Grandmothers, Guns, and Smith’s Generall Historie

In Chapter 8 of John Smith’s A Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, Wahunsenaca (or Powhatan) repeatedly asks Smith to disarm himself and to leave his guns on his boat when he comes to visit Werowocomoco. 

Earlier in this story, as I’ve written about elsewhere, Smith had been adopted into the Powhatan nation and made Werowance of Capahowosick, a fishing village. There is no evidence to suggest that Smith so much as visited Capahowosick; instead, he remained stubbornly based in Jamestown, a poor land for agriculture that was surrounded by brackish water, and he continued to show up on Wahunsenaca’s doorstep, requesting (and receiving) provisions, such as turkey, venison, and corn.  

By Chapter 8, Wahunsenaca has grown tired of this arrangement. He is annoyed with Smith for refusing to take up his citizenship obligations. He wants to know why Smith hasn’t been fishing, why he hasn’t moved the English to Capahowosick, and why he isn’t contributing to the network that, at this time, sustained all the Powhatans. Smith is taking and taking from the network but refusing to contribute – and the English are still unwilling to put down their guns. 

To Wahunsenaca’s first request, in this chapter, that the English give up their weapons, Smith responds, “As for swords and gunnes, I told you long agoe I had none to spare; and you must know those I have can keep me from want.” 

Wahunsenaca did indeed know that the English used their weapons to get food. According to Mattaponi oral history, Smith and his colleagues were infamous throughout Tsenacomoca for their habit of showing up unannounced in villages, holding their guns to the heads of the villagers, and demanding provisions. And so he replies to Smith, there is no need for your guns; we are all Powhatans here. “Many doe inform me,” he says, “your comming hither is . . . to invade my people, and possesse my Country. . . . To free us of this feare, leave aboard your weapons, for here they are needlesse, we being all friends, and for ever Powhatans.” 

This debate culminates in Wahunsenaca’s beautiful, famous speech – 

What will it availe you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food. What can you get by warre, when we can hide our provisions and fly to the woods? whereby you must famish by wrongdoing us your friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us unarmed . . . and are willing still to feede you, with that you cannot get but by our labours? Thinke you I am so simple, not to know it is better to eate good meate, lye well, and sleepe quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you . . . then be forced to flie from all, to lie cold in the woods, feede upon Acorns, rootes, and such trash, and be so hunted by you, that I can neither rest, eate, nor sleepe; but my tyred men must watch, and if a twig but breake, every one cryeth there commeth Captaine Smith; then must I fly I know not whether; and thus with miserable feare, end my miserable life, leaving my pleasures to such youths as you, which through your rash unadvisednesse may quickly as miserably end, for want of that, you never know where to finde. Let this therefore assure you of our loves, and every yeare our friendly trade shall furnish you with Corne; and now also, if you would come in friendly manner to see us and not thus with your guns and swords as in to invade your foes. 

Here, in what is among the most important moments from this text, Smith refuses Washunsenaca’s powerful vision of their relationship and of a balanced future. He shrugs off Wahunsenaca’s assertion that the Powhatans need not die for the English to live. He rebuffs the Powhatans’ generous and unwavering extension of peace and friendship. And he disingenuously disavows the violence that would logically render both of their lives woefully unsustainable. “Had we intended you any hurt,” Smith arrogantly replies, “long ere this we could have effected it. . . . [We] wear our armes as our apparell.” 

Once more, Wahunsenaca refuses to back down, insisting, “If you intend so friendly as you say, send hence your arms, that I may beleeve you.” 

What happens next in the text is important.  

Smith decides that Wahunsenaca wants to “cut his throat.” Against all evidence to the contrary, he describes the other Powhatans as suddenly “brusting with desire to have the head of Captaine Smith.” He is so deeply unsettled by Wahunsenaca’s steadfast refusal to accept English weapons as natural part of their relationship that he believes his life is in danger. 

None of this is true or even otherwise supported by Smith’s description of events. There is ice in the Pamunkey river, and so the English are forced to stay the night in Werowocomoco. At this famous juncture of the text, Smith claims that Pocahontas visits him, in secret, to betray her father and to rescue the English colonial endeavour for a second time, this time warning Smith that he should immediately flee the village before he is violently killed. [Contexts provided in Mattaponi oral history all but confirm that this meeting didn’t happen.] As the night advances, Smith is overcome by fear and paranoia. When “eight or ten” Powhatans visit with evening refreshments, Smith makes them “taste every dish” to ensure the food has not been poisoned – which they do, quite happily, before returning to their own beds, oblivious to Smith’s violent state of mind. In the morning, despite Smith’s continued perception of danger, no one stops the English from getting onto their boats and sailing away. In fact, the Powhatans carry baskets of corn onto the boats to help. 

