More than just a "lifestyle": The Mi'kmaw roots of East Coast hospitality

- June 19, 2020

Sharing a meal. (Pexels photo, used under Creative Commons license.)
Sharing a meal. (Pexels photo, used under Creative Commons license.)

About the author: Margaret Robinson is the director of the Indigenous Studies program at Dalhousie. She's an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology with a cross-appointment in the Department of English.

National Indigenous History Month has me thinking about roots — mine are Mi’kmaq and Scottish. Gardening in my yard, I notice that root systems grow together. Our cultural roots also do this, I think.

In her essay, “Who is your mother? The red roots of white feminism,” Indigenous poet and activist Paula Gunn Allen details how “the American dream” of freedom and equality is derived from Indigenous political systems, particularly the “White Roots of Peace, also called the Great Law of the Iroquois,” which codified women’s “decision-making and economic power.” Gunn Allen argues that democracy and feminism have their source in Indigenous life, along with North American’s wealth, values, food and much of its medicine.

I think Allen has a good point. And I propose that our much-beloved Maritime tradition of hospitality is rooted in Mi’kmaw hospitality, which is embedded in the land from which it springs. Maritime hospitality is legendary, especially to Maritimers ourselves. It’s an industry, for sure, but it’s not just a marketing campaign.

Hospitality is vital in times of trouble. On September 11, 2001, I entered a student lounge at the University of Toronto to find friends huddled around the television. In New York, car alarms blared and people ran screaming as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed into an enormous grey dust cloud. As events unfolded, stories emerged of flights being re-routed and passengers stranded at airports outside of Halifax and in Gander, Newfoundland. Even as the reporters revealed the scope of the problem — thousands of passengers trapped in planes for hours, in need of food, shelter and support — I sighed my relief. They were on Canada’s East Coast, home of hospitality.

“They’ll be fine,” I assured my friends. “Gander’s got ‘em,” And they did. With a population under 10,000, Gander hosted passengers and airline crew members totaling 6,600. Halifax took in 40 flights carrying 8,800 passengers. I was proud of Atlantic Canada that day, and as I learn more about my Mi’kmaw culture, I ponder the role our own habits played in creating that culture of welcome and generosity.

Gestures of friendship and generosity

The roots of hospitality grow deep in Mi’kmaw tradition. French Franciscan Missionary, Father Chrestien Le Clercq, arrived in Mi’kmaw territory in Gaspé in 1673. In addition to observing our written language (birchbark for the win!), Le Clerq noted our hospitality and a translation of his work paints a picture familiar to many:

“Hospitality is in such great esteem among our Gaspesians [the Mi’kmaq in what is currently Quebec] that they make almost no distinction between the home-born and the stranger. They give lodging equally to the French and to the Indians who come from a distance, and to both they distribute generously whatever they have obtained in hunting and in the fishery, giving themselves little concern if the strangers remain among them weeks, months and even entire years” (p. 245).

I suspect this nurturing instinct may be the reason I once let an acquaintance sleep in the office of our one-bedroom apartment for a month while my partner and I camped in the living room.

Traditionally, Mi’kmaq who travelled might stop at any wenji'guom [house] to which they felt drawn, share in whatever food and drink was to be had. If the family wasn’t home, guests helped themselves. I heard an echo of this in my childhood growing up in the 1970s in Eskikewakik — Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore — when settler and Mi’kmaw friends dropped by unexpectedly, and entered unlocked homes to deliver extra blueberries or lobsters.

Of course, an open-door policy comes with risk. In his book about the expulsion of the Acadians, Settler historian John Mack Faragher recounts how “Shipwrecked English sailors, rescued by a Mikmaw family, murdered and mutilated their hosts (including a mother and her two children).” Faragher reports that sailors were hoping to collect a scalp bounty, unaware that Governor Peregrine Thomas Hopson had cancelled the bounty.

A tradition of hospitality makes sense in a culture by the sea. Have you been in the ocean? It’s freaking cold! Humans can develop hypothermia in less than 15 minutes. So it makes sense for survival to pull together and be helpful. I keep my office well-stocked with tea for people needing shelter from the cold waters of academia.

Sharing culture and comfort

As Janice Esther Tulk reports in her thesis on Mi’kmaq powwow culture, “There is important cultural value placed on hospitality, taking care of visitors, providing for their need, and sharing meal with them.” Tulk wasn’t kidding. A copy of The Micmac News from June of 1971 features a letter to the editor from John Herney of Eskasoni, then living in Calgary, inviting readers to visit him. “if anyone comes down to Stampede, or is coming out our way” he writes, “I have not forgotten Micmac hospitality or my language, and they are welcome here at any time.”

I spoke with Cathy Martin, director of Indigenous community engagement at Dalhousie, and asked her about hospitality. She recalled a discussion with Helen Martin of Membertou, co-founder and first president of Nova Scotia Native Women's Association:

“I remember asking her, ‘if you could tell the young people anything, what would it be?’ And she said, ‘I just want everyone to know that the basis of our governance is the concept of sharing. That’s the most important thing.’”

As a university community I think sharing knowledge is a key piece of how we do hospitality, so it makes sense to see signs that read Bienvenue/Pjila'si/Welcome in the library. In a TEDx talk from 2016, Rebecca Thomas speaks about the Mi’kmaw word:

“This is Mi’kmaw territory, and many of you might have heard the word pjila'si to mean ‘welcome.’ That’s what it’s used for, but the literal translation of the concept equates to ‘I’ll do my best.’ That’s a much more nuanced and meaningful interaction. In this moment, a person-to-person contract is being agreed upon.”

As I garden between teleconferences and prepare to teach online in the fall, I think of how important sharing and hospitality is in a community where we’ll be seeing one another again and again.

I’m a newbie to Mi’kmaq, but I notice that our word for goodbye is borrowed from French, while the more common farewell, “Ne'multes,” means ‘see you later.’


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