Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet was published in the fall of last year by Chapel Street Editions out of Woodstock, New Brunswick, and it was recently named a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category. A few days before last year’s Word Feast literary festival in Fredericton, I stumbled across a copy at Westminster Books and was thrilled to have found a new Mi’kmaw novel to read – the first, I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong, since Lorne Simon’s Stones and Switches way back in 1995. Here’s the image from the store that I immediately and excitedly texted to friends and colleagues across the northeast:
Clair is widely known as an ash splint basket maker, and his baskets have been exhibited in galleries across the continent. When he’s spoken about his baskets in the past, he’s done so in the context of “a pattern without a break, without a beginning or an end” – a style of weaving based on the form of the periwinkle, a member of the shellfish nation and a traditional Mi’kmaw food source.[i] He uses the same design principle in his novel, where the narratives of Taapoategl and Pallet are woven together, at times echoing or merging before receding back into their distinct times and places. And like Clair’s baskets, it’s hard to say where this story truly begins. Is it with Taapoategl at home with her family? With the arrival of the colonizers and the forced displacements of Mi’kmaq communities? With the first steps of Pallet’s quest? Or does the story begin much earlier, with the weathered writings on birchbark, with the creation story that is brought to gatherings and read to the larger community – the story that produces the world through which both of these characters move despite the distance of centuries?
This story reaches into the future and cycles back onto itself almost continuously; its pieces are carefully interwoven to produce a larger historical sense of trauma and loss but also of connection, recovery, and irrepressible “belonging-to.”[ii] I’m searching for a way to discuss what I love about this incredible novel without giving too much away. I love the revisions of beloved Settler mythologies – the stories Clair weaves into his narrative about Chief Membertou, about Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune, and about the invention of hockey. And I love the descriptions of the early Mi’kmaw writing system, which developed gradually within the context of the nation so that families could communicate with each other across time and/or distance. The system reflects “the connection between the Nigmag and the world around them” just as the language of the people “comes from imitating the sounds and motions in nature, the calls of birds or the manner in which a fish gathers food.”[iii] In part, this is a novel about the connections that were lost or endangered when language and stories began to be lost or forgotten – the histories and contexts and links that re-emerge when scattered pieces of bark are sought, recovered, and threaded back together by the people of their original communities.
Pallet enacts one person’s role in this recovery process. As a Mi’kmaw man, he has a place in the story of his nation, and through his journey, he both creates and claims his own belonging. He travels through a territory in which figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition are ever-present, occupying their places on the land as always, living their stories and waiting to reconnect and share with their kin. While the Settler society of this region has systematically denied the relevance of Wabanaki oral traditions to the patterns of daily life, relegating traditional Indigenous stories to the distant world of mythology and intentionally weakening the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their cultural worlds, Clair does the reverse work, restoring the immediacy of his nation’s stories to the land from whence they first emerged.
Here is an exchange from his first encounter with a traditional figure:
Pallet stumbles past the fire and goes to the river to wash his eyes. He regains some vision and now sees a shadowy image. He is not sure how many there are. He squints his eyes toward his campfire; there is a dark round cloud above it.
Admitting to his confused state he says: “Ok. I’m Pallet and I’m from Signigtog. I can barely make you out. All I see is a dark cloud of smoke. I am glad you are here. I have been alone for so long. Are you from Tlaagati? Are you here to help?”
“Don’t be jumping to conclusions. Don’t be too hasty. Rest your eyes, Nigmag. It’ll come to you. My name is Miigemooesso. . .”
[. . .]
“I’m just trying to be honest, but I’m not used to this sort of thing. I’ve heard stories . . . and I accepted the stories for what they were. I have to accept that you are here. You are not just a story anymore.”[iv]
It’s significant that Pallet is half blind in this scene, which takes place relatively early on in his quest. He’s recovering from a compulsion to dismiss the possibility of what is happening to him, and he’s learning to accept that these figures aren’t simply of stories that long ago reached conclusions. The stories and their characters are alive, unfinished, ongoing – Pallet is himself inside of stories, and part of his journey involves learning to accept his place in those stories.
His journey also involves the recovery of Taapoategl’s story and the contribution of a ten-year-old girl’s survival knowledge to the collective memory of the Mi’kmaq. Pallet works with the elders at a summer gathering to piece together the fragments of this story, messages on birchbark that Taapoategl left behind in hopes that her family would find them. And while this process of finding takes centuries, her people are unyielding in their recovery efforts, refusing and refuting the notion that a little girl and her story could be irrevocably stolen from the present and future of her nation.
Taapoategl gathers a pile of pine needles and carefully covers over the gravesite, arranging them so there is no sign of disturbance. Like the old Nigmag, Taapoategl hides the gravesite as best she can. Hopefully, she will not have to move it. She knows gravesites are sacred because they are the hidden portals by which we return to our origins. She has heard Nigmag say the portals to the past must be tended to. You never know when the past will visit the present, the two feed on each other; one could not exist without the other.[v]
Taapoategl & Pallet empowers the future of an already powerful Indigenous nation by tending to the portals between the past and the present. It speaks of a territory that has been exploited and defiled across centuries by a colonizing culture that has strewn artifacts and bodies in the wake of its attempts to scramble and destroy connections between the Mi’kmaq and the land that mothered them. Like the people who kidnap Taapoategl, we have tried to steal and contain Indigenous stories — to hide them away, to hoard them, to render them unintelligible to Indigenous peoples. And yet the land has always remained occupied by its own stories.
Searching for a sense of connection and purpose, Pallet moves through his homeland, guided by an understanding of protocol passed down by his grandparents and his community. What he encounters and enters into on his journey are the stories of the land — the stories that have produced his living culture and connected his people as a nation for millennia. And by joining these stories he finds the sense of “belonging-to” that he seeks.
[i] Janet Clark, Epogan: Recent Work by Peter J. Clair (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1997).
[ii] Peter J. Clair, Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq Journey of Loss & Survival (Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2017), 2.
[iii] Clair, 118.
[iv] Clair, 22, 23.
[v] Clair, 143.