I recently taught a portion of this text in an Atlantic World class and found this chapter to be a productive entry point into a larger discussion about guns, policing, and the historical problem of Settler / Indigenous power dynamics in moments of tension. When Smith is told, repeatedly, to disarm – to demonstrate his supposedly peaceful intentions by removing weapons from his relationship with the Powhatans – he responds as though violence has been done to him. In other words, when his relationship to an important source of personal power and security is challenged, he feels he has been threatened when he hasn’t. He becomes fearful and paranoid. He imagines himself into a context of imminent danger and conflict, and his feelings within this context render him immediately dangerous to the Powhatans, who remain oblivious and therefore vulnerable to his panic. 

My thinking on this issue crystallized over the course of the last few weeks as the Wolastoqewi grandmothers have been subject to repeated police checks in Officer’s Square, where they are sitting with their ancestors, asserting stewardship over artefacts that were found during an excavation. During these checks, the grandmothers have been approached by city police wearing flack jackets and carrying mace and sidearms. Four officers have taken four police cars to the square to make themselves seem as large and as menacing as possible. Sometimes the officers will fan out to surround the grandmothers and to ensure they can’t all be seen.

The grandmothers themselves are often in ceremony and are in the process of asserting their sovereignty — practices that have always been “unsettling” for Canadians.

If we can accept that Indigenous sovereignty has always been a “problem” for Canada and for Canadian law, that it’s capable of “unsettling” Canadians – and that people, when unsettled, sometimes feel threatened and react with violence – then we must immediately remove weapons from these encounters. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that guns are a natural part of our apparel. They are not. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that showing up with a gun is not an already violent act. It is a violent act.

Settlers have been bringing guns into nation-to-nation encounters with Indigenous people since the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. 413 years after John Smith showed us how this violence can escalate without any offence or sign of aggression from Indigenous people, we need to ask why the city of Fredericton is using armed police to perform diplomatic work that they are neither trained nor authorized to perform. And if this inherently aggressive behaviour does not reflect our collective values, then we need to do something about it.

Seeing The Brothers

On Kennebecasis Drive in Saint John, New Brunswick, between Millidge Avenue and the Summerville Ferry, there is an area where motorists are invited to stop and take a picture. This “‘Fundy City’ Photo Spot” is sponsored by the nearby Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club.

The area is a bit overgrown, and it’s actually rather challenging to get a good view of the river from this vantage. But if you could see behind this sign and through the trees, you’d see not only the area of the Kennebecasis River that the yacht club calls “Brother’s Cove” but also the islands that comprise what is, according to federal and provincial records, “The Brothers Indian Reserve No. 18.”

Sunset over Indian Island and Goat Island with some boats in the foreground

I haven’t met many people in Saint John who are aware that there is reserve land in the city — likely because the islands are not home to a year-round or permanent settlement — but in 1905, when a local lawyer attempted to acquire a piece of one of the islands for settlement, the “Secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs J.D. McLean replied that the Maliseets never surrendered their rights to Indian Island and, therefore, the department was ‘not in a position to consider the question of application for lease.'”1 Today the land is plainly identified on both historical and Google maps as a reserve, and there is ample evidence that Wolastoqi people were using the islands seasonally and traditionally as late as the 1970s.

The Daily Gleaner, August 1, 1970

In Wolastoqiyik Ajemseg, community members from Sitansisk/St. Mary’s First Nation, including Pat Laporte, Tina Brooks, and Richard Polchies, Jr., describe camping on The Brothers in the 1960’s and 70’s — often in groups and with children, and sometimes for the purpose of harvesting timber.

The names of the islands vary from map to map, but I will follow Micah Pawling in identifying them as Indian Island, Goat Island, and Burnt Island.2 Pawling’s excellent essay about the lower Wolastoq River Valley contains an illuminating section about The Brothers that draws from correspondence and records kept by commissioner of Indian affairs, Moses Perley. In 1841, Perley described houses and potato fields on what Pawling surmises was likely Burnt Island, which was inhabited by families who fished, hunted, and harvested in the area, selling some of their wares at the Saint John City Market.

Burnt Island from the Summerville Ferry landing

There are likely numerous reasons why use of The Brothers declined over time. Pawling explains how the nineteenth century communities were affected by illnesses and, in 1848, by a devastating smallpox outbreak. And while the islands were still being used for seasonal camping in the mid twentieth century, Polchies, Jr. tells the story of an important dwelling structure that was burned down by settlers in the 1960’s.3 I can’t help but feel that we should explore rebuilding this structure now, if it is wanted.

