Out of the Depths

By (author): Isabelle Knockwood

“The Residential School experience had serious negative consequences for many of our people who have suffered in silence for too long. It is time to take the first step and let others know they are not alone in their suffering. No matter how painful, the stories of our people must be told and heard. Through sharing our past, we can begin to heal ourselves, our communities, our people as we look to a better tomorrow.” —Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, former Residential School student


Isabelle Knockwood

Isabelle Knockwood, born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, attended the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie from 1936 to 1947. She is the mother of six children and has fourteen grandchildren. At the age of fifty-eight, she enrolled at Saint Mary’s University n Halifax seeking a major in Anthropology and a minor in English; she graduated in 1992. She now lives at the Indian Brook Reserve, Nova Scotia. At a special Sunrise Ceremony at Indian Brook, Isabelle was given her Spirit name, Maqmikewe’skw, which means Mother Earth.


“Any person interested in understanding the Micmac people must read this book. It chronicles the rebuilding of a nation that was bereft of its children. Years have passed, some have spoken but many remain silent, indicating that their wounds have yet to heal.” Jean C. Knockwood, B.A., Director of Post Secondary Education, Indian Brook Reserve, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia


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When the government established the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie in 1929, the Mi’kmaw population had been decreasing for some time. The official census shows a Mi’kmaw population of just over 2000 in 1934. Despite the threat to our survival as a people, we still had a language and a culture of our own. The world of Mi’kmaw language and culture from which the children were taken when they went to the Residential School had its roots in the knowledge of many generations. When I was a little girl, one of my chores was to help the old people get settled when they came to our house to visit. They were between seventy and one hundred years old. The younger ones walked two miles through the woods from one end of the reserve to our place across the meadow. My father would be working in his nipign [an arbour made with leafy branches]. He would take a dipper of cold spring water with him and go to meet them. First, they would greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks, then they would stop and take a nice cold drink, chat a bit, then follow my father home. Sometimes one of my brothers would go with him to carry the water and other times he carried it himself. My mother and the rest of the children would watch from our yard. When the old people came, the children were instructed to help them to sit down, and to serve them a warm drink, usually tea, which was followed by a meal. Then they took out their clay pipes and Daddy passed around tobacco. When they had something important to say, they would tap their canes on the ground or floor, and the others would stop talking and listen. Some elders would not let us touch their pipes or their canes, which they kept always close by. After they had eaten, we gathered up their dishes and they would thank us. The best part came when the old people would CHAPTER 1 ORIGINS 16 OUT OF THE DEPTHS place their feeble hands on our heads and give us their blessing. Then came story time. The elders would sit in a circle and smoke their pipes. Some of them would be leaning on their canes listening to the stories. Once in a while, they’d say, A’a! There was much laughter, merriment, joking and reminiscing about the past. But when the sun started to set, the mood changed. The elders would be drowsy and some would be leaning on their canes with their eyes closed. Once in a while, one of them would get up and lie on the ground and take a nap. The Council Fire would be lit, a fresh cup of tea or pitewey [any type of warm drink] was made and pipes were refilled. Sometimes they talked all night and throughout several days. Children were never allowed to interrupt or walk in front of the people or in between them when they were talking. We were told, Muk-bed-deskow which means, “Don’t bump into her or him.” We were also taught never to walk in front of people who are talking. This custom stems back to the old belief that everyone is a spirit and a conversation between people is a spiritual experience because they are also exchanging their most valuable possession, their word. I usually sat by my mother’s knee and kept very quiet because I did not want to be told to leave. I wanted to hear all the interesting stories about my ancestors. I was listening and learning. Now, I realize that I was witnessing the Talking Stick ceremony. Some of the elders who met at my parents’ place for the Talking Stick ceremony knew the area where we lived, not as Shubenacadie, but as Sipekne’katik [the land of the wild potatoes]. In their youth they had travelled long distances in big birch-bark canoes, the whole family travelling with all their belongings, taking the family dog along for protection. They paddled to Dartmouth by way of the Shubenacadie Canal to the Mi’kmawi-qospeml [Micmac Lakes] and then down to the salt water. They often crossed over the Bay of Fundy, paddling while on their knees in the bottom of the canoes, which made them less likely to tip over. There had been a Mi’kmaw settlement at Shubenacadie since ancient times, and the area was considered especially good for its salmon fishing, for the abundance of sweetgrass and for the ash tree used in basket-making. The stories we heard the elders tell referred not just to their own experiences but to those who had lived generations earlier. The elders started their stories by saying, Sa’qewey na, 17 which means, “This originates in antiquity.” This indicated to the listeners that what they were about to say was passed down to them through their great-grandparents. So some of the legends that I and my brothers and sister heard were at least seven generations old. The stories were ancient, and the language in which they were told was even older. According to my mother, Deodis, the Mi’kmaw language evolved from the sounds of the land, the winds and the waterfalls. As far as we know, there is no other language like it spoken anywhere else in the world. One of the principal ways of teaching young children was through the telling of legends that embodied thousands of years of experience in living off the land. The storytellers emphasized living harmoniously with the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones and those that swim in the waters—all our relations. Even the plants are said to have a spirit and are our relations. When we have our sacred ceremonies, like the sweat lodge, we end it by saying, Msit no’kmaq, which means, “All my relations.” Our elders were the most respected members of the Mi’kmaw community. They were the mental storehouse for the genealogy of every member of the tribe. Young people who wanted to marry always consulted them to find out whether they were related or not. The custom of consulting elders is called Weji-kluluemk. Elders also had a vast knowledge of survival skills. They knew the seasonal cycles of edible and medicinal plants, and the migrations of animals, birds and fish, and they knew which hunting and trapping methods worked best with certain weather conditions. Mi’kmaw lore is rich with stories about how the people communicated with all these elements. The young people were educated through these stories. Children who were acting inappropriately were told a legend. Some of these were moral tales concerning appropriate action and others were lessons in survival techniques, illustrated by animal behaviour. Although the early Mi’kmaq were free of such contagious diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis, they were vulnerable to natural ills such as bone fractures, sprains, and even arthritis, so everyone knew some herbal medicine. The older ones taught the younger ones, and many times medicine and food were the same thing. People suffering from depression or grief talked to an elder who took them for a walk in the woods to find a medicine tree, a pine tree. The sufferers were in- ORIGINS 18 OUT OF THE DEPTHS structed to lean their backs up against the tree and to stay in that position until they felt its strength running up their spines. After the healing, an offering was made to the tree in acknowledgement and appreciation. Recently I found an old photograph in the Nova Scotia Museum of one such tree—a huge pine tree which used to stand on the Indian Brook Reserve. When I showed the photograph to my brother he said, “Yes, that’s the tree the people used to gather under, but the priest came and cut it down.” Traditionally we were all taught to take responsibility for the protection and nourishment of others, especially the very old, who had the wisdom and knowledge of the past, and the very young, who held the future. Older brothers and sisters were absolutely required to look after their younger siblings. When they went to the Residential School, being unable to protect their younger brothers and sisters became a source of life-long pain. Survival among the Mi’kmaq was always based on sharing. For example, people chewed food for the elders who had lost their teeth and for infants who had no teeth. Growing children were never denied food and were fed whenever they were hungry. Women breast-fed their own babies, but when a woman had twins sometimes she didn’t produce enough milk to feed both, so she gave one to another woman to nurse. This did not mean the second mother kept the child as her own, but rather a strong bonding occurred between the child, the natural mother and the wet nurse. There were no restrictions on visitation rights or the natural mother’s right to take back the responsibility of raising her own child. Lorraine Sack told me, “When my father, Bill Sack, was a week old, his mother gave him up. Aunt Jane took him and breast-fed him. Aunt Jane Howe was married to Martin Sack, who was Bill Sack’s uncle. My father always said that although we are not directly related to the Sacks he wanted us to accept them as our relatives because she had saved his life.” Direct eye contact was definitely not allowed between the younger and older generations. Partly this came from the need to maintain privacy when people lived close together in a wigwam or teepee. Direct eye contact can also be interpreted in so many different ways: challenging authority, arrogance, hostility, belligerence, or sexual invitation. When people come to your home, you are allowed to look at their faces to see what kind of message they are bringing, whether it is sad or glad, so that you will know how to act appropriately. After 19 that, it is considered rude to look at their eyes. At the school however, when we followed our training and avoided looking directly into the faces of the priest or the nuns, we were punished for being insolent. Our whole family used to go into the bush together to gather basket wood, birch-bark, medicine and berries for the winter. Sometimes, we also accompanied Daddy when he went moose hunting. He would walk ahead to read the signs of animal tracks so that the family would not accidentally stumble across the trail of a mother bear with cubs or walk in the path of a moose during the rutting season. He also had to clear the trail of overhanging branches that could injure the eyes and to watch out for hornets’ nests. It was he who decided where to camp at night, taking care to be close to a spring-water supply. If Daddy was hunting, we’d stay until he got a deer, which could be just overnight. But during the blueberry-picking season, we’d stay until we had our winter’s supply, which could take days. Some excursions combined different types of work, such as hunting and cutting trees for winter firewood or making baskets and axe handles. Medicines and herbs were gathered anytime between spring and fall. When my brothers were very young they usually walked behind with my mother, but as