MIKWIDIHAMIN — Refusing to Remember a Passamaquoddy Artist

I’ve been working on a short piece about this fabulous Passamaquoddy picnic basket, which is part of the Wabanaki collection at the Fredericton Regional Museum.

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The basket is clearly the handiwork of Tomah Joseph, the iconic Passamaquoddy artist whose creations on birchbark “often included the phrase mikwid hamin, which means ‘recall me in your mind’ or ‘remember me.'”

But through a Google search last week I stumbled upon an interesting description of the basket from a website associated with the Atlantic Canada Visual Archives, which was a joint initiative of the historian Margaret Conrad, a former Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies, and the Electronic Text Centre at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton (now called the Centre for Digital Scholarship).

Here is a screenshot of the website’s description of the basket:

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I was surprised by this attribution, so I immediately reached out to Micah Pawling, whose current work focuses on Sabattis Tomah. Micah replied to my e-mail almost immediately, raising a number of red flags and asking a series of important questions:

In 1884, Sabattis Tomah was about 12 years old. Did he sign the basket? What are the other images on the piece? Can one rule out that the basket was not made by his father, Tomah Joseph? Both Sabattis Tomah and Tomah Joseph were from Motahkomikuk (Indian Township), not Sipayik (Pleasant Point). I wonder about the details of allegedly breaking the law (in Maine)?

In short, the description appears to be a total fiction, and in that sense, I find its level of detail to be deeply unsettling. It’s as though someone invented these narrative details, almost at random, to create an illusion of truth, indeed to bury the truth — but why?

Mikwid hamin, the basket asks. Please don’t forget me. But we forget anyway, almost as an act of petulant defiance. You can’t tell me what do to.

Here, then, is another example of Settlers acting as poor stewards of Indigenous cultural materials. I’ll be traveling to the Fredericton Regional Museum at some point in the next few weeks to take a look at the basket in person, and I’ll be interested to see how it has been represented in that venue. I’m hopeful that someone at the museum will also be able to speak to where this description originated.

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: