New Brunswick

'It's a salvage exercise for us now,' Wolastoqi historian says

New Brunswickers don’t have to look to Kamloops, B.C., to find ugly, hidden truths about Indigenous history. 

Andrea Bear Nicholas uses oral accounts and archive documents in new telling of Wolastoqey history

The former chair of native studies at St. Thomas University, Andrea Bear Nicholas, now a professor emeritus, says she has received a grant to complete a book this year about the history of Kingsclear First Nation. (Submitted by Andrea Bear Nicholas)

The recent discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., made it painfully clear that Canadians have a lot to learn about Indigenous history.

But New Brunswickers don't have to look to the other side of the country to find ugly, hidden truths. They are here in our own province's history as well.

Wolastoqi historian Andrea Bear Nicholas has been researching the history of several Indigenous communities in New Brunswick for the past 20 years and hopes to publish a history of Kingsclear this year.

In the process, she said, she has uncovered some deplorable events in the community's past.

She gave the example of a story about an attack on the village by white log drivers.

"It was basically a sexual assault on the community," said Bear Nicholas. "It's a very striking, shocking and very detailed story."

Violent attack on village's women

Margaret Polchies, who was born in 1902, was recorded telling the story 50 years ago.

She said it had been passed on to her by her father, who was born around 1882. He had heard it from an earlier storyteller.

According to Polchies, 100 woodsmen attacked the village in the middle of the night and were targeting women. The women ran for their lives with their children into the woods. 

One woman stayed behind. She stood against the river drivers and "really put up a fight."

Somebody from the village went to town to ask the soldiers for help, Bear Nicholas said.

In the morning, soldiers brought the women and their children down from the woods. But the attack had lasted most of the night.

Mary Ellen Badeau, one of Bear Nicholas's former students at St. Thomas University, was able to find corroborating evidence that some kind of fight between Indigenous people and woodsmen had indeed taken place in Kingsclear in the spring of 1861.

The Provincial Archives of New Brunswick has record of an inquest into the death of a white woodsman during the incident, Bear Nicholas said.

"If it had been any of our people that had died in the attack, you can bet there probably never would have been any other documentation."

A painting of Kingsclear in 1832 by John Campbell, the son of Lt. Governor Archibald Campbell (Library and Archives Canada)

According to the archived documents, eight to 10 woodsmen had entered the village, although the story passed down at Kingsclear recounts that there were 100 woodsmen.

The real number is probably somewhere in between, Bear Nicholas said.

But the difference in perspective and the fact that the tale survived 160 years make it an "incredible" example of the importance and power of the oral tradition.

It also shows the ability of the storytellers.

"The beauty of that story is that the storyteller actually describes in detail the fright of the people and the terror and the yells and the man who went to town and what he said to the authorities at the soldiers' barracks."

Storytellers 'completely disrespected'

Part of the legacy of colonialism is that a lot of Indigenous history was lost.

Traditional storytellers were not allowed to speak their languages, said Bear Nicholas, and were severely punished if they did.

"These storytellers who had this incredible amount of cultural, political, social and historical knowledge were completely disrespected and completely ignored," she said.

"It's a salvage exercise for us now."

Bear Nicholas recalled another oral account from an elder who used to visit her childhood home. He told of a man from Kingsclear who was beaten to death by law enforcement officers.

The man, who had moved to Woodstock in the early 1900s, had been fishing and hunting, Bear Nicholas said. That wasn't allowed off reserve, and even on reserve, permission had to be requested to fish, hunt or cut wood. 

The man was arrested when wardens searched his house and found dried moose meat and smoked salmon, she said.

"They took him to jail. They beat him up. And he died." 

That man was the grandfather of the person who told her the story, the late Peter Paul.

Paul was made a member of the Order of Canada and awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of New Brunswick for the traditional knowledge he shared with linguists, historians, and anthropologists.

The story was verified by another member of the Paul family, Bear Nicholas said.

There are many other stories that have been passed down orally, she said, about women being midwives and about medicines, foods, cooking and travels.

Together, they make up an oral history that Bear Nicholas believes is the best source of information about traditions and how people understood the land and used resources. 

And she wants her people to have that history back.

That way, she said, "we can begin to know who our heroes are. We can take pride in what our struggles were and what we survived."

Forced relocation

The journal of a Roman Catholic priest, which Bear Nicholas found on a research trip to Paris in 2001, reveals he had been told to move the Wolastoqiyik of Ekwpahak to Tobique in the late 1700s.

But the Wolastoqiyik refused. 

That led the priest to eventually buy land in 1795 for what is now Kingsclear First Nation.

When the railroad came through in 1912, compensation for the right-of-way was issued, but it didn't go to the people of Kingsclear.

People of the community had been queued up to receive payment, Bear Nicholas said, when the priest of the day cut to the front of the line with a document showing the land was in the church's name.

"Little pieces of history keep showing up that show how we've been cheated time and again," she said.

Documenting and correcting racism

Bear Nicholas's book won't be comfortable reading. Some of the documents she is including are "really offensive," she said.

But she thinks her people need to know how others felt about them and treated them.

She also wants to correct lies and misinformation.

In what little has been published about Wabanaki people, Bear Nicholas has found prejudiced statements such as: they "made no cultural contributions," they "had no agriculture or political systems," the way they talked was "queer," their singing was "not pleasant," and they died from accidents and sickness because they did not know how to care for themselves. 

A textbook her husband had at university in the 1980s stated "the Indian was not only useless, but an active menace whose speedy extermination would be an unqualified boon."

Two other "awful" textbooks were still on the shelves of New Brunswick public schools in the mid-1990s, she said. 

One of them asked students, "Do you think Indians were clever or stupid?"

"What we have been exposed to and our children have been exposed to has just been the most degrading material that we can imagine."

Storyteller's grandson points to rich history

Victor Atwin, grandson of storyteller Margaret Polchies, said that when he went to "Indian" day school, his textbook might have had a grand total of 10 lines about the Maliseet.

Basically, it said they existed and lived along the St. John River, he said.

The real history is much richer.

"My grandmother was a great storyteller," said Atwin.

"She recalls quite a period of time before my coming into the world, and she lived on the river with her father and mom."

They travelled "quite extensively" on the river, he said, making baskets, trapping, picking butternuts and selling their crafts.

Atwin thinks it's important for Indigenous history to be told by Indigenous voices.

"I think it needs to be heard for the true interpretation of what she experienced, what she remembers, and not have it misconstrued."

He hopes it counteracts some negative stereotypes.

"You hear enough of that negative stuff, in time, over years, as you grow older, you believe, 'Oh, that's what they're really like'."

Bear Nicholas has laboured for decades and collected piles of research material to try to set the record straight.

Lots of research to share

She received a grant to finish the Kingsclear book this year and has a deal with Goose Lane Editions, a Fredericton-based publisher.

She hopes to publish histories of St. Mary's and Oromocto First Nations next year and to maybe do a book on Woodstock First Nation the year after that.

She also has "about 10 boxes and two filing cabinets" full of Tobique history.

"I've just got to live long enough" to get all of this material published, she said.

"These stories need to get out."

With files from Myfanwy Davies