'The scalp of Edward Cornwallis' to be sold online by Mi'kmaq group

The organizer says the auction is strictly satirical — no grave digging has taken place — but she's hoping the controversial items will draw attention to issues affecting Mi'kmaq communities.

Facebook auction for fake remains of European settlers meant to 'poke the bear,' says organizer

This piece of moose hide, brought home by Elizabeth Marshall's dog, is said to be the mock 'scalp of Edward Cornwallis.' (Submitted by Elizabeth Marshall)

A well-known Mi'kmaq grandmother is raising some eyebrows in Nova Scotia with an online auction that lists "the scalp of Edward Cornwallis," and other risqué items, for sale.

Cornwallis was a British military officer who founded the city of Halifax in 1749. Later that year, he issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq people. Also up for grabs is a piece of wood that's said to come from "the casket of Cornwallis' great-grandmother," among other symbolic items.

'Poking the bear'

Elizabeth Marshall of Eskasoni First Nation, who organized the auction, said she's hoping the controversial items will draw attention to various issues affecting Mi'kmaq communities in her area, but added the auction is strictly satirical — no grave digging has taken place.

"I am 'poking the bear,'" Marshall said with laugh.

"The scalp is just a moose [hide] my dog brought home, which is perfect. I just found out that Cornwallis first settled in moose territory. All these things just came together." 

Marshall, a history teacher by trade, is well known in Mi'kmaq communities for her outspoken activism and roles as a grandmother, warrior and water protector. She said provoking reactions, good or bad, is part of a Mi'kmaq resistance strategy called "The Crow-Hop," adding that the crow is one of the few animals to use tools to provoke their prey. 

The auction will be part of the third Facebook livestream in a series Marshall is calling "Treaty Talks." The series, Marshall said, is to serve as an educational tool for anyone who wants to learn about Indigenous rights.

The auction will be part of the third livestream in an educational series Marshall calls "Treaty Talks." (Facebook)

Conversations in the first two livestreams included missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Mi'kmaq scalping proclamation of Edward Cornwallis, and what Marshall called the "desecration" of traditional Mi'kmaq lands.

Marshall said the auction idea stems from a Mi'kmaq tradition carried out when a community member dies. An auction of the person's beloved possessions is held to raise money to ease the financial burden of their family members. In this case, Marshall said any money raised will go to her not-for-profit, the Treaty Beneficiaries Organization.

"Back when Cornwallis made the scalp proclamation, a scalp was worth 35 pounds sterling," she said.

"A friend of mine did the math with inflation and it would be worth almost $13,000 Cdn today." 

'Selling their dead people'

The "Treaty Talks" auction is being held for some of Nova Scotia's first European settlers, said Marshall, laid to rest at St. George's Anglican Church cemetery in downtown Sydney, N.S. St. George's is a designated provincial heritage building, and sits along an "Old Sydney" touring route for visitors to the area.

"[The church] is a tourist attraction that's marketed by the Cape Breton tourist industry," said Marshall.

"Since they're selling their dead people, I figured it's OK."  

Marshall points to St. George's Anglican Church cemetery being marketed as a tourist attraction. (Facebook)

In a conversation with CBC News, a spokesperson from St. George's was sympathetic to Marshall's cause, but said there is no charge for visitors to the church. 

But Marshall said there are other points to be made by selling the "scalp." 

Recently, the Mining Association of Nova Scotia proposed mining within a protected wilderness area on Kellys Mountain in Cape Breton. The area is one of the most sacred spaces in Mi'kmaq culture, and protesters were calling it the "scalping of Kluscap mountain."

"The non-native community doesn't like it when we apply a value to their sacred remains, but that's what's happening to the Mi'kmaq," said Marshall.

"It doesn't feel very good, does it?" 

Though it is her intention to cause discomfort, Marshall said she's very aware of the criticism the auction is receiving.

"Even in my own community I'm feeling it," she said.

"There is some uneasiness around [the auction], but I'm uncomfortable that they're trying to scalp Kluscap mountain. Humbleness is an important part of our culture, but I'm bold enough to go out into an non-Aboriginal community and ask for attention on these issues." 

This wreath, resembling 'the crown of thorns worn by Christ,' was handmade and donated to the auction. (Submitted by Elizabeth Marshall)

Paying respects

Marshall has asked for the forgiveness of Mi'kmaq elders for any perceived disrespect to the dead.

After the auction and livestream ends, she said a ceremony will be performed to honour the spirits of the dead settlers, which is part of the Mi'kmaq's treaty agreements to help the spirits of those who have died in Nova Scotia to "continue their journey peacefully."

About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.