they grew older, they went ahead with my father and learned the art of clearing the trail. My mother always was the last one in line and acted as a guard. We always felt safe and protected everywhere we went. After carefully selecting the campsite, my father made a frame for the leanto out of logs which he covered with branches of trees with the leaves left on. My mother made the beds out of spruce boughs, while we kids carried the drinking water from the spring and gathered the firewood. At night, we slept in front of the campfire with the night sky overhead. Daddy would sit at one side of the lean-to and tend the fire while Mom sat on the other side with us five kids in between. Usually the youngest boy slept near Daddy and one of the girls next to Mom, whoever got there first. My parents would talk late into the night until we fell asleep and when we woke up in the morning, they were still there. It seemed to me they were guarding their children all through the night. Deodis, my mother, had gathered much of her traditional knowledge from the people who brought her up. She was an orphan who was adopted by a couple living on the Cambridge Reserve. This was in the early part of the twentieth century and in those days, everyone had ORIGINS 20 OUT OF THE DEPTHS chores to do. When Deodis was about seven years old, her duty was to collect kindling for the elderly couple who lived on the hill. One night she forgot, so Aunt Sapet put a lantern on one of the branches of the old pine tree so Deodis would have light to work by. When she had an apron full of dry wood, she took it up to the old people’s house. Nsukwis [my aunt] was sitting on a rocking chair looking out the window and waiting for her firewood. It was already dark inside when Deodis arrived. Deodis made a fire and some pitewey. Uncle Charlie was lying on top of the bed with his coat over his head and with his shoes still on. Deodis asked if he was sleeping and Nsukwis said that he was sick. “You better go and get Aunt Sapet and tell her to bring some ki’kwesu’skw [flag-root] for fever.” So Deodis ran down the hill and returned with Aunt Sapet and her medicine. Aunt Sapet opened the door and stopped short. She had smelled the fever. She told Deodis to stand by the door while she uncovered Uncle Charlie’s face. When she removed the coat, she saw that his face was swollen and had ugly red blotches all over it. She quickly covered up his face again and stepped back in fright. “Lapikotewit” [smallpox] she gasped. “It’s going to kill us all.” She gently but firmly pushed Deodis out the door and closed it. “I’ll come back later,” she called out. Once outside, Aunt Sapet explained to Deodis that there was no cure for smallpox and that it had already killed many Mi’kmaq and everyone was afraid of it because traditional aboriginal herbs did not work on this white man’s disease. “But I will show you how to protect yourself with the winds.” “Always start by facing in the direction where the sun comes up. Bow to the winds that blow from that direction. Greet the Great Spirit of the wind by touching your forehead with your index finger and middle finger to clear your mind. Then touch your lips to make your words true and then touch your breast to give you a kind heart. Ask the wind to blow away the evil spirits that brought the smallpox and to protect you from getting it. Do that four times, each time facing each of the directions.” As it turned out Uncle Charlie did recover and the only visible sign that he had had smallpox was that his face was covered with large scars about as round as a dime. My mother passed on some of her traditional knowledge to me. Like other Mi’kmaw mothers, she took care to teach us things which would keep us safe. For example, when she was walking with me in 21 the forest, she told me to listen to my footsteps as I went along so when I retraced my steps back home I would recognize the different sounds and realize if I was going the wrong way before going too far. When we were taken into the bush as tiny children we began learning about the environment from the cradle-board strapped to our mother’s back or from sleeping and waking up in a hammock between two trees. As our mother walked along, we saw the changing landscapes. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, in all kinds of weather, the sky, the trees, the ground, and the waters were what we saw. Upon wakening in the morning, our first sight was usually the branches and leaves silhouetted against the ever-changing sky and the last thing before the dream world took over, we saw the moon and stars and the Milky Way of the night world. Many parents recognized that their children would need other kinds of knowledge to get along in the white world. My father, John Stephen Knockwood, who was also known as Ekian [Stephen] Subbadis had never attended school, but had taught himself to read and write by reading the Halifax Herald from cover to cover every week. He’d buy the paper at the City Market every Friday after selling baskets, axe handles and herbal medicines—he had to keep the herbal medicines under the table because their sale was illegal and he was risking arrest by selling them. When he came across words he didn’t understand in his newspaper he would ask the non-Native customers to explain, and so gradually he learned to read and write English. Deodis was also self-taught, although she used to tell me that she had a grade four education. When she was seven years old, she had been sent to a Kentville public school where she was called a “squaw,” stoned and chased home to the reserve every day. One day, instead of running, she turned on her tormentors and beat them up. She scratched, kicked and bit, and gave them the “dead man’s grip,” by which she meant she refused to let go of the handful of hair she had grabbed. Consequently, she was expelled. Aunt Sabet told her, “You may stay home now, because you went to school for four days.” To Deodis, this meant that she was in grade four. She was very proud that she had taught herself to sign her name and to make out a grocery list. In any Mi’kmaw family the worst act a child could