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American Indians and the Acadian Story

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Yeah. I said “Indians”. “Native American” is a white term. A Navajo once told me that the term “Native American” was probably dreamed up by someone at a cocktail party who never met an Indian. I have a pueblo Indian friend who says, “When I hear the word ‘native’ I still picture a guy running half-naked with a spear!” Most of my Indian friends identify themselves by their tribe or by the general term, “Indian”. To prevent confusing them with folks from India, there are the terms “American Indian” and “Asian Indian”.

I’ve buried the lead but now you won’t accuse me of being politically incorrect.  😉

I’m not one of those New Age Native-American Wannabees, so why my attraction to American Indian culture? I don’t ‘smudge’. As a third-generation Canadian, my idea of hell would be a sweat lodge. But I spend lots of time and most holidays in the homes of pueblo Indian friends. I was quite moved when my Cochiti pueblo friend, Gabe (‘Yellowbird’), began calling me “brother”. There have been all sorts of blessings, great and small, that I have written about previously (see my piece called, “The Turquoise Arrowhead”.)

So, what gives?

I’m about to savagely simplify a very complex and detailed history. My intent is not to write another book on the subject but give a brief, thumbnail picture of a history of which most are not familiar.

In 1602, nearly two decades before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, France wanted a piece of this “new world” that Europeans were buzzing about, so they sent 22 French families (including Robert Cormier’s family) by ship to claim a piece for France. They settled in Port Royal, Nova Scotia. France sent several more ships to this land they called “Acadia” until there were about 60 French families settled there.

These French settlers didn’t know how to grow food in this harsh climate. Many of them began to get very sick with scurvy.

From out of the woods came the Mi’kmaq Indians.

The Mi’kmaq’s (pronounced Mic-mac) showed the French how to cure scurvy. They taught them what foods could be grown and how to fish in harsh Canadian winters. The Mi’kmaq and the French couldn’t communicate verbally, but they remained friendly neighbors.

In the meantime, after several years, France was disappointed that no exports were coming from Acadia. They made the decision to stop sending provisions and supplies. When the Acadians realized that France had abandoned them, they stopped calling themselves French. They referred to themselves as Acadian and raised their children to do the same.

By now, the British had colonies in what would become the U.S. and wanted the French territory to the north. They went to Acadia (which consisted of Canada’s maritime provinces and the northern half of Maine) and planted the British flag, proclaiming the land in the name of theirking. Upon hearing this news, France renewed its interest in Acadia and returned to plant its flag once again. There was one year when Acadia changed hands no less than 17 times!

It’s no surprise that the Acadian people became apolitical. Europeans called them the “French Neutrals”. They were farmers and fishermen, tradesmen and craftsmen. They got along with their Mi’kmaq neighbors but didn’t much care which country claimed ownership of the land. By now, both the French and the British were virtually strangers to them. Neither of them stayed once their flag was in place. They announced that the Acadians were under the reign of the King of France or the King of England and left. … another invisible landlord in another political tug-of-war that was of little interest to the Acadian people..

During the next century, by the mid 1700’s, the American Revolution was taking place south of Acadia and the British were getting their asses kicked. Not all of the colonists were in favor of breaking ties with England. There were “Loyalists” who wanted nothing to do with the revolution. The British had to solve the coming problem of what to do with the Loyalists.

Acadia was in British hands at the time. The British were never comfortable with Indians, who they considered to be inferior heathen savages, so they ordered the Acadians to kill the Mi’kmaqs. The Acadians refused. The Mi’kmaqs had been their neighbors for nearly 150 years! The Acadians knew the Mi’kmaqs better than they knew the British! The British were the strangers… the intruders… the arrogant warring people.

To punish the Acadians, a law was passed prohibiting Acadians from owning any firearms or other offensive weapons. Months later, in 1755, after the Acadians had harvested their grain, it was ordered that every male over 10 years of age be in his local church that Sunday to hear a proclamation from the King. When the boys and men were gathered in their respective churches, the churches were surrounded by armed British soldiers.

The men were loaded onto ships while British soldiers went from house to house gathering the women, children and elderly to be put on other ships, separated from their families. Somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 Acadians were loaded onto the ships which set sail for the colonies.

The British loyalists in the colonies were told to head north and take whatever land, homes, grain and possessions they found in Acadia, though many of the homes and barns had been burned to the ground by British troops. Meanwhile, most of the Acadians aboard ships died of starvation and diseases such as smallpox before they reached any port. The Acadians who reached Providence Harbor were not allowed to disembark because they were Catholic and Rhode Island was a Protestant state. Thousands died aboard ships in Providence Harbor.

One account tells of 800 to 900 Acadian women and children who landed in Boston Harbor. They were brought to Boