Sunday, August 14, 2011

19 - Elders

I did an unusual thing this summer. Unusual for me anyway. I am fortunate to have three of my grandparents still living. My paternal grandmother is 96, my maternal grandparents are both 87, and all are going strong. This summer I asked them about their lives and recorded them on video. I have heard stories from them throughout my life but I wanted to capture them telling these stories themselves, so my children and my grandchildren will have a sense of them at some point in their lives. Maybe all this searching has me thinking. I'm getting older myself, and in middle age I realize their importance and I am glad I took the time to do it.

This idea to film them and ask them about their lives was prompted by this Mi'kmaq journey of mine. This journey to put together pieces of the puzzle of one part of my history has me thinking about it all. I learned that my maternal grandmother's mother was a midwife.  I never knew this. I learned that she and her younger brother were heartbroken at the death of their father and took his passing hard. She was eleven when it happened and she told me my great grandfather was tall with dark eyes and jet black hair. There are no pictures of him that we know of, although we are searching.

 My grandfather told me stories of coal mine floods and explosions that he lived through as well as stories of his wanderings in childhood eating berries for sustenance until he arrived home. My paternal grandmother told me about electricity coming to their community, funny stories from her school days,  about German submarines cruising outside Pictou Harbour during war time and of seeing the Hindenburg pass over their community before its demise in New York City. These were just some of things. I loved every second of it.

Our current culture in North America is obsessed with youth. Maybe cultures always have been. I can't say that I think that is a bad thing. Youth has an important place in the world. My children certainly keep me looking at the world through their eyes and I have to admit that I like it. Youth is valuable, but as I age myself, I am learning the importance of experience.

 This summer my father set up a meeting for me with a much loved and well known Mi'kmaq elder named Sarah Francis of the Pictou Landing Band. I visited Sarah at her home one morning and told her of my new found connection to the Mi'kmaq people and what I had learned of my ancestors. We had some discussion about the brutal aspects of the history but she was quick to turn the conversation and warned me not to dwell on the negative, that it would do no good. Good advice that I am following.
Me and Sarah

We talked about the fact that my ancestors hid and she had some insights on this aspect of the history. She told me it's just the way it was. Intermarriage was common, especially with the French, and in those dangerous days Mi'kmaq people identified with those where they found safety. She told me of her own grandfather who was half Scottish. (It's a small world isn't it.) She told me that he would not acknowledge this part of his history. He was raised in a Mi'kmaq community and was safe there. The white community was not kind at that time.

I showed her pictures on my computer from the Mawiomi Powwow and then we talked a bit more.  I told her I would like to learn about Mi'kmaq music. We talked about learning some of the language and then she told me that she had started a singing group for young women years ago and they travelled all over the province performing. She took me into a room where she had the most wonderful pictures of her family hanging on the walls. I was so happy she let me see this. She showed me pictures of her singing group. She said all of the girls were grown up and were mothers themselves now. This was so exciting for me to learn! Maybe it's the music teacher in me knowing I had found someone who knew that peculiar joy of working with young people singing. I thought it was wonderful.
Sarah showing me Mi'kmaq talking cards

Before I left, Sarah brought out some large cards that showed some of the basics in the Mi'kmaq language. She told me where to get them and that these cards would give me a start with the language and I could go from there.  I have found this exact information on line and I will be studying them as she suggested. I am so happy and grateful for this opportunity to meet her and ask questions.

  Sarah mentioned to me that she has been studying her culture for over 50 years. Well, I am just starting out on this journey, but  I know that I am blessed to have had this day and this experience meeting her. I hope I will see her again next year and maybe speak a few words of Mi'kmaq. Who knows? Maybe she'll teach me a song.

 Mi'kmaq stop sign
at Pictou Landing Reservation

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