commit was to endanger the lives of the younger children. Once, for example, all five of us jumped on the bumper of a moving car. Some white people had ORIGINS 22 OUT OF THE DEPTHS come to our house to buy baskets and when they drove away, we went joy-riding on their bumper. As a punishment, we were switched. It was believed that the bushes have a spirit and were good medicine. Now you’re going to get your “medicine,” we were told. The sting was remembered for a long time. Doug Knockwood remembers one occasion when he received his “medicine” from a birch switch: My mother and grandfather and uncle were very traditional people and had a different way of correcting and teaching me which was by talking to me and by using switches on the ankles. That switch on the ankles taught me more than getting a belt across the ass because when my mother had to resort to the switch, I knew that I had done something very serious, like the time I ran away when Mom was home alone. She came three miles after me with a little birch switch. Every couple hundred feet she would ask, “Are you going to run away again?” And I’d say, “No.” Then I’d get a whip across the ankles and I’d step dance for a little while. The highest reward was to be praised by Saqmawinu at a public gathering. That is when an elder stands up before the whole community and tells what you have done to benefit everyone. Earning an eagle feather is a great honour because it proves that you have received public recognition for something done for the community and not for yourself. The eagle feather symbolizes high ideals because it comes from a bird that flies higher than any other bird and comes closest to the source of life’s energy, which is the sun. Those who established the Indian Residential Schools across Canada regarded all we had learned from our parents and grandparents with contempt and hatred. As Bernie Knockwood sees it: “They were making a value judgement based on white middle-class values. Looking at it from the Native perspective—even though you were hungry and dirty, you knew that you were being loved because when there was food, you were the first one to be fed.” Although his grandparents reared him in poverty, Bernie still remembers their pride and their dignity: 23 One of the things I remember is when I used to go picking sweetgrass with my grandmother. She used it in her fancy baskets. I always have a braid in my room which I use for smudging [using the smoke for cleansing] and which reminds me of my grandmother. Whenever I went to my grandparents’ house, the first thing that I noticed was the aroma of sweetgrass. I can remember in Parrsboro, my grandmother would take one side of the street and I’d take the other and we’d go door-to-door trying to sell baskets. On good days, if we sold our baskets, we’d buy a bus ticket and food and we’d go visit my grandmother’s friend. She lived on the end of this fairly long driveway. Off on the left, there was a small marsh with a freshwater stream which would flood when the tide came in. Before the bus came in, we’d spend a good part of the afternoon picking sweetgrass. Back on the bus home, people would make rude comments about the stink from the sweetgrass. My grandmother, who was just a tiny woman, would just sit there with her head held high and look at me and say, “Don’t listen to them Kwi’s [son].” To this day, I can still hear her. Other times, we’d be walking on that road after dark because we never sold a basket. We’d walk all the way and get back around twelve o’clock. Gramp would be waiting for us near the spring with a lantern. Bernie’s grandfather made axe handles to sell in neighbouring towns: From the time he gathered the wood and made the handles, it took three weeks of hard work. That’s working day-in and day-out, sometimes all night. And those axe handles were just as smooth with no knots and just as straight. I remember sitting there and him showing me how to “glass” them and sand them with sand paper. I felt proud for what I could do. It wasn’t much but I felt that anything I could do was a help . . . In the morning, he’d hitchhike into Parrsborough. And I would sit up on the hill and watch for the Acadian Lines bus. If it stopped, it meant that Gramp sold his axe handles but if it didn’t stop, I would go down to that spring with the lantern ORIGINS 24 OUT OF THE DEPTHS and I’d see him coming through the dark. I’d run down and take the handles and we’d go home. And we’d be talking all the way up. He’d tell me, “It was a rough day today. Nobody wants handles. Tomorrow morning, I’ll catch the Advocate bus and go to Amherst and I won’t come home until I sell them all.” Part of his grandparents’ devotion to him was shown in their refusal to teach him the Mi’kmaw language: After work, I’d take the shavings from their work and pile them up against a tree for a pillow and I’d lay there in the sun and listen to them talk. They would always speak in Mi’kmaw and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I asked my grandmother, “Why don’t you teach me how to speak Mi’kmaw?” And she told me, “You don’t need to know how to speak Mi’kmaw. We know how to speak Mi’kmaw and all we did was starve. When you speak Mi’kmaw, you starve. We don’t want you to starve.” Like many other Mi’kmaq who went through the residential school system, Bernie is now beginning to reclaim part of the cultural legacy that the school tried so hard to exterminate: Going to that Residential School didn’t kill what was in us. And now we’re trying to get back some semblance of what we were. But there’s no way we can go back to do what our grandparents used to do because we don’t want to give up what we have now, but what I would like to see is at least a large proportion of our philosophy and our way of doing things restored so that we will be able to incorporate it into our lives as a part of our core value for ourselves and our children and our children’s children.

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176 Pages
9in * 6in * 0.5in


July 15, 2001


Fernwood Publishing



Book Subjects:

LAW / Indigenous Law

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