if you are a well-bred Indian, you will not; but you will make a pause at the lowest place, the place next the door. The master of the camp will then say to you, “upchelase,” come up higher. It was this striking coincidence between their notions of politeness, and the instructions of Our Saviour in Luke XIV that led my friend Paul to utter his amusing observations, respecting the rudeness of his white neighbors, “the Scotchmen.” As soon as the visitor is seated, the head man of the “camp” deliberately fills his pipe; lights it; draws a few whiffs, and then hands it to the other. If there be several, they pass it round. Conversation goes forward. All the new and strange things, are enquired after, and related, and the greatest respect is mutually shown. When the business of eating is going forward, all who are in the wigwam assist. To withdraw during the process of cooking, would be rudeness. It would be a most disreputable thing not to invite a stranger to partake; it would be a grievous offence for him to refuse. There are usually a crowd of neighbours in every “camp” at meal time, when it is known that there is food there; and what there is, is divided among the whole. It may require a visit to several “camps” in succession, to obtain a full meal. I have reason to believe that this hospitality is more the result of custom than any extraordinary generosity. Measures are sometimes adopted to evade it; and they do not hesitate to say they are tired of it, when it has been exacted beyond due bounds.

The women are still accounted as inferiors. They maintain a respectful reserve in their words when their husbands are present. “When Indian make bargain, squaw never speakum.” Thus was a merchant’s lady once coolly, but pointedly, reproved, by an indignant son of the forest, when she objected to her husband’s giving him his full price for his feathers. She sometimes heard the remark afterwards from a quarter nearer home, perhaps to her profit. The Indian woman never walks before her husband, when they travel. The men at table, are helped first. When one comes into your house for a cup of water, he drinks first himself, and hands it next to the other man, and last of all to the woman. When she is passing from one part of the wigwam or canoe to another, however crowded it may be, she must not step over a man’s feet. Such a “step” would be deemed the grossest insult, and would probably be avenged by such an application of his foot as would send her reeling, and teach her to be more careful in future, nor must she ever step across his fish spear. His mechanical implements, of whatever kind, and whatever work he may be making, are all as important in this respect as his feet. A woman must never step across them. “Take up your feet,” she will say to him when she wishes to pass; or, “take up your spear,” or “your work,” if she cannot well get round them. This he does, and she goes on.

The Indian is lazy, and improvident. He cannot understand the necessity of laying up a supply for the future. While he has the means he lives like a prince; and when he has it not he does without. He can bear hunger and cold, and neglect, without repining. But he had much rather be well-fed, and warm, and kindly treated. I have not discovered a word in the language either for patience or impatience. A Frenchman, who speaks Micmac well, and English better, assured me that there are no such terms in the language, and that an Indian never “gets out of patience,”’ and is never anxious about the future. He often appears stupid, and vacant, when it arises merely from his not understanding you. Could you address him in his own tongue, you would see his countenance light up, and find that he has an eye that can flash, a heart that can beat, and a soul that can be stirred. He loves excitement. Hence his inveterate fondness for tobacco, tea, and what is infinitely worse, strong drinks. An exciting employment rouses him. However he may dislike chopping wood and hoeing potatoes, he has no objection to the chase. He makes buckets and baskets, and carries them to town on his own back, because he must do so or starve. But let a shoal of porpoises heave in sight, and then see him. All other business is suspended. The women and children line the bank. The men gird on their belts, overhaul their guns, get ready their ammunition, launch their canoes, and away, away, with the speed of an arrow, towards the scene of attraction. The very dogs catch the enthusiasm, and amidst the din of women’s voices, and children’s shouts, they yelp and howl in most melodious conceit. And what if they kill nothing! They do not in that case return cursing their stars, and uttering imprecations against the fish or themselves for having had their run for nothing. Not they. Canoe after canoe returns. The women are again at their work; the children at their play; the dogs lie down in the camp and snore; the men light their pipes; and you go quietly home. Such a scene I lately witnessed at the Strait of Canso; and I would not for a trifle have missed it.

And they can be moved on other occasions. They can raise their voices in anger. They can describe an exciting scene, with every muscle in motion, and with gesticulation so perfect, that you would scarcely need to understand their language, in order to know what they are telling. And the Indian mother loves her babe, nurses it as carefully, and cherishes it as fondly, as any mother; and weeps as bitterly when it dies. And so does the father. “He will kiss his little daughter, and sing to her, as she presses her tiny lips to his “uktunchecju,” your dear little mouth,” with all the affection imaginable. And his little son comes bounding to meet him when he returns home, climbs over his head, and hangs upon him; and both father and son appear to enjoy it, for all I can see, as much as those of any other nation or rank. And I have been affected in hearing a sick Indian refer to the hardships his poor wife had to suffer, during a severe winter, while he was unable to do anything himself, and she had been obliged to cut the wood, and travel through the deep snow, until she was “suel nepk,” “almost dead.” And I was still more affected when his aged, widowed mother, related to me, after his death how feelingly he had referred, in his last moments, while taking an affectionate farewell of his little ones, to my kindness, as he called it, in visiting them, and interesting myself in their behalf. Poor fellow. May God Almighty take care of the little orphans and bless them! Here may be mentioned their exercises of devotion. They regularly say their prayers; attend mass; go to confession, and cross themselves. Every morning and evening, and on Sundays and Holidays, they assemble in their Chapel, when residing in its neighborhood, or in the wigwams, when far away from the Chapel, and perform their devotions. One person is appointed to lead. They are summoned at the proper hour, by an individual shouting at the top of his voice, and calling them to come to prayers. The greater part of the service is sung, or rather, chanted. They have tenor, bass, and treble voices; and, save and except a most disagreeable “nasal twang,” their singing is not unmelodious. They sing responsively, each part chiming in at the proper time. They shift their position several times during the performance, which lasts for nearly an hour; at one time, sitting on their heels and holding up their heads; at another, bending forwards; and they conclude with an act of prostration, bending forward, and touching their foreheads to the ground. Then, if in the Chapel, they “bow to the graven images,” or pictures, and slowly retire. And they also repeat their private devotions, and cross themselves before retiring to rest at night, and immediately after rising in the morning. They always take off their hats and cross themselves when they eat. In their prayers there are many repetitions. They address the Trinity; and call on Jesus (Sasus) to have mercy upon them; they invoke the Virgin Mary, and the Saints; repeat the Creed and portions of the Commandments, and say the Lord’s Prayer. They have also Psalms and Hymns, and parts of Scripture history. “And could you tell them this,” said a young Indian, who was assisting me in translating portions of the New Testament, “I think they would attend to it; for as far as they know, they do.” And my young friend proposed it, as a capital plan, that I should translate the Gospel into Micmac, and tell them that the Bishop had done it, so that they would receive it without hesitation. “And do you think,” said I to another, “that were I to preach in your language, the Indians would come to hear me.” “Come?” said he, “to be sure we would; we would come a hundred miles to hear you.”


Written by johnwood1946

December 23, 2015 at 9:38 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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