Today there is no mention of The Brothers on the Royal Kennebecasis Yacht Club’s web page dedicated to the club’s history. And yet they incredibly, and almost certainly unknowingly, have cannons pointed at the islands:

RKYC cannons pointed at The Brothers

However unintended the imagery, I was struck this evening by this vision of conflict and aggression — by the fact that we have guns pointed at the only land in the city that we settlers still recognize, on paper, as Wolastoqey land — and by the almost perfect way in which this captures our continued marginalization and suppression of Indigenous history in this city.


1 Micah Pawling (2017). “Wəlastəkwey (Maliseet) Homeland: Waterscapes and Continuity within the Lower St. John River Valley, 1784-1900.” Acadiensis, 46(2). Page 33. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/Acadiensis/article/view/25946

2 Confusion over the names of these islands today is at least partly due to the fact that there are two islands identified as Goat Island in close proximity in Saint John. The other “Goat Island,” likely about a kilometre away, sits at the mouth of the Wolastoq River in the area known as Reversing Falls or Reversing Rapids:

3 Karen Perley and Susan Blair, editors (2003). Wolastoqiyik Ajemseg: The People of the Beautiful River at Jemseg. Fredericton: Archaeological Services, Heritage Branch. Page 39. Retrieved from https://www.nbwomenscouncil.ca/content/dam/gnb/Departments/thc-tpc/pdf/Arch/MIA34English.pdf

Research Notes: An order of Saint John common council (February 6, 1936)

My partner is a criminal defence lawyer, and when we recently came across this Saint John common council ordinance from 1936 — which authorizes an investigation into the “false arrest of Mary Boyd by City Police” — we were curious about the circumstances and wanted to know more.

This was a significant political scandal, so there is actually a lot of information about Boyd’s arrest in newspapers from this period. In 1936, she was a seventeen year old girl from Belyea’s Cove who had been arrested and briefly incarcerated, on the recommendation of her aunt, in the House of the Good Shepherd on Waterloo Street in Saint John. The House of the Good Shepherd (also called “Home of the Good Shepherd” and “Good Shepherd Reformatory and Industrial Refuge Laundry”) was one of the many secretive Magdalene laundries that operated in cities throughout North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These institutions were established in Canada in 1844.

We found one image of the building, but after several passes up and down Waterloo Street, we have to assume this was at some point demolished. We have been unable to find a more specific address, but someone with a longer memory of 20th century Saint John might know where this was.

Source: William Higgins and Peter McGahan, The Saint John Police Story: The Slader Years, 1930-1941. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1993. p. 59

Mary Boyd served three days of a two year “sentence” before her father found out what had happened, traveled to Saint John, and hired a lawyer. The civil suit that the family subsequently filed against the city hinged on several questions, including the legality of actions taken by the arresting officers and whether Mary’s aunt had her father’s approval in seeking Mary’s committal. Edward Walsh’s investigation into this matter, which was authorized by common council on February 6, lead to the termination of Police Matron Annie Adams, Detective A. Earle McBrien, and Police Chief Edward Slader.

Source: Telegraph Journal, March 20, 1936

Source: The Daily Gleaner, April 8, 1936

In his initial report, Walsh wrote,

The House of the Good Shepherd comes under the Penitentiary Act and no Protestant girl can be committed to the home. Even Roman Catholic girls have to have their case examined before a Magistrate before being committed to this institution.

I look upon the action of these police officers as a very serious matter. If it had not been for Mrs. Alexander Day reporting this case, this innocent girl would have suffered imprisonment for at least two years.

The evidence discloses that these two police officers violated one of the principles of the Magna Charter which we as British people hold very dear; that is, that no citizen can be placed in imprisonment without a proper hearing and being committed by the proper official. (qtd. in Higgins and McGahan, p. 60).

As mentioned above, there is a lot of information available about Mary’s case, including multiple archived court cases and lengthy newspaper articles. But as I read more about this scandal and investigation, what struck me most were not the ins and outs of Mary’s specific case but rather the implications of Walsh’s other findings. In August of 1936, he warned council of a larger, systematic problem, noting that other girls were being improperly or illegally committed to the House of the Good Shepherd.

Source: Telegraph Journal, August 28, 1936

We must wonder, then, how many women and girls were improperly detained, and what might have become of those who, once incarcerated, had no people to come for them and no means to hire legal representation or advocacy.

This question is addressed in a new book about these institutions by Rie Croll from the Memorial University Greenfell Campus. In Shaped by Silence: Stories from Inmates of the Good Shepherd Laundries and Reformatories (St. John’s: ISER Books, 2019), Croll interviews women from Ireland, Australia, and Canada whose lives were effectively shaped by their periods of detention in Magdalene laundries. Chapter One tells the story of Chaparral Bowman (nee Georgina Williams) who was born in the House of the Good Shepherd in Saint John to an incarcerated woman named Delcina who may have been Wolastoqi. Chapparal spent the first eighteen years of her life in the institution and sued the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the 1990’s.

