Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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Coveted Heritage

Floating straight through the mahogany pane into a sucking vortex, spinning, spinning, spinning, Violette sees what must be Oncle Gabriel’s house. Is he calling her back home, or is that Max – a grown man now, piloting her to his cozy home on Mars? She grabs from thin air the heart-shaped compass. Disappointing! The needle won’t turn! Violette can’t find the North. She deduces Vicky won’t make this journey, buried under piles of pillows, sleeping like a top.

Whose mistake was it? Who can think fast enough in an emergency? Quick, save yourself!

Vicky found peace, but Violette still has night terrors. What kind of vision will it take to inspire a leader, another Champlain – how many crossings from one world to another – 29? More? Still spinning, Violette’s feet weigh heavily with her mistakes, her inner voice silent, both heels dragging, shattering the vortex into misty rainbows. Above, snowy peaks melt –- all time stops. No more spinning. The scent of fiddleheads returns. Violette opens her eyes, letting go of the compass for dear life.

“Vicky, a nightmare! Wake up, wake up!” Vicky jostles under the covers but doesn’t respond. The housekeeper reassures Violette:

“Here I am, Sweetie. You’re safe now…”

Estimates vary of the Mi’kmaw population before the arrival of the Europeans. The general consensus approximates around 20,000. By 1620, massive epidemics had spread from their contact with Europeans, reducing the Mi’kmaw population to less than 4,000. By 1760 their numbers fell to 3,000, at the end of the French and Indian War, reaching an all-time low in 1823 of 1,800. Precise counts are problematic due to extensive intermarriage with their European ally, the French settlers. Canada currently lists more than 16,000 registered Mi’kmaq, but their actual number in both Canada and the United States is likely higher, perhaps 25,000. Canada has 28 separate groups of Mi’kmaq, but only one Mi’kmaw tribe is recognized in the United States, the 500 member Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq in northern Maine which received state recognition in 1973 and federal status in 1991.

Since the Jay Treaty of 1794 between Great Britain and the United States, the Mi’kmaq have the right to move freely back-and-forth across the U.S.-Canadian border. In theory, Vicky and Violette do not need passports to enter and exit both countries, if they can show proof of tribal affiliation. In fact, many Mi’kmaq have chosen to leave the Maritime Provinces in favor of more job opportunities in the northeastern United States. Presently, more than 2,000 Mi’kmaq reside in the Boston area, making them one of the largest Native American groups in New England. Several hundred settled in New York City.

Traditionally, before the arrival of Europeans, the Mi’kmaq would change locations on their lands, according to seasons -- in winter, hunting caribou, moose, and other game -- in summer, fishing, hunting seals, and gathering shellfish, inhabiting areas now called Nova Scotia, the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec, Prince Edward Island, and the eastern half of New Brunswick. Their winter dwellings were conical wickiups (wigwams) covered with birch bark or skins; summer dwellings were varied, usually oblong wigwams, relatively open-air. Mi’kmaw clothing resembled that of other Northeast Indians. Both men and women wore fur robes, while men typically wore loincloths and women dresses; clothing was generally embellished with lots of fringe.

The name Mi’kmaq has an interesting evolution, originating in the 1600s, the name taken from an Indian greeting. In 1534, during Jacques Cartier’s first of three voyages to Canada, he made contact with different Algonquian peoples. The term nikmaq – with an initial ‘n’ was a greeting, translated as “my kin-friends” or “my brothers.” The Acadian author, Marc Lescarbot, explained in 1606 how it was first used only as a greeting, not as a tribal designation. The Amerindians taught the greeting to French and Basque fishermen during the summer months fishing together. Later, the French settlers continued this same greeting, “Nikmaq!” / “My Brothers!” living side by side and forming alliances, also intermarrying.

Despite the ethnic bonding behind the term Mi’kmaq, other tribal names were also used, some not so friendly: Cape Sable Indians, Gaspesian (Gaspésien, for the Mi’kmaq of Gaspé), Matu-as´-wi skitchi-nú- ûk (meaning in Maliseet “Porcupine Indians”), Shonack (meaning in Beothuk “Bad Indians”), Souriquois (what Champlain called the Mi’kmaq), and Tarrateen (used by some of the British).

This ethnic bonding was no accident, but the dream of Champlain. Born in 1574 at Brouage, a small Protestant seaport town, Champlain was raised Protestant but might have switched to the Catholic faith by 1603. It’s unclear. However, he did serve till 1598 in the Protestant army of Henry IV, fighting the Catholic League. On friendly terms with Henry IV, Champlain organized, along with a Protestant leader, Pierre Dugua, sieur de Mons, to colonize New France. De Mons and Champlain made sure to have on board ship pastors of both faiths to serve the 79 French settlers, that is, one minister and one priest. Neither de Mons nor Champlain was a starry-eyed utopian after forty years of civil war. Both were ambitious humanists willing to gamble. They had witnessed too much horror to be utopians, but those atrocities gave them a deep sense of urgency to build something better in Canada.

Similar to the “dream” of establishing a world body called the United Nations, after the horrors of two world wars in the 20th century, these two French Protestants sailed in 1604 to start a New France, not a replica of Old France. This community would be something novel. De Mons and Champlain wanted to initiate what had never been tried before – Europeans and Amerindians coexisting, turning the corner of history together. Without question, Champlain deplored what he had witnessed in New Spain – Amerindians driven off their lands or subjected to brutal servitude. Champlain’s New France would be different.

Why couldn’t Amerindians and Europeans coexist? Surely the world would prefer more tolerance in 1603, thanks to Henry IV’s edict in war-weary France, where Protestants and Catholics were coexisting. Unbelievable but true! Why not a more blended society in Acadia, based on Champlain’s belief that all men are created equal -- all brothers? It took Champlain twenty-nine crossings to plant the seeds. Did they all whither? He never lived long enough to know.

For a second, perhaps two, Vicky didn’t know where she was. Why so many pillows? She smelled freshly-made ployes and buttery fiddleheads. Yum! She opened her eyes, sweeping her hair off her face, putting on her frames, surprised to see Violette sitting on the same bed, agitated, telling the housekeeper:

“I was spinning and spinning, falling into a dark pit…” Violette drops her head, moaning, terrified. Terror takes over, stopping her breath. Her head up, she gasps, “I saw tiny men swarming in the passage.” Violette rolls on her side, pulling a rasping breath in, and holds it. What happened? A nightmare? How could things change so fast? Violette had fallen asleep feeling so safe and secure.

Violette then answers a voice no one else can hear:

“No, I can’t do it. I can’t be a leader. I can’t.” Violette pulls herself up until she’s sitting upright, putting her head down on her arms across her knees. She looks up and declares, angry at herself, “No use, it doesn’t work – feeling sorry for myself, it changes nothing.” At that moment, her inner voice takes over, and Violette listens.

Vicky was standing at the side of the bed, looking at Violette, and it was clear from her expression that she was trying to tell Violette something. Her lips moved, but there were no sounds. Vicky waved her hands at Violette, pushing her glasses up and making more gestures in front of Violette’s face. Vicky was trying to help, trying so hard. Violette didn’t answer, focused on her inner voice. Then Vicky faded out of sight, into a fog. Violette closed her eyes, spinning into a deep sleep, more than a deep sleep – into another dimension, her words barely escaping:

“I know that now.” Within five seconds, her eyes reopened. There was thirst and hunger. She smacked her lips. Vicky put a morsel to her mouth. Violette bit into something warm and sweet, maple syrup trickling down her throat:

« Merci…, Vicky. »

“You had a nightmare, Violette. You okay?”

“She wasn’t dreaming.” interrupts the housekeeper. “I recognize supernatural powers, though I don’t have them myself. Violette’s a seer, girls. Mr. Payen’s my brother. He’s a puoin, what we call a wizard in Algonquian. My gifts are not supernatural, though important for sure – I can heal with plants and cook yummy dishes that are healthy. Vicky…, who else knows about Violette’s powers?”

“No… just bad dreams. I have them often. Vicky’s the seer, not me.”

“You too, Vicky? Amazing. Two puoins in one family, same generation. That’s extraordinary. In Algonquian, men and women with your powers are called puoins.”

“That’s the word the Protectors used when they told me we’d meet an ancient wizard in this castle. They said he would protect us and bring our family together. The Protectors were about to send us here, but instead Maman sent us. I don’t understand how she got involved.”

“Protectors work in mysterious ways. It’s hard to say how your mother got involved,” replied the housekeeper, “but it might be a test.”

“What do you mean, a test?” asks Vicky.

“My brother has been waiting 90 years for the right person to make him leader of the clan. He’s almost given up. Many family members have come and failed; no one passed the test. The candidates were all male; that’s the tradition. Too bad, if only you were members of my family… and male, you might be the ones to pass the test, you’re both pretty special, but my brother’s only looking for the right male in the family.”

“Is a Mi’kmaw leader like a superhero? asks Violette.

“I never thought of it that way, but that’s a good comparison.” replied the housekeeper.

“Violette and I know a little bit about Mi’kmaw superheroes. Our Oncle Gabriel is a shaman in New Brunswick. He used to tell stories. I love superheroes, but I know more about our Catholic saints. Still Maman always wanted our uncle to share Mi’kmaw traditions, saying it’s all good and part of our Acadian heritage. For example, with Maman, we always celebrate the feast day of St. Anne, the patron saint of the Mi’kmaq, because it combines Catholic and Mi’kmaw beliefs, just like so many ways of Acadian life.”

“I know about our patron saint. Know why, girls? Like everyone there, I too was raised Catholic, but guess my first name.”

“Anne?” guesses Vicky.

“That’s right!”

“Can we call you Annie?” asks Violette.

“Of course. Now finish your breakfast before it’s stone cold. While you’re eating, may I share some Mi’kmaw beliefs and vocabulary?”

“Sure!” says Violette.

“Well, just like French Acadians, the Mi’kmaq believe all life was created by one, all-powerful Being, the ultimate Creator, known as Kji-Niskam / the Great Spirit. So far, not much difference with Catholic beliefs today, but the ancient Mi’kmaq also believed the Great Spirit had two sides to his divinity—as the causal force of creation, called Khi-Mintu, who never interacts directly with mankind, along with a negative side to his divinity, called Kji-Mintu, similar to the idea of the Fallen Angel in the Bible, what Catholics call the Devil. A real troublemaker. This is where superheroes save the day – like Catholic saints. For example, Glooscap rescues the Mi’kmaq from evil forces and shows up whenever really needed – always watching over mankind -- always kind and benevolent, against everything evil.”

“The Protectors told me to trust Glooscap.” adds Vicky.

“Glooscap is the superhero who brought the Mi’kmaq earthenware, knowledge of good and evil, fire, tobacco, fishing nets, and canoes. Glooscap means ‘man who came from nothing’ or literally in Algonquian ‘man (created) from only speech.’ According to Mi’kmaw tradition, Glooscap shows up when we call him, but people must call for him to come. Who wouldn’t want him around? So good and so powerful. Glooscap is huge in size and possesses supernatural powers; one legend says when he finished painting the splendor of the world, he dipped his brush into a mixture of all the colors and created Abegweit / ‘Cradled on the Waves’— his favorite island, Prince Edward Island. When Glooscap sleeps, he uses Nova Scotia for his bed, and Prince Edward Island as his pillow.

“I wish my Oncle Gabriel had told us more stories.” laments Violette.

“He did, Violette. Have you forgotten our last summer at his reservation? He was a great storyteller – about the giant cannibal, Kukwes, along with the magical adventures of tiny Forest People, the Wiklatmuj, and my favorite stories were about the ice giants called Jenu.”

“Oh, yeah… now I remember, Vicky. I was so little. I confuse the ice giants with that Disney movie – you know, about Anna and Elsa. My favorite story was about Kinap.”

“Girls, I have proof that Violette was not dreaming. Take this. It’s your compass. Another thing, the Forest People were here. All the rooms are now spotless. Come with me, girls. I’ll show you the whole castle, a grand tour.”

Both girls were speechless, staring at each other, their mouths wide open. Anne smiled, stacking dishes on the trolley. Shortly, all three Acadians were chatting like old friends, off to the kitchen. Violette was walking on air. What a change – fearless now, at peace. Flashbacks made her head spin, as if that spinning had happened to another person or in a movie rewinding in her mind. Then she felt the heart-shaped compass in her pocket and knew it had all been real; visions really do happen, but in a kind of other reality, another time and place. And something else had connected like never before, between her Inner Voice and her Self that she didn’t quite understand. Would the breath-tightening terrors return? Violette shook her head to drive them out, but it was no use. She had made that mistake too many times, realizing now she had to find the courage to face what she had become – a puoin.

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