Drifting Into the Past: Paddling Through Mi’kmaw History



    

Travel into the past on this journey to New Brunswick to learn about Mi’kmaw history.

    

As we drift past two of Atlantic Canada’s least known, most significant national historic sites, my Mi’kmaw guide, Stephen Paul of Metepenagiag First Nation in New Brunswick, tells me we won’t be landing on the banks of the Little Southwest Miramichi River. Darcy Rhyno

Oxbow National Historic Site and the Augustine Mound date back about 3,000 and 2,500 years, respectively. And respect is exactly the reason why we don’t land. The community wanted to leave these sites undisturbed. The latter might have been lost forever in the 1970s if Joseph Augustine hadn’t raised the alarm when a gravel pit development could have destroyed it. Darcy Rhyno

Pausing next to the Oxbow site, Stephen builds a vivid mental picture of what was once a bustling location. Imagine, he says, millions of salmon. Imagine the riverbank lined with wigwams and smoking fires to cure the catch. Imagine the ceremonies at the burial mound, the thousands of years of history entombed there. He calls it a truly sacred, spiritual place that pre-dates Christianity by a thousand years. 

Darcy Rhyno

Stephen and his wife Florence Paul started their company, First Nations Tourism, on the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation—with its population of 550—as a way to share their people’s heritage with settler people like me and to teach young Mi’kmaq who have suffered dislocation from their collective past.Darcy Rhyno

“A lot of our people have lost their traditional ways,” says Stephen. In groups of ten or fewer, the Pauls offer classes in traditional crafts like making mittens from deer leather with cuffs of raccoon, hare or beaver fur. These off-season sessions employ crafters and pass down knowledge to the next generation.

Darcy Rhyno

Completing our run, Stephen and I load the kayaks onto his truck and head back upriver. On the way, we pass St. Thomas the Apostle Church. The steps are piled with hundreds of small shoes and stuffed toys. The display is in memory of the Indigenous children discovered in unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country. I think of the Augustine Mound where Stephen’s ancestors were lovingly interred and have remained for thousands of years. It’s a sobering moment, one that leaves me feeling uncomfortable, as if I’m intruding. Worse, as if I’m implicated. I squirm in my seat but can find nothing to say. Darcy Rhyno

Stephen drives upriver to fly fish for salmon. Standing mid-stream, he quietly passes along tips from his father, patiently teaching me to whip the line over my hand and flick it to land where he’s hooked salmon before.Darcy Rhyno

His father worked for over 40 years as a fishing and hunting guide. As impressed as I am with Stephen’s skills, he’s equally humbled by his father’s. “I don’t think I’m a tenth as good as he was.”Darcy Rhyno

Musing about the love for the outdoors that his father passed on to him, he adds, “Fishing gives you a chance to disconnect. You just listen to the water pushing against you and see ducks, beaver and deer crossing the river.” Stephen knows this river with the wisdom of the generations and sees it as a living, evolving thing.Darcy Rhyno

“Everybody rushes to the riverbank to see the ice come down through,” he says, flicking the line over his head. “One spring, the ice built up all this pressure. When it was released, it tore a hole right through an island and made a new channel. The ice is very powerful. You can hear it, feel it like an earthquake. The whole community rumbles.” Darcy Rhyno

We return to the village without a catch, but Florence has retrieved salmon from their freezer. Stephen builds a fire and the two prepare a meal of planked salmon, potatoes and fiddleheads. Stephen tells me they pick 50 pounds of fiddleheads daily in spring, sharing much of the foraged harvest with fellow villagers.Darcy Rhyno

As Stephen ties a salmon fillet to a cedar plank, I ask if he can say more about paddling and fishing this river. “It allows me to reconnect with who I am as an indigenous person, doing things on the land and sharing that with others, which is a big part of our culture,” he says. “Despite all the things that have happened between our cultures, we still invite people into our community and want to share our resources.”Darcy Rhyno

After dinner, the Pauls showed me how to make “bread on a stick,” a simple bannock, rolled into a snake, wrapped around a maple branch and cooked over the flames. When it’s puffed and toasted on the outside, I pull a piece off and smear it with butter and homemade jam. We’re literally breaking bread together. Their bread. Generously shared.Darcy Rhyno

Florence packs up the leftovers and the Pauls send me off to the glamping teepee at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park, which overlooks the two national historic sites from across the river. Inside, I drift off to sleep in the cozy bed, replaying Stephen’s words in my mind.Darcy Rhyno

“I want to make it friendly and inviting for people to come here so they can experience our Mi’kmaw culture and come away with a better understanding of who we are as a people,” he told me. “We’ve been doing this from the arrival of the first people to our lands. We welcomed them and shared with them our gifts. I want to continue that journey.”

     

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