Croll describes the House of the Good Shepherd as “a thriving and lucrative laundry business, so successful that it posed a threat to similar Saint John businesses” (p. 56). Using newspaper records, she cites a long history of public lobbying against the institution that failed to reform exploitative business practices. In 1896, for example, one business owner complained that “‘Any girl could be sent to the convent from any part of the province, either by her father or guardian if he found he could not control her. Then the sisters had the benefit of her labour'” (qtd. in Croll, p. 56). Chapparal maintains that her mother “committed no crime” and yet was detained in the laundry service “until she was no longer able to work.”

Notably, it was requested that the “Reformatory of the Good Shepherd” in Saint John be added to the list of Canadian residential schools recognized by the “Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.” It is widely accepted that there were no residential schools within the borders of what is currently New Brunswick. The request to add the House of the Good Shepherd was assessed against “Article 12” in the Settlement Agreement and refused on the basis that the institution was provincially, rather than federally, operated.

Research Notes: New Brunswick correspondence on birch bark (early 20th century)

Back in early June, I published a research note on a poem written on birch bark. In an update to that note, I indicated that Peter Larocque at the New Brunswick Museum had e-mailed to suggest that the poem’s author, “Argole,” was probably Arthur Gordon Leavitt, one of the founders of Camp Nature in Nerepis — “ARGOLE is most likely an acronym using the first two letters of each of his names.” I agree that this seems likely, and I was very grateful to receive Peter’s message. I sincerely appreciated all of the information that was sent to me after that note was published.

Because I am currently interested in any and all regional writings on birch bark, I returned yesterday to Loyalist City Coin and asked Donnie, Ross, and Doreen at the counter if they were aware of any other such writings in the store. A binder of novelty postcards contained the following items:

Document 1 (3 images)

Three pages of bark are bound with two pieces of string. “Canada Post Card” is written at the top of the first page in pencil beside a sketched postage stamp. The document is addressed to “Miss M. Lizzie Muir, Hatfield’s Point, Kings Co., N.B.” The second page includes sketched flowers, a bird carrying a note, and the words “A Message With best Wishes for Many Happy Birthdays” written inside overlapping hearts. The final page is dated “Feb. 15th 1907.” A poem reads:

Dear Lizzie,

May you be happy,

Of sin be afraid,

But for “gracious sake” Lizzie,

Don’t be an “old maid.”

Mrs. M.P. Ogilvie


Document 2 (2 images)

One sheet of bark; on the front, “Canadian Post Card” is written in blue ink beside a 1 cent postage stamp. The bark has been damaged, so the addressee is unclear, but quite possibly it is the same as above, since “Hatfield’s Point, Kings Co., N.B.” is legible. A postmark appears to date this document March 23, 07 and shows the word “Ogilvie,” which matches the surname of the author from Document 1. The back of the postcard features a sketched flower and text that, save a few scattered words, is very difficult to read. The black ink text includes the words “you send me a mag-nifying glass in the mail.” In blue ink, the words at the very bottom of the page read, “Later accounts. Please send a Hindoo Interpreter.”


Document 3 (2 images)

A poem addressed to “Miss Bertie J. Darrah” of “Chipman, Queen’s Co. N.B.”:

“Well is the man who has old clothes

And has a wife to mend them

But better still he has old “doughs”

And has a heart to spend them.”


Document 4 (2 images)

Numerous thin sheets of bark are adhered together. One side reads, “Souvenir of Rattlesnake Lake Winnipesaukee New Hampshire;” the other begins,

August 20th 1913

90 Sheridan St

Lakeport NH

Dear Lizzie,

I am sending you a souvenir, taken from Rattel Snake Island on the wonderfull Lake Winnipesaukee that which has as many islands as their are days in the year & this one is uninhabited [?] of the Rattle Snaks so I [?] curious to go on it & Brother took us to see it, he also took us to see the great wreck on the shore of the Lake & I walked through 2 of the cars and sat down on the 2nd one so got a piece of the splintered car for [?] . . .


I found record of a Mary Elizabeth Muir, born in 1894, in the Provincial Archives’ Vital Statistics database, and I believe this is likely the “Lizzie” addressed in these notes. My best guess is that the author, “Mrs. M.P. Ogilvie,” is Lucy Anne King, who married Malcolm Peter Ogilvie in Kings County in 1901. Malcolm died of “Consumption” in 1908 at the age of 32 — after Documents 1 & 2 but before Document 4. They had four children.

Another postcard that I came across, featuring imagery from the 1904 “Champlain Celebration” in Saint John, might suggest that dropping pieces of birch bark into the mail was more commonplace than we remember.

Relating/Related

Content warning: mental illness; suicide

In 1877, Mary Huestis Pengilly and her husband, Robert, lost their home and business in the Great Fire of Saint John. They had five sons and one daughter. The couple separated soon after, and Mary moved to Lowell, Massachusetts with her daughter, Clara, who died in 1882 at the age of 12. In 1883, several of Mary’s sons had her committed to a Saint John-area psychiatric hospital.

For six months, Mary kept her Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (1885), recording her neglect and mistreatment at the hands of institutional doctors and staff while unwillingly inhabiting the asylum in the parish of Lancaster, now west Saint John. The diary is also a plea, in the end, to “the ladies” of New Brunswick, those who might better “understand the weakness or the misfortunes” that brought women like Mary “under the necessity of being protected by the public” (25). By capturing the attention and sympathy of her “fellow-sisters,” Mary believed she could rally enough concern to reach the Governor and to reform the asylum’s Board of Commissioners.

Image: source

It’s easy to relate to Mary’s needs for warmth, kindness, rest, and nourishing food, which are consistent across this text, reflecting the essential structural failures of a system and a society that either could not or would not provide her with the support or comfort she required in the wake of such rupture and loss. One of the primary villains of the narrative is medical superintendent James T. Steeves — who may or may not have gifted a straitjacket to Henry Houdini in 1896, providing “an essential prop in Houdini’s popular escape routines” (See Mike Wong, “Centracare: A History,” 16). From Mary’s perspective, Steeves is a jailer who assures her sons that she is “a lunatic” while quietly warning her, in other moments, that patients who leave the hospital “hang [themselves]” (12, 22).

As a reader, I can relate to Mary, but as a human being, I am related to Steeves. He is my cousin, connected to me through my father and through the family descended from Heinrich and Regina Steif, who crossed the Atlantic in the mid eighteenth-century and settled, eventually, in Sikniktuk, Mi’kma’ki. This is a useful distinction: I cannot relate to Steeves here, but I am related to him. And because of my relation to Steeves, which remains indifferent to my unwillingness or inability to relate to him, I can’t read Mary’s narrative as I might be tempted to otherwise. Certainly, it would be easier to allow my revulsion for a bad actor to isolate that figure outside of the relational framework that I construct while reading. Instead, while I relate to Mary and her suffering, I also feel a kind of responsibility for her narrative.

I am still working through my relationship to this text and to this history. But as I prepare several new classes for the fall, I am thinking about how this principle might apply in other contexts. What does it mean, for example, when a Settler reads a residential school narrative and relates only to the children and the Indigenous families? I see this kind of failure in self reflection everywhere, in and outside of academia — and so how do we want non-Indigenous students to understand their own relationship to such narratives, and how might we help lead them there? What does it mean when a white person relates to a Black man murdered by police without ever pondering their relationship to the violent act? ‘

Can we ever be changed or transformed if the bad actors that we encounter are continuously cast outside of our relational frameworks? I am not talking about finding the humanity or the complexity in history’s or society’s bad actors. We do not need to relate to their ugliness, but we need ways to understand and explore how we may be related to it.

Research Notes: “‘Camp Nature’ Nerepis, N.B.” (poem on birch bark, 1900)

Loyalist City Coin in uptown Saint John is a great place to find regional materials long out of print, and last week I spent over an hour flipping through their document bins, pulling out whatever I thought might be of interest to friends and family. For myself, I was delighted to find Joleen Gordon’s book on Edith Clayton’s market baskets, which I hoarded from the UNB library for most of the duration of my PhD, perennially hoping for the time and opportunity to write something about splintwood basketry as an important literary tradition in Nova Scotia.

This poem, written on birch bark and dated August 7, 1900, also stood out to me.

1900 Aug. 7 “Camp Nature” Nerepis N.B.

We sit and look each other at
And feel that we could fly
Because we’re content and all that
Just having done blueberry pie

Mrs. McKenzie kind and good
Some luscious pies did make
And sent to “Camp Nature” in wood
One that just simply took the cake

As long as Mrs. Mack’s on earth
May she be blest with all that’s good
‘Tis wished of Pies there’ll ne’er be dearth
By those in “Camp Nature” in wood.

“Argole”

Provincial, county, university, and museum archives remain closed at this time, and so the amount of digging I’ve been able to do into the various contexts for this document remains limited. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Google search for “McKenzie+Nerepis+Pie” was fruitless.

In an essay from The Creative City of Saint John, Donald McAlpine describes Camp Nature as a “summer retreat” on the Nerepis River that “was built between 1899 and 1902 by William McIntosh and Gordon Leavitt on property owned by McIntosh. The camp was the site of Natural History Society of New Brunswick outings, and both McIntosh and Leavitt pursued entomological activity in the surrounding area, Leavitt collecting species of sawflies new to science” (38). We know that Settlers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sometimes wrote on birch bark: in 1862, for example, Alex Monro prepared the table of contents for his Native Woods of New Brunswick: – 76 Specimens on bark; and in the 1940s, some soldiers wrote letters home on bark, generally making use of whatever materials were available to them.

Image source: Rodney Arthur Savidge Milham Lecture, March 22, 2000. Link

If it is likely, then, that the date of 1900 on the poem is accurate, and that it was written by someone either summering or visiting at Camp Nature in Nerepis, then other Nerepis (or Nalihpick/N’welihpick, meaning “the place where I eat well”) contexts may be relevant. Micah Pawling has written about seasonal camps throughout the Wolastoqey homeland, and he cites the camp at at the confluence of the Nerepis and Wolastoq rivers as one of many instances in which, after the establishment of reserve lands, Wolastoqi people maintained connections with the southern river valley.

Image source: Micah Pawling, “Wəlastəkwey (Maliseet) Homeland:
Waterscapes and Continuity within the Lower St. John River Valley, 1784-1900
,” Acadiensis 46.2 (2017) Link

Anne Sacobie, who lived at St. Mary’s, is but one person who is said to have returned to the camp at Nerepis, along with other camps throughout the southern Wolastoqey homeland, for many years. The following image of her at Evandale is featured on an historical display midway across the Nerepis bridge, which I drove out to examine shortly after finding the poem:

Image source: Link

The Wolastoqey camp at Nerepis was active until the 1970’s. Its inhabitants would harvest fiddleheads, ash, and sweetgrass, trap muskrat, fish, and sell or trade materials with other local residents. I do not yet know to what degree the populations from Camp Nature and the Wolastoqey camp might have socialized, but it would not surprise me to learn that the inhabitants of the former benefited — in terms of both materials and information — from the proximity of the latter. At this point in my inquiry, all I can do is speculate, which is not especially useful.

When I first saw this poem in the bin, I immediately intellectually placed it in the tradition of awikhiganak, the writings on birch bark that predate European literary systems in this land. For the Wolastoqiyik, awikhigan had many uses, but one was to communicate survival information, including information about where to find food. I love this poem — about how to stave off blueberry pie scarcity — as an awikhigan, and I am pondering the degree to which this context remains intact and relevant whether it was penned by a Wolastoqi person or not.

Because there is a possibility, however small, that this poem was written by a Wolastoqi person, I am sharing this information early in the research process. It feels ethically ambiguous to keep it to myself, and certainly, if there is any chance that this is a piece of Wolastoqiyik material culture, then I would like to return it to a citizen of that nation as soon as possible. Please e-mail me at rbryant@dal.ca (or send me a message wherever we may be connected) if you have any thoughts or concerns about this aspect of the project.

If, as I currently suspect, the poem was written by a Settler, I am interested to pursue the questions of how Settler and Indigenous communities related to each other in Nerepis at the turn of the 20th century, and in what spirit Settlers in this region, including Monro and others, have participated in the tradition of awikhiganak.

Update: Shortly after publishing this note, I was grateful to hear from Peter Larocque at the New Brunswick Museum: “Just saw your research note regarding Camp Nature. I am not completely certain, but almost convinced that the author, Argole, is one of Camp Nature’s founders, Arthur Gordon Leavitt. ARGOLE is most likely an acronym using the first two letters of each of his names.”

Remembering Each Other

My children are young, and I am responsible for remembering their lives – from the elaborate baby books to the time my three-year old, now six, identified the contents of a ground beef package at the grocery store as meat noodles.

If I don’t record these moments, these milestones, they will dissipate like dandelion spores. There will never be another source for this information. Nobody will ever know these dandelions like I do. Google baby book guilt – it’s a whole thing, this feeling that their childhoods are slipping away unrecorded, this fear that I will, as a parent, be someday held to account over my handling of these details. When did I first wave? my third-born adult child will demand, sadness and accusation in his eyes. How big was my head?

There are apps that will text me specific questions about my children, recording the answers for posterity so that even if I forget, even when I’m too busy, the archiving process will continue. What is [Child A’s] favourite bedtime story? Does [Child B] collect anything? These companies will turn my answers into books and keepsakes if I pay them enough, but what I use instead are large, grey Rubbermaid totes, stacked in a tower in the basement and filled with the material fragments of my children’s lives, from NICU wires and hospital bracelets to locks of hair, post-its with scrawled measurements from doctor’s appointments, daycare crafts, gifts, awards, handprints. If these fragments can someday become offerings then I might, in the end, be found worthy.

What will our children remember about this time? Home for weeks or months, cut off from friends and grandparents, suddenly barred from the beach but allowed on the iPad. Will they remember the cracks in us – our sadness, our fear? What will we remember for them, and what will we forget?

Look for the helpers, we have learned to say, invoking Fred Rogers’s famous words to divert children’s attention away from the horrors on the news and back to goodness and security. There are helpers in every tragedy, we know, so focus on them. But the people who were killed in Nova Scotia last week were the helpers – the nurses, the front line workers leaving their families behind to nurture strangers, the teachers. Ordinary people doing their best, doing what was right or going about their lives. These were our good neighbours, looking out for each other, keeping others safe, risking their own lives, running toward the burning buildings, stopping because they were asked, stopping to help.

Gathered at the end of our driveway last night, we lit candles and sat on the ground. I told my son, 22 people died in Nova Scotia last week, and the people in Nova Scotia want us to be sad with them tonight.

What were their names? he wanted to know.

Tom, my mom said.

Heidi, I said, but that was all, because I couldn’t remember the others.

There is a concrete slab in our back yard where, two years ago, just after it had been poured, we wrote our kids’ names with sticks. Likely thinking of that, he asked if we could pour new concrete and write the names of the people who died so that we can remember and not forget.

Research Notes: Thomas Carleton, Charter of the City of Saint John (1785)

This evening I read the Charter of the City of Saint John (1785; reprint 1811) for the first time. Its author, Thomas Carleton, was the first Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, and he oversaw the arrival of the Loyalists in the final decades of the eighteenth century. If you live in New Brunswick, you’ve seen his name everywhere — on school buildings, towns, and counties. The tallest mountain in the province is named after him.

But until tonight, I don’t think I’d ever actually read something that he authored. Two sections of this document jumped out at me. The first, from the preamble, articulates Carleton’s desire to unite “the inhabitants of the Town or District of Parr, lying on the east side of the River Saint John” with those “of Carleton on the west side thereof, at the entrance of the River Saint John aforesaid, both which Districts are in our Province of New Brunswick, in America.” He describes a people who “have, by their exertions, conquered many of the difficulties attending the settlement of a new country” and who are now “anxious to remove the remaining evils they at present labor under.” Those who know me will understand why I find this combination of language — America, evil, conquest — very compelling; but also, this does not strike me as Loyalist sentiment.

And then, much later, there’s this:

. . . for us, our heirs and successors, we do will and hereby declare, that although the people of colour are black persons now residing in our said City, and hereafter to come and reside therein, are by these presents excluded the privilege of being or becoming free citizens thereof, yet it is not our pleasure that those who should be found good, discreet and honest persons of that description, should be wholly deprived of the means of getting and having a comfortable support for themselves and their families; and therefore we do will and grant, that the Mayor of the said City, for the time being, may from time to time, as he shall think proper, by warrant under his hand and seal, license any of the said people of colour to reside in the said City, and to carry on any business or occupation which he shall think fit, and express in such license; and the same license and licenses at his pleasure to suppress, any thing herein contained to the contrary notwithstanding.

Some might argue that this kind of language and policy in a document from this era isn’t surprising — since, around the same time, U.S. officials drafted a Constitution that ascribed a value of “3/5 a person” to each black slave within its borders. But I can’t recall having read anything in the historiography of this region about municipal governments using licence systems to control the presence, movements, and actions of black people within or around major settlements, and I could not find similar sections in the town charters for Shelburne or Halifax. I have read work on “black codes” in both southern and northern states in the nineteenth century but nothing on similar laws in British America in the eighteenth century. I’d be happy to hear from any of my colleagues on this point.

An Act in further amendment to the Charter of the City of Saint John, passed in 1849, contains a section titled “Coloured persons may be made free.” That amendment reads, “Notwithstanding any thing in the said Charter to the contrary contained, any black person or person of colour may become a free citizen of, and be admitted to the freedom of the said City.”

Update: Zoe Jackson wrote a fabulous blog post on this topic last year that contains much more context and information. She writes, “the 1785 document can be considered one of earliest acts of institutional discrimination against Black individuals in Atlantic Canada. The Saint John Charter was based upon the 1686 Dongan Charter of the Province of New York, which officially incorporated New York as a city.”

Introductory remarks for Taapoategl & Pallet – January 8, 2020, Saint John Free Public Library (Market Square)

I am pleased to be here as a friend and admirer of Peter Clair and as a member of the board of commissioners at the Saint John Free Public Library. It is my great honor to welcome Peter and his beautiful family to this place. Saint John is, we know, a traditional meeting place, a place where nations have been gathering together for thousands of years, seeking effective ways of living alongside one another. So as we come together this evening, I am grateful for this opportunity to help recognize and honor the legacy of this land.

There are many reasons why I admire Peter’s novel, Taapoategl & Pallet, but tonight I want to talk very briefly about how this novel helps us honor the legacy of this land as a meeting place — a place of many nations — and how it allows us to practice living together and listening to one other. Listening isn’t always easy. In particular, Settler Canadians like me aren’t always very good at listening to Indigenous people. We don’t always know how to listen. We like to think that we are smart enough to understand most of everything that we encounter in our lives when in fact we don’t always have the contexts that we need to hear or understand.

