Luke YohoAPTN News
Donald Julien looks over baskets and boxes of items that have been carefully spread out across the long board table, waiting to be catalogued for the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq.
Among the objects that have been wrapped with extra care in white packing paper, one of the most significant is a rare collection of recorded interviews donated by Mi’kmaw elder Lillian Marshall.
The interviews held within those cassettes, all labelled by hand and kept inside tarnished carrying cases, are accounts Marshall collected and transcribed while working for the Union of Nova Scotia Indians during the 1970s.
Lillian Marshall, or Ms. Lilly to her friends and colleagues, was an accomplished Mi’kmaw historian, linguist, and philanthropist. She died last April at the age of 83.
Julien is executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, and worked alongside Marshall for decades.
Julien reflects fondly on his long-time colleague’s efforts and contributions to the Confederacy, as well as to Mi’kmaq culture as a whole.
“Lillian and I met in Membertou, and that’s when we started doing research,” says Julien. “Lillian was doing interviews, talking about what we call ‘centralization.’”
In 1942, the government began to implement a plan that included relocating Mi’kmaq people onto one of four “centralized” reserves, two in Nova Scotia and two in New Brunswick. The government promised adequate housing, educational opportunities and improved delivery of services, as long as they remained on-reserve.
Once relocated, Indian agents would set fire to the homes of displaced residents, attempting to discourage them from returning to the nations the government intended to dissolve.
In Nova Scotia, Indigenous people were slowly being pushed onto either Eskasoni or Sipekne’katik (Shubenacadie at the time) First Nations, neither of which Marshall or her family called home.
These cassettes are not only significant individually, but are part of a greater history.
The oral accounts stored on those thin slivers of magnetic strips recall simpler times, near-forgotten traditions and samples of a dialect nearly lost to oppression.
These tapes were created in response to the 1969 White Paper policy, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s proposed initiative to dissolve the Indian Act and to dispose of pre-existing treaties.
The threat of losing their Indigenous identity inspired groups like the Union of Nova Scotia Indians to form and begin collecting their history independently, safeguarding the Indigenous perspective from being whitewashed from textbooks.
Before this turbulent time, the scenic landscape of Potlotek, along the shores of the Bras D’or Lake, is where Marshall called home.
She had managed to avoid the full grasp of the residential school system as a youth but still attended Indian Day Schools, which subsequently only provided up to a sixth-grade education and presented its own share of hardships.
This did not deter Marshall from expanding her mind.
After completing her time at the day school, she joined her parents in the forest of Una’maki, learning to be reliant on the land and absorbing the knowledge given to her by her elders.
This proved to be a different learning experience from the day schools, one that would instill in her a deep respect for the knowledge and traditions of her culture, as well as the importance of hard work.
Even as Marshall became a teenager and travelled to the U.S. to pursue work in cities like Boston, she would never lose the values and lessons she gained from a more traditional lifestyle.
Several years later, she moved back to her community in 1972 and heard about the Union’s plan to gather any available information on Mi’kmaq culture and language from elders, to protect and preserve the history for future generations.
“The White Paper policy of 1969 sort of woke up the nation. All the First Nations people of Canada were against what Trudeau was trying to do,” explains Julien. “So, Lillian was doing a lot of that research, interviewing the elders.
“A lot of the tapes are explaining the way of life with our own people, in our own language.”
Some of the interviews are of Marshall’s own father, Noel Marshall, telling tales and reciting songs nearly forgotten, similar to the ones she heard from her parents in the forests of Una’maki as they followed a more traditional way of life.
She conducted, translated and transcribed these interviews as a means of preserving her language and protecting the traditions of her ancestors.
She re-entered the classroom and for 20 years attended several universities and institutions, gaining the information and skills she desired to help carry her language into future generations.
Her most recent academic accomplishment was in 2007 when she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies degree from Cape Breton University, adding to her previous diplomas in Counselling and Early Childhood Education, and her certification she received in 2003 from St. Thomas University as a Native Language Immersion Teacher.
While furthering her education, she remained a prominent member of the Mi’kmaq community, following in the footsteps of her parents and offering guidance to anyone.
She also helped recover a sacred altar, a relic entrusted to the Mi’kmaq by French settlers in the 1700s, after it was displaced for 155 years.
She also created language CDs, authored books, and became a certified Mi’kmaq immersion teacher, encouraging family, friends, and aspiring speakers to learn Mi’kmaq.
To her great-niece, Becka Merritt, Marshall had a large influence on her own journey of self-discovery regarding her heritage.
“She was the reason I moved up here,” says Merritt. “She’s the reason I want to get closer to my culture, my identity, and myself.”
“You learn about your roots, and you learn about yourself, and everything comes together.”
In the true spirit of Marshall’s life and legacy, Merritt says she’s doing her part to pass on the knowledge.
“What I can do is learn more and be able to pass this on to my child, and anyone else, and keep our culture alive.”
Only a small amount of the population is fluent in Mi’kmaq now but more immersion schools and language courses are offering the opportunity to learn the language.
The Confederacy aims to digitize the interviews before they erode, preserving the dialogue that aided in the preservation of the Mi’kmaq culture and its language.
Disclaimer: APTN News Summer Student Luke Yoho is the great-nephew of Lillian Marshall.