This week, someone told me she dislike books that feel like homework.
I’m the complete opposite: I purposely seek out these books. The more footnotes, the better. I’ve always been a bit of a masochist, preferring tough professors over easy ones. Sometimes, I choose wisdom/knowledge over simple delights.
I read The Stone Canoe as though it was assigned by an invisible, imaginary professor who was dangling a final exam above my head. It was glorious.
The first part of this book offers context on the narrators/storytellers and the translators/transcribers. The second part features various versions of a select few indigenous stories (the original Mi’kmaw words on the left page, the English translation on the right) that were collected from 1847 to around 1870. The third part features an analysis of the text & some additional thoughts about the translation & illustrations.
I’m so glad to have read Susan Barss’ story of 1847, which is probably the earliest piece of indigenous Canadian literature recorded in its original language. She deserves to have her name remembered.
I’m always fascinated to read stories that originated in the land where I live.
One of my favourite parts was learning about the aboodalooak, the double-curve motif, which felt so familiar and welcoming (like the spirals I drew in the margins of my school notes when I got overwhelmed)
(extra anecdote: Halfway through reading this book, it disappeared for weeks. I searched everywhere, driven mad by confusion and curiosity, only to rediscover it when I stopped searching. It had fallen behind the other books on my shelf, mocking me from the shadows, forcing me to take a non-fiction break…ha!)
The Stone Canoe: Two Lost Mi’kmaq Texts
Elizabeth Paul, Peter Sanger, Alan Syliboy
Mi’kmaq, Indigenous, Canadian, Legend & Myth, Nonfiction
This is a story about two stories and their travels through the written record. The written part begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when Silas T. Rand, a Baptist clergyman from Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, took as his task the translation of the Bible into Mikmaq the language of the indigenous communities in the region. […] Rand transcribed narratives from Mikmaq storytellers, and following his death, 87 of these stories were published in a book called Legends of the Micmacs. […] Until recently, it appeared that none of the early transcriptions in the original Mikmaq had survived. Then, in 2003, poet and essayist Peter Sanger uncovered two manuscripts […] at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. One of these contains the story of Little Thunder and his journey to find a wife, as told to Rand by Susan Barss in 1847. The other is the story of a woman who survives alone on an island after being abandoned by her husband. It was told by a storyteller known to us now only as Old Man Stevens and dates from 1884. Both are among the earliest examples of indigenous Canadian literature recorded in their original language; the 1847 transcript being perhaps the earliest. Their publication in The Stone Canoe makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Mikmaq storytelling and indigenous Canadian literature.
9 dec 2022
25 jan 2023
It’s not my place to review this one, just to elevate different voices. Here are some of the passages that were significant to me instead of the usual review.
From the historical context at the start:
“The story of 1847 is probably the earliest piece of indigenous Canadian literature recorded in its original language” p.17,
“Rand’s translations of parts of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament into Mi’kmaq are no longer read, and they never accomplished Rand’s main purpose […] By contrast, Susan Barss’s voice in the manuscript of 1847 survives as a central text in Mik’maq and Canadian literature.” p.28,
“‘Brooks,’ I [Rand] said to him one day, “how came you to go off as you did among the Indians?’ ‘O well,’ was his quiet remark, ‘perhaps some good may come of it after all.’” p.42
From the stories themselves:
“They see a man with his foot bent and tied. The Wolverine says, ‘Why is his foot bent and tied?’ Tied-Up Foot says, ‘No my friend, if I untie it, I will go all over the world.’” p.69,
“‘You have made a big fire. Make a smaller one when we stay over again.’[…] ‘You have made a big house. […] If we stay over another night, don’t make the wigwam like this. Just light the fire.’” p.73,
“‘[…]A skunk is there and he will kill you.’ Kluscap says to Wolverine, ‘Take the chanting rock. Choose a good song and sing it. If he dances, he will not do anything to you.’” p.76-7,