This novel is about the land of the Mi’kmaq. We Settlers believe we know something true about that land — because that land is Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and a large part of New Brunswick and Gaspésie. These places are familiar to us as Settlers — maybe we’ve spent our whole lives in these places. Maybe our relationships with these places go back generations. But these places are stories, and we live so deeply inside of our own stories that it’s sometimes difficult for us to hear or understand stories about this place that are different or even contrary to the ones we already know.

And so this novel is about the land of the Mi’kmaq — land that is inhabited by figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition. Like Malsem, Glooscap’s evil twin brother. Or Gionig, a trickster figure who randomly drowns and is then brought back to life by a smoke enema — which is something that you can actually find described in colonial recipe books as a possible cure for drowning. Or the Miiigemooesso, the generally benevolent forest spirits that become dangerous when they feel disrespected. These and other figures are alive in this novel and across the land of the Mi’kmaq. They are out there now in what you or I might call New Brunswick or Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, doing their thing, whether Settlers know or care or not. They are out there on the land, acting and living and waiting to share their stories with any visitors who are willing and able to listen.

And this is a novel about the people who were made by their homeland. People whose bellybuttons are buried all across their land, reminding them of their maternal connections to their home. People whose language captured the sounds of the land while it was becoming — the sounds of glaciers shifting, rivers turning into gulfs, and island separating from mainlands. People who were performing their stories and plays long before Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune washed ashore in 1606. People who modeled an entire writing system after the marks that sucker fish make on the river banks — because humans are not the only beings who can write.

This is a novel about a whole world that Settlers in this region live inside but can’t see and don’t know. And it’s about the Mi’kmaq people — how they have survived us. Our brutal efforts to forget them and to make them forget themselves.

And I am so grateful for this gift — this story that we can read and re-read as we learn to see outside of our own stories and look at this place through the eyes of the people who were made here. Please join me in welcoming Peter Clair to this meeting place.

Introductory remarks for Distorted Descent – November 21, 2019, University of New Brunswick (Saint John Campus)

These remarks were delivered before a reading co-sponsored by the Office of the Piluwitahasuwin, the UNBSJ Faculty of Arts, the Lorenzo Society, and the Departments of Humanities and Languages/History and Politics. This event featured a respondent’s panel with Amanda Reid, Elder Miigam’agan, and Emma Hassencahl-Perley.

I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Darryl Leroux to campus and to Saint John. Saint John, or Menahkwesk, is, we know, a traditional meeting place. There were so many nations gathered here in Menahkwesk when Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1604 that he couldn’t tell whose territory this was. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to honor the legacy of this land as a place where many nations have been gathering for thousands of years, seeking effective ways of being together and sharing space.

Dr. Leroux is a professor in the department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. His book, Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, was published by the University of Manitoba Press in September of this year. It deals with a troubling social phenomenon in which white Settler Canadian people in places like Quebec and Atlantic Canada are systematically shifting into Indigenous identities and organizing themselves in ways that, he shows, actually oppose the rights and interests of Indigenous people and nations.

Dr Leroux’s work on this subject has been controversial. As you can imagine, he is considered a threat and an enemy by those whose claims to Indigenous identity he challenges in his scholarship. He is the only academic I know who has required security personnel at some of his lectures. I have feared for his safety! Thankfully, that is not the case here today, but undeniably, Dr Leroux’s work has been a major catalyst for a sensitive conversation that many people simply don’t want to have.

This book has also found a lot of support among Indigenous academics and communities, which is something that Amanda Reid, Elder Miigam’agan, and Emma Hassencahl-Perley will speak to shortly. The Mi’kmaw legal scholar Pam Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, says, “Distorted Descent is a brave, original piece of scholarship, offered in the context of a politically sensitive and socially controversial subject of Indigenous identity. His research exposes the extent to which white settler colonialism undermines Indigenous rights through the theft of Indigenous identity. It’s a real wake-up call.” Brenda MacDougall, Chair in Métis Research at the University of Ottawa, says, “This is a timely and important study highlighting Canada’s historical literacy about who Indigenous people really are which, coupled with an exponential growth in interest in genealogical research and DNA tests that trace your ancestry, has supported the claims of white-Canadians to Indigenous ancestry.”

And so we are pleased to welcome Darryl today to this meeting place, this place where we are still very much in the process of finding more empathetic, meaningful, and intentional ways of sharing space. Settler Canadians are not always good at sharing, and we do not always make the time for difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable conversations – conversations that might actually change our behaviours or help us do a better job of honoring historical agreements. And so we are grateful for work that helps us better honor and protect the legacy of meeting on this land with respect and care for one another. Please join me in welcoming Darryl Leroux to campus.