Norma 1“We have been here a long time and will be here even longer...we are not going away. We may differ from the western Métis because of the many miles that separate us but our purpose for being where we are remains the same; above all to honor our Creator, our Ancestors and to be good caretakers of our Country. The Métis/First Nation people live by these Seven Virtues: Respect, Humility, Courage, Bravery, Honesty, Truth, and Wisdom. If these were applied and adhered to in all areas of our daily life, what a change this would make.”

[This interview was conducted via email on November 17th, 2009 by Mount Allison student Nick Enright from Dr. Marilyn Walker's Arctic Ethnography class in the fall term of 2009. The interviewee, Norma, is a very talented Métis artist.]

Nick: How long have you known you were Métis?

Norma: First of all we need to take into consideration what the term “Métis” means. This explanation is from our computer dictionary:

"Métis (also Metis)
noun (pl. same)
(esp. in western Canada) a person of mixed American Indian and Euro-American ancestry, in particular one of a group of such people who in the 19th century constituted the so-called Métis nation in the areas around the Red and Saskatchewan rivers.
adjective
denoting or relating to such people.
Origin from French, from Late Latin mixticius, from Latin mixtus ‘mixed' (see also mestizo)."

This further explains what the term Métis means to others and was taken from online sources:

"Métis in New France: The first Métis were the children of European fishermen and Native women along the Atlantic coast of Canada. In Acadia, many French men took Native wives. Some villages became largely Métis. During the 17th century, both the French and the Native people encouraged mixed marriages. For the Native people, these marriages strengthened their bonds with their allies and trading partners. The French authorities came to oppose these unions. The church in particular was concerned that the young men preferred the freedom of life in Indian country. Métis children either stayed with their Native mothers or were raised in French society. The Métis population increased further inland. Fur traders and soldiers settled around the tiny forts and fur-trade posts. These communities formed the basis of many future towns and cities, such as Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois."

This piece of history that you have been provided with above better explains my own history. My family lived in what we grew up calling Acadian villages which are now called Métis by governments who wish to be “politically correct”, I suppose, but I do fall into that category. As far as knowing that I was Métis, it has only been since about 15 years ago in this area that the term “Métis” has been used. You must realize that unlike the Métis out west, we lived from the sea as our Ancestors had done for centuries. Cod fish, lobster (poor man's food) and anything else that could be harvested from the sea was and is what I'm made of. There were no buffalo here and very few animals to trap so it was altogether a different lifestyle.

Nick: Have you publicly identified with the fact that you are Métis for as long as you have known you are Métis?

Norma: Since the term “Métis” has been in use in this area I have identified myself as Métis. That does not change who I feel I am or what my purpose in life is. I also have to respect all my Ancestors. The way I conduct myself in public is simple, all people are exactly what you see and know us to be regardless of who we are and regardless of one's ancestry or country of origin. Since I was raised in the Acadian culture, I learned later in life that the Mi'kmaq teachings and many words are a large part of what I had learned and I believed them to be French words and teachings. For example, many of the words I used as a child and still use today can be found in the Mechif language dictionaries belonging to the Métis who live in the Prairies today. Also, many of those western families have traced their roots back to the Acadian communities through genealogical studies when they traced their family lines back to the time of the first settlers.

Thus, I consider myself Mi'kmaq as well, since my two grandmothers and my father were Native, and while I was growing up there used to be a lot of whispering among the adults giving me the impression there was something secret to be ashamed of. The whispering stopped when we were near. It was not honorable to be as we were sometimes called “half-breed”. This feeling became intensified with the teachings of the Catholic Church when we reached the point of what the church describes as the age of reasoning and religious teachings began. I was made to feel ashamed of who I was and the old parish priest made sure we understood we were unworthy of the time he spent teaching us our prayers.

Nick: Did your parents, grandparents or any of your other older family members identify publicly and show pride in their Métis heritage?

Norma: My grandparents and parents were too ashamed to admit that they were of Native descent or any other name. As I mentioned before, the church played a large and degrading role in their lives. The role of government and church was to “wash out the Indian” from our veins and change the color of our skins if at all possible. One example of this is my Grandfather who would hide in his shed in order to make a basket on different occasions. As children, we didn't really understand what was going on and dismissed it as just working in his “cabane”. Of course, today I know the whole story behind the basket. This type of existence was also a way of life for my parents and other members of their families. My mother was the youngest of a family of fourteen children and my father was also the youngest of a family of fourteen.

When I was nine years old my grandmother took me on as a little helper on Saturdays. Having lost my father at age five in a drowning accident, I felt the need to draw closer to my grandfather to replace the male influence, and my grandmother knew that. This is how I was introduced into getting involved in harvesting the herbs needed to make the medicines. These are the same herbs and recipes I still use today to make medicines. These were some of the happiest times in my otherwise painful childhood. In the woods I was at peace and truly felt I was in my element, it was almost as if there was an invisible barrier there, and I felt no harm could come to me. My grandparents lived their heritage but closely guarded their knowledge of medicines and basketry. This is the reason so much of our background history has been lost. The church called the practice “devil's trade”, but the pride was there behind the church's back. It was impossible to publicly show that pride, the only way was to secretly teach the children.

Nick: Do you have any siblings who are also aware of their Métis heritage and if so, do they identify with their Métis heritage as you do?

Norma: I am from a family of four girls and two boys, of which I am the oldest. Only one sister and one brother are aware of their Métis status and identify, but they do not celebrate their heritage the way I do. The way I celebrate who and what I am is by living every day in a way that positively reflects my heritage. The manner in which I dress, the type of language I use, and certain places I do not go into, for example, bars and beer parlors, I avoid because I feel it is not proper for respectable Métis women to go to these places. Also, I do not use alcohol, and tobacco is used only in ceremonies to honor the Ancestors and our Creator. My siblings don't choose to live like I do because of their lifestyles.

Nick: Do you have children who show pride in their heritage?

Norma: I have three sons, two of which honor their heritage. As a matter of fact, both obtained their jobs because of their Métis heritage. Although they are caught up in the commercial world and don't live the same way as I did when I was their age they are respectful of their ancestry. The sad part is that the heritage is probably going to be lost for the grandchildren because it is not being passed on by the parents.

Nick: Have you found there to be any negative stigma against you in the past or present as a Métis person?

Norma 2Norma: Because of the way we lived and being from a one-parent family certainly carried a stigma in itself, but coupled with the fact that we were the poorest family in our village made it very difficult. When my other siblings and myself wore hand-me-down clothes we were very often made fun of and the negative name calling was hurtful-“little savages with no shoes” or, “they are wearing what we were going to throw away in the dump”. There were times when food was scarce and that's when we ate what we could harvest from the marsh or shellfish. We learned at an early age how to use an eel spear and small hatchets. My paternal grandmother taught me how to harvest periwinkles and to use a safety pin on a string to catch fish. We never admitted to eating those things.

In order to feel like everybody else, when asked what we ate for supper we simply said “baloney” because that was something we had to buy and when food was bought from the store it made us feel important.

To catch lobster we would go to the shore at low tide and collect rocks to make a small deep well and place fish in the bottom, when the tide would rise the lobster would go into the well to eat and were unable to get out so at low tide the lobster would be harvested. What a change from yesteryear; now, lobster is such a dear food and for most people unaffordable. Another way we supplemented the family income was to harvest Irish moss, I was seven years old when I started to harvest, and in one good tide I could pick with my bare hands seven potato bags full and carry those bags half a mile to the road over soggy marshes. One bag at a time, to be hauled home by wheelbarrow to be spread in our yard, dried, bagged up and sold for four cents a pound. Ironically, my two youngest sons work in a moss and rock weed plant. The youngest, being proud of his heritage, is the manager of the shipping department. Both Irish moss and rock weed are used today in the manufacturing of pharmaceutical medicines and as well are additives in many processed foods and cosmetics such as lipstick and jello.

Nick: Can you explain your craftwork and how this relates to your identity and to the grandmothers who taught you?

Norma: I have always been fascinated with how flexible our hands can become, or are trained to become, in order to achieve the many skills needed to make the necessary items that add comfort and charm to our homes as well as display the products of our heritage. When I was growing up we had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no radio or TV, so the kids were kept busy learning to make things after the chores were all done. I can remember sitting on my maternal grandmother's knee learning to quilt blankets. When the art of quilting was mastered, then scrap pieces of material in a rainbow of colors were made available so that the girls who wanted to make their own quilt would be shown how. Grandparents played a very important role in teaching the children the basics to survival. After the quilting, the girls were introduced to embroidery and how to make pillow cases. We had a 4-H club and the year I earned thirty-five cents for a first prize entry was so special. I was only eleven years old and I was highly praised for my efforts, and that in turn made me want to excel and learn more new skills.

Nick: Do you think the current generation of Métis children and teenagers are identifying and showing pride in their Métis heritage? Do you think this is important? Why?

Norma: There seems to be an interest in learning the culture in the schools in the area as of the past three or four years. I have been asked to visit the schools and talk to the children and to show the baskets, Sacred Objects, and other work I do to give them a better understanding and to take away the fear of “Indian”. I try to explain to them that taking care of Mother Earth is going to be up to them in the future, and that they have to be responsible for their actions in showing respect to all things in Creation. The younger ones (grades one to five) are very receptive, but no one is getting to the older ones and I feel this is important. Teachers contact us to show them how to tan hides and some of the students in Junior High have been here at our home to have me show them how to make baskets, etc. for school projects in their Mi'kmaq classes. There are no school programs that include inviting myself or others yet for the higher grades, only the Elementary schools.

Over the past few centuries fear has dominated all things that pertain to Native Cultures. In order to keep from being put on reserves my Ancestors moved to the Islands and lived there for many generations. They learned how to survive from the land and sea with very little other than their hands and the will to survive. At the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians, the Natives were given the Acadian children as their own and the Mi'kmaq hid them in the back woods of Nova Scotia in places such as New France etc. so they wouldn't have to leave here and the way of life. This was done in the hope of reuniting again with the parents sometime in the future. This would mean having to become loyal to the British and many of them didn't, so many of the families were not reunited. As well, many of the parents died during the deportation. As you may imagine there were many scenarios. Many of the Acadian children were adopted by the Mi'kmaq and others returned back to the islands where they could live from the land. The Mi'kmaq were placed on stripped land called “Reserves” and the descendants are still there today in many instances. The Acadians that were reunited were spared from reserves and earned a living from the sea.

History is very important, it teaches us about what tribulations were endured, how we got to be where we are, and also gives us an idea of where we must go and what we must do in the future. The future is not only the time factor, but the people who will be here will make important decisions that ensure the future of their seven generations to come.

Nick: What does being Métis mean to you on a deep, personal level?

Norma: Being Métis to me means having had the good fortune of being born into a rich culture where I can freely celebrate my French Acadian side and still be accepted by my First Nation relatives. This is what being Métis actually is a person born of mixed blood relations. After my children were old enough, I was able to enter the work force. My chosen career was nursing and here I felt I had truly found my proper place in life, working in a nursing home where the population was elderly. These people who had lived through the trials and tribulations of the wars and other trying times provided me with a deeper appreciation of what our ancestors had endured to make the world a better place for us. Their only request was for me to try to make a better life for the generations to come. That has been my goal and the place to start is in the schools. They teach a variety of subjects but the Métis and First Nation culture is not being fully explored. The past two years at the high school level there has been a program introduced to better understand the Native side. I have been asked to be a resource person and have taught students to make baskets as a school project. I feel we are starting to make progress in this way and it is very deeply satisfying to me to be part of this new trend.

Nick: When did you acquire and what is the meaning/significance of your spirit name, ‘L'il Red Feather'?   

Norma: When I turned sixty years of age, I was taught the art of making ash baskets. This teaching came to me from a Native Elder, who was living alone and had no family of his own and was in the habit of paying us visits from time to time. Mainly I think it was the apple pie that always told him it was time for a visit. One February day he came to visit, and having a deer roast in the oven convinced him to stay for supper, only to find himself snowbound after supper. He just happened to have ash splints in his truck and decided he would make a basket. I was so fascinated by what he was doing and sat close by to capture his every move.

