Teaching Mihku Paul’s “The Water Road”

Mihku Paul gave me this beautiful copy of her poem “The Water Road” after I organized a reading for her at the Saint John Free Public Library several summers ago. This now hangs in my kitchen and I look at it when heating bottles of milk for my babies. It’s one of my favourites of hers, but also, more generally, one of my favourite things ever written about the Wolastoqiyik homelands.

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And because it’s featured in the wonderful Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (ed. Siobhan Senier), I have the privilege of discussing it with students this week in a third-year Indigenous Literatures course at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. To some degree, the poem is a response to The Old Meductic Fort and the Indian Chapel of Saint Jean Baptistea paper that was read before the New Brunswick Historical Society by Rev. W.O. Raymond in 1897. Raymond refers to a tributary of the Wolastoq River that the Maliseets call “Madawamkeetook, signifying ‘rocky at its mouth,'” and also to a report penned by Abraham Gesner — the Settler geologist who invented kerosene — who noted, in his survey of Wolastoqiyik portage paths, that the “‘solid rocks'” between Meductic and Tobique had been so well travelled that they were “‘furrowed by the moccasins of the native tribes.'” Gesner’s writings on these trails are themselves fascinating, filled with detailed references to awikhiganak, the images inscribed into tree bark that helped Wabanaki peoples navigate dense forests.

Against this incredible image of people traveling, for centuries, down worn and familiar passages, echoing the footsteps and movements of their ancestors, mapping and inscribing their land with their bodies, and leaving written messages, warnings, and instructions for one another along the paths, Raymond consolidates his simplistic idea of wandering nomads. He describes “the Indians of the Maliseet and Micmac tribes” as “a race of nomads, wandering about from one camping ground to another, as necessity or caprice impelled them.” Paul counters his vision of aimlessness with an exploration of her own personal reasons for travelling the water road. Her poem moves from Madawamkeetook down the Meductic trail to the Chiputneticook lakes at the Maine border and to Mattawamkeag, an eastern tributary of the Penobscot — where, Paul writes, “a girl became a woman.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.30.45 PMPaul herself grew up primarily in Old Town, Maine, but she also spent portions of her childhood among family at Indian Island, which stretches for miles along the Penobscot River. An enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, her family’s life in Maine was born of her grandfather’s struggles in the New Brunswick residential school system — experiences that ultimately caused him to flee the province before Mihku’s mother was born.

Paul’s poem speaks of someone who “became a woman” along the Penobscot, but whose “body craves the past, its water seeking / The cool flow, ancestral memory, / Where tributaries meet, flooding / Undernourished roots that cling to her edges / Eroded year by year with forgetting.” And so she follows the “map / Flowing inside [her body]” — from Penobscot to Mattawamkeag, to the Chiputneticook lakes, and up the water road to Meductic, where furrowed rocks speak of old life ways and the purposeful movements of a people who always find their way home.

 

Buying local, the rhetoric of “buy local,” and buying Indigenous

This weekend, while raking up last year’s leaves, I noticed a “thank you for supporting local business” message typed across our paper yard waste bags. We bought the bags at Kent Building Supplies, which is an Irving-owned, New Brunswick-based company with headquarters here in Saint John. But the brown bags themselves were produced by a Prince Edward Island paper company. So which “local” business was I supporting with my bag purchase? I like to know what I’m being thanked for!

Back in January, premier Brian Gallant came to Saint John, hyping a “major economic announcement.” The announcement, as it turned out, heralded the opening of a new Sears call centre for the city. Don Darling, the mayor of Saint John, welcomed the news and suggested the centre would help Saint Johners “buy local” — by which it actually appears he meant “shop at our local Sears,” a company based in Chicago.

Here in Menahkwesk/Saint John, my family lives across the harbour from a traditional Maliseet meeting place called Ouigoudi. In the words of Pat Paul, editor of the Wulustuk times, 

In this village, traditional pre-contact, inter-tribal bargaining, exchange, and trading was conducted regularly. It was the first known Indigenous trading centre of its kind in the east. Within a close proximity to Ouigoudi was a vast abundance of food that consisted of moose, deer, bear, caribou, beaver, muskrat plus many other smaller wildlife species of every description. . . . It is no wonder that after Champlain visited this important and strategic location other Europeans were drawn to Ouigoudi to witness and partake in the abundance and [in] indigenous trade and barter. . . . And the fact that Saint John claims to be one of the oldest cities in the country lends credence and proof to its drawing power for immigrants and settlers from earliest times to the present.

So many people gathered here seasonally at the mouth of the Wolastoq – to fish, to hunt, and to trade – that there is still debate in historical scholarship about who it was that the French encountered in 1604 when Samuel de Champlain dropped anchor and promptly re-named the mighty Wolastoq in honor of St. John the Baptist. Early 17th century writers placed the Mi’gmaq at the mouth of the river; others identified the so-called “Etchemins,” or the Passamaquoddies and the Maliseet/Wolastoqiyik, as this land’s original inhabitants.

As a guest of the Maliseet, I still think of this land as a meeting place, and one of the ways in which Settlers can honour this association is by supporting traditional economies and purchasing Indigenous goods.

C9hrWvbUIAA5isU.jpg-largeAt Maliseet Studios, Gina Brooks and Susan Sacobie produce clean, chemical free, colour free, and additive free soaps and bath products. In Gina’s words:

We use essential oils and infusions that we harvest in our own territory, and also bear grease, moose grease, coconut oil, avocado oil, shea nut oil, sweet almond oil and Epsom, sea and Himalayan pink salts, pine sap, cedar and of course cedar, sweetgrass & Sage infusions, as well as PEI red clay and our clay. We don’t want to compete with large company’s and other diy people who may use colorant and or chemicals. Our work is always about accessing the land and the ingredients we use will be harvested by us, and made by us as much as possible. Obviously there are things we can’t grow here but we get the best quality we can from reputable merchants.

At this point in my life, these are the only products I’ve knowingly consumed that contain bear and moose greases. They’ll ship these fantastic products anywhere in the province or beyond (you cover shipping). Email them at maliseetstudios at gmail.

This is also the right time of year to stock up on fresh maple syrup, which is my family’s sweeter-of-choice for baking and even for coffee. Passamaquoddy Maple is tribally owned and operated, and you can read all about them (and even order a few bottles) here.

I’ll add to this list of other Wabanaki vendors and artisans periodically: