The Telegram (St. John's)




Canoe a key to Mi'kmaq cultural revival

Newfoundland's 10,000 people of Mi'kmaq ancestry are building a cultural revival, according to Maggie John, an aboriginal affairs co-ordinator with Parks Canada.

"Our story has remained hidden most people think the Beothuks were the last aboriginal peoples on the island."

But how do you resurrect a culture whose heart was housed in a lost way of life?

On the shores of Bonne Bay, under the shadow of the Table Top Mountains, three Mi'kmaq men might have an answer. For the past six weeks, they've been building a birch bark canoe in the Lomond Day Use Area.

The canoe, named Mattio, after the Mi'kmaq guide Mattie Mitchell, combines a relearning of ancient Mi'kmaq knowledge, pride in a cultural icon and education of visitors to the park.

"Our language was nearly lost. Our culture was nearly lost, but now we're having a big revival," John said.

Also lost was the ability to build traditional birch bark canoes. The return of that skill, evolved over thousands of years, has become part of the revival. To relearn the craft, a Mi'kmaq elder was brought in from Quebec during the mid 1990s to teach Billy Joe and Donny Benoit.

In 1996, the 26-foot birch bark canoe they built with the elder's guidance was paddled across the open ocean between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The Mattio, built with support from Parks Canada, will be Joe's and Benoit's ninth.

Through it, the transfer of knowledge to a younger generation is continued - Sylvester Joe, a Mi'kmaq youth, is learning the craft through work on the Mattio.

It's a 15-foot river canoe and its construction shows an intimate knowledge of the land by the generations of Mi'kmaq who took part in its design.

First, Juniper gunwales and ribbing are fashioned and held a few feet off the ground on wooden pegs. Cedar strips are attached to the ribbing. On the ground below the frame is laid the birch bark cutout of the canoe. The birch bark is sewn together with spruce root (the root's heart is removed to prevent cracking). Then rocks are placed along the centre of the birch bark cutout as it is slowly bent up to meet the shape of the canoe. The canoe is then sealed with a mixture of spruce resin and bear fat.

Joe explained that Mattie Mitchell used a similar canoe in his work trapping and guiding.

"Growing up, we heard a bit about him, but not that much."

John said naming the canoe after Mitchell is an attempt to raise awareness of a Mi'kmaq guide who made a huge contribution to the province. Mitchell guided the expedition that drew first map of the Great Northern Peninsula. He also discovered the Buchans ore deposit.

She said the knowledge Mi'kmaq elders like Mattie Mitchell have is important to the province's development and will help Mi'kmaq youth take pride in their culture.

This cultural pride, John said, will be on display when the chief of the Miawpukek Reserve at Conne River oversees the handover of the canoe to Parks Canada next year on National Aboriginal Day.