When he noticed that I was showing interest he offered to teach me in exchange for his bed and board. The next fourteen days the storm raged and we made baskets. He would tell me stories of his hunting and fishing trips as we worked side-by-side. One day he told me that every artist has a brand or trade mark and I had to think and pray to find the proper name for my crafts. I couldn't find a proper name for myself, and anyway it is customary for an Elder to give you the name, so after observing me for a few days he told me I should insert a little red feather between the weavers on all my baskets. With a prayer and blessing he named me L'il Red Feather and explained that no one else has that name and the Spirits would recognize me from that day forward. He also told me to always identify myself by my Spirit name of L'il Red Feather when attending Native Talking Circles. In the white world people have “pet” names for their children; this practice was borrowed from the Natives. When I attend markets where crafts are sold, I often find baskets with my little red feather tucked inside the weavers; it gives me a good heart-warming feeling, a completion of my identity.

Nick: On what occasions do you wear your Métis apparel and what significance does this have to you?

Norma: When the community has a significant event to celebrate, we are invited to attend. This past summer the Iron Bridge between Surette's Island and Sluice Point celebrated 100 years in service. We were invited to participate wearing our Métis apparel and our group walked across the bridge playing our drums. Two years ago an old church, which was a Seven Day Advent church, was turned into an Archive and to commemorate the opening, the directors decided on a special blessing for this old building. They chose to replicate the blessing as it may have been done at the turn of the century, therefore inviting the son of the first Seven Day Advent minister, who is also a minister. They also wanted to include all the groups that would have been present at that time to properly represent the time period. They chose a Catholic Priest, my husband and myself to complete the third part of the three classes of people. We represented the Métis/Native community and we were the first to say our blessing acknowledging that we were here first. There was a large group in attendance, with government officials from different levels of government-municipal, provincial, as well as federal. We were asked to lead the group to the area where the Blessing was to be held and we were led to our spot by a bagpiper in full dress. This was the highlight of our journey so far. As we finished our Prayers to the amazement of everyone there, Grandfather Eagle came hovering over the congregation to carry our Prayers to the Creator.

Nick: Are there any customs or events that you partake in that are characteristic of the Métis community?

Norma: When a Métis person dies, we are very often requested by the family to be present at the funeral parlor with our drums to play and sing. This winter we were invited to partake in the celebration during the funeral mass of Roland Surette, one of our own group. Some families ask for an Honor Guard procession to the gravesite where there is no singing but the drum is played in a faint heartbeat. Last month our local nursing home organized a Métis day and the staff also had invited a grade one class to attend. A busload full of children arrived and what a beautiful time was shared. It was wonderful to witness the merging of those two generations-the children dancing to the beat of our drums and the older people keeping time as well by tapping feet and hands from their wheelchairs. As we become known and people learn that the Métis group of people in this area are willing to go to any event, invitations are coming in more and more to attend community functions.

Nick: Where would you like to see the Métis people in terms of the culture in Canada in the future and what changes would you like to be made, if any?

Norma 3Norma: For my children and their children, I would like to see a climate of appreciation for not only Métis/First Nation but for all multicultural groups that choose to call Canada home. Most of all I would hope and pray for a genuine respect of our cultures, in schools, churches and most importantly in our own communities. I would change the school system to include Métis/First Nation teachings, crafts and customs. I would dearly love to see a special national day set aside to honor the Métis people and culture. Even in our governments they are realizing that in order for the country to have total representation, the various minority groups have to be included in Parliament. They are getting close but we are not there yet. We have been here a long time and will be here even longer...we are not going away. We may differ from the western Métis because of the many miles that separate us but our purpose for being where we are remains the same ...above all honor our Creator, our Ancestors, and be good caretakers of our Country.

The Métis/First Nation people live by these Seven Virtues: Respect, Humility, Courage, Bravery Honesty, Truth and Wisdom. If these were applied and adhered to in all areas of our daily life what a change this would make.

You will notice that I have many times used Métis/First Nation; the reason being that one set of grandparents were Mi'kmaq and I will never be able to find it in my heart to deny them, for in denying them I would be taking away a precious part of myself and I honestly believe myself to be a complete person and am very proud of my heritage. At present I am still learning about my Mi'kmaq roots and traditions and there is a lot to learn-the medicines, the legends, the ceremonies, the crafts linked directly to the Mi'kmaq as well as the language which I am in the process of learning ... one word at a time.

We'lalin.......Mi'kmaq for thank you
Merci.... French for thank you
Thank You Nick for accompanying me on this journey,
Norma.....L'il Red Feather.