New Brunswick

Meet the Mi'kmaw elder whose song has become an anthem for his people

Mi’kmaw Elder George Paul says the Mi’kmaq Honour Song came to him after a spiritual journey that began in the backwoods of Metepenagiag in the late 1970s.

George Paul says the spirits of his ancestors and profound sadness were his inspiration

George Paul had a transformational experience in Western Canada and was inspired by the drumming, singing and dancing he'd heard and seen. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Mi'kmaw Elder George Paul of Metepenagiag is well known as the composer of the Mi'kmaq Honour Song.

The origin of the song, and of Paul's spirit name, Sky Blue Eagle, can be traced back to the first fast he ever did, back in the late 1970s.

Native American culture was experiencing a bit of a rebirth at the time, as a spinoff of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

As his ancestors had done, Paul went into the woods for a four-day fast, in search of spiritual guidance.

"You're doing that to show and to prove to the spirits that you are sincere," said Paul. "And that you are willing to go that far to get an understanding."

He set up camp across the Little Southwest Miramichi River from Metepenagiag, near a 3,500-year-old burial ground that had recently been rediscovered and archeologically excavated.

"We are a village that's lived here for 30 centuries," Paul said proudly. 

The Elders: George Paul

2 years ago
Duration 5:05
Creator of the Honour Song, Mi'kmaw elder George Paul has made it his quest to encourage pride in First Nations traditions.

Paul told of several experiences during that fast that were meaningful to him.

One was a close encounter with an eagle, a sacred animal in Mi'kmaw culture.

He said he also received spiritual instructions for a ceremony to repatriate artifacts from the archeological dig at the burial ground.

And he described a vision he had of many Indigenous faces and a voice he heard telling him he had to travel west to seek more knowledge.

Paul followed those instructions and had more transformative spiritual experiences in Western Canada in the 1980s.

George Paul looks out over the water in Metepenagiag, located near the head of tide on the Miramichi River. Mi'kmaq have lived here for over 3,000 years. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

One of them was at a big powwow in Regina, where about 3,000 dancers and elders had gathered from all over.

"I could feel the power of them dancing in," said Paul. "It was like watching the ancestors."

The grand parade began with the elders, some of whom looked to be over 100 years old, and ended with the youngest dancers.

When the children started dancing in, it brought tears to Paul's eyes.

"It hurt my heart," he said. "I wanted that for my people."

He wondered why nothing like this was happening back home.

"Were they ashamed? Was it outlawed?,'" he remembered thinking.

A children's book has been published based on Paul's life and the song's inspiration through Treaty Education Nova Scotia, a partnership between the Mi’kmaq and the Province of Nova Scotia. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

Afterwards, while fasting on the Kootenay Plains, Paul reflected on what he'd seen at that powwow.

"The pride that the people had here. They had everything. The kids knew their dances to every step."

"I felt so sad for our people," he said. "They didn't even know a chant."

They'd forgotten their history. They were "almost assimilated."

"I cried so much I couldn't cry anymore until I was just wailing. It was just dry wailing."

He figured out later that he was lamenting what he was beginning to understand had been lost.

"Our people were losing our culture — losing who we are."

The children's book about Paul talks about his experience at residential school. Image reproduced with permission of Nova Scotia Treaty Education, George Paul and illustrator Loretta Gould. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

Paul made a commitment to himself that he would return home and do everything he could to help remedy the situation.

He wasn't sure how, but he had been inspired by the drumming, singing and dancing he'd heard and seen. Plus, an elder out west had told him he had "a song to sing."

About a year later, Paul was taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony back home when another man told him the exact same thing — that he had a song to sing. And he began to think he really did have a message to deliver to his people.

It didn't take long for the words of the Mi'kmaq Honour Song to come to him.

Roughly translated to English, it goes:

Let us honour the people that we are

My people, let us come together

Let us honour our ancestry, our bloodlines

My people, let us help one another

Let us help one another in the manner that the Creator has placed us here upon Mother Earth

The chorus is a series of plaintive "Way-yoh-way-hi-yahs." 

Paul said that represents his crying.

"People tell me that song helped them," said Paul. "There's a spirit that moves with that song. It will get their emotions going, right? And maybe they need to cry."

A detail of one of Loretta Gould's illustrations for George Paul's autobiographical children's book. (Nova Scotia Treaty Education)

Some people have told him the song helped them recover from alcohol or drug dependency and get "back into a better way of life."

Nothing could please him more.

"That's what I was thinking about when I was fasting that time, you know, for people to get away from the negative ways of life and bring positivity in with our culture."

With that goal in mind, Paul and a number of other like-minded people also worked together to organize powwows and gatherings.

"We kind of motivated a trend," he said, noting that powwows are now annual events on the East Coast.

George Paul drums and sings the Mi'kmaq Honour Song at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park building. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

And the song "kind of took off" as he helped other communities get drum groups started.

It began to be used for grand entries and sung to honour individuals.

"So it does have an impact. And I see it still working today. And I hope in the future it goes on and it'll live on as long as people are interested in it."

Paul has shared the song with the Wolastoqiyik and the Cree and given permission for it to be translated into their languages.

"By all means, no problem, because that's what we need — to maintain our pride and dignity as a people."

Wolastoqi Elder Imelda Perley sings the Wolastoqey version of the Honour Song with children at St. Mary's First Nation. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Some children at a Mi'kmaq immersion school in Nova Scotia are drumming and singing it as an anthem to start each day.

"We have to express our identity and be proud of who we are."

Besides sharing his song, Paul also expresses his culture through traditional practices such as picking medicines and offering spiritual teachings. He believes in a strong spiritual connection between people and the environment.

"If you're going to provide some physical herbal medicines for somebody, you tell them, 'You have to understand that there's a spiritual connection there. Everything that has life has a purpose. And this plant or this medicine had a purpose. It's offering itself to you for your healing.'"

Paul is pleased to see Indigenous identities begin to be recognized by federal and provincial governments and other people around the world.

"Maybe they will eventually see the message in that honour song that we can respect each other as a human family."

With files from Myfanwy Davies