“they look back they see coming soldiers guns bringing” p.83,
“Now the old woman pulls out a bone of a beaver an old one
It She scrapes it into the a dish.” p.84,
“The old Lady rejoices her daughterinlaw
she brings in is brought home. This is correct.” p.88,
“‘Would,’ thought he, ‘that I could find a girl whose tresses were as jetty and glossy as the raven’s wing, whose skin was as white as the snow, and whose cheeks were as crimson as the blood that stains it! I would marry such a girl, could I find one.’” p.100,
“A short but significant sentence explains all: ‘My friend is tired of living alone.’ This tells the whole story, and it takes two words in Micmac to tell it: Sewincoodoo-gwahloogwět’ nǐgǔmachǔ (they are words of somewhat formidable length).” p.108,
“He sinks deeper and deeper into the earth, until at last naught save his head is seen above the ground as he spins round the circle. He then stops; but he has put an end to the dancing for that day, as the ground has been rendered totally unfit for the exercise.” p.111,
“The woman does not want her husband. So the husband leaves. He goes far away and the woman marries again. This is a true story. It is not a legend. It is a story about the old Indians.” p. 125,
From the analysis and research at the end:
“What the children in the wigwam would probably have heard first was, Rand wrote, a formulaic beginning, ‘Weegigijik kesgoök.’ He translated it as ‘The old people are encamped,’ adding, ‘by which is meant simply: ‘This is a tale of ancient times, embodying ancient manners, beliefs, customs, conditions, and operations.’” p.137,
“Her translation is: ‘This is a true story. It is not a legend…’ The epigrammatic concision of Steven’s syntax implies that he was playing two words, aknutmaqn and a’tukwaqn, ‘true story’ and ‘legend,’ against each other.” p.139,
“Rand’s akǔmootmakǔn of 1884 becomes agǔnoodumakǔn and is defined as ‘history.’ The atookakǔn of 1884 becomes atookwǒkǔn, and is defined as ‘legend,’ or, in another entry as ‘a fabulous story,’ or, in a third entry as ‘a mythological tale.’” p.139-40,
“Rand is content to say of the songs of the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq chiefs that ‘no particular meaning can now be attached to either of them.’ But that there was meaning, particular and profound meaning, must be obvious and is emphasized by inferences to be drawn from a note which Rand appended to the narrative: ‘The Indians are exceedingly careful of their songs. I have never heard them sung and explained to my recollection before; the friend who gave them to me laid me under a ban not to expose him.’” p.142,
“‘It is quite plan,’ wrote Mackenzie, ‘that Ellen had become modernized beyond the limits within which a singer must keep if he is to be an effective perpetuator of tradition. If ballads are to be kept alive they must be sung by believers to believers.’” p. 146,
“In colloquial English, ‘telling stories’ can be a euphemism for telling lies. But what if the lies sometimes begin ‘Once upon a time’?” p.148,
“Our discussion of belief, of what is or is not believable in the Mi’kmaq narratives, has come, therefore, to this: the crucial distinctions are not those between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’. […] No. The distinctions that matter are the ones we make between what is achetypically profound and coherent on the one hand, and what is anecdotal and spiritually truncated on the other.” p.149,
“Ethnologists term the motif the double-curve. Rand collected a Mi’kmaq term for the motif, aboodalooak, defining it as ‘a curved ornamental form like two crescents placed back to back.’” p.151,
“When Rand defined aboodalooak, the double curve, he ended his definition with the comment, ‘It evidently had some mystical meaning, though the oldest [Mi’kmaq] have forgotten what.’” p.154
“It would be illogical, given the ubiquity of double-curve and other similarly repetitive patterns in Mi’kmaq clothing, quill boxes, birchbark containers and wooden tools and utensils, to think that similar patterns might not appear in Mi’kmaq narratives. I believe the most analogous of the decorative patterns to the patterns of the narratives is the double curve. When, therefore, Rand ceased recording and, I suspect, ceased protecting the narratives as a record of language, he also mutilated them as narrative art, narrative pattern.” p.156
“Wolverine’s is the ultimate play of doubles in Mi’kmaq narrative. In Herakleitean terms, he is a river which can never be crossed the same way twice.” p.179
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