On October 1st each year Nova Scotia celebrates Treaty Day, when nation-to-nation covenants between the indigenous Mi’kmaq and British Crown (now the Government of Canada) are reaffirmed in Halifax (Kjipuktuk in the Mi’kmaw language). Yesterday, to mark the occasion the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre presented a program of dance, song, drumming and cultural teaching along with a free meal of Atlantic salmon to all comers as a gesture of the Peace and Friendship which the treaties were intended to nurture. The troubled three-century history of the treaties and subsequent colonial abuses is too complex to relate here, but is the reason why many people were wearing orange shirts of remembrance. But this was a day of celebration and reconciliation, which put me in mind of another, more ancient annual feast.
Some say that after bringing the sky, water, land, plants and living creatures into being, the Creator gave life to a legendary hero called Kluscap (Glooscap), and then to other relatives. The story is told that when time came for Kluskap and his grandmother to leave this world, he asked his mother and nephew to tend a Great Spirit Fire for seven years, after which it would touch the earth to make seven sparks that would become seven women, then another seven would become men. This they did, just as Kluskap asked, near the shores of an inlet sheltered from the sea called Waegwoltic. From these spark-born couples came the ancestors of the seven original families of Mi’kma’ki – the land of the Mi’kmaq – that stretches from the southern tip of Nova Scotia to the northern borders of today’s New Brunswick, including Cape Breton and Prince Edward Islands. This spirit place became known as Amto’u’kati, named for a legendary warrior who established his lodge at the head of what we now call the Northwest Arm, extending seaward to embrace much of today’s South End of Halifax and Point Pleasant Park.
The rhythm of life in Mi’kma’ki was set by the seasons. Summer was a time of abundant resources along the coast, for gathering shellfish, hunting marine mammals and fishing; winter a time for hunting caribou, moose and small game in the more sheltered woods inland. The leanest time was late winter and early spring, before the waking of bears or the returning of fish to spawn or sea mammals to give birth on shore; when preserved supplies were dwindling and hunting made difficult by the thaw. In the month of Etquljuiku’s (named for the little Spring Peeper frog whose chirping chorus still heralds the advent of Spring in Atlantic Canada’s woods), as rivers and lakes became navigable and long distance travel became straightforward again, families from across what are now the Maritime Provinces would travel along the water thoroughfares to converge on the shore of Amto’u’kati. As streams filled with gaspereau (also known as alewives) and clams could be gathered at low tide, seven days after the new moon in May, the People gathered to celebrate their creation and the start of a new summer. Such feasts included long orations by which traditions and genealogy were shared and remembered, with singing, dancing, and an opportunity for parentally approved courting.
Long before Europeans arrived here, the shore below today’s Atlantic School of Theology had been a gathering place for reunion, celebration, building relationships and sharing knowledge. But for what happened next, and for sources of these stories, you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming book, which is still very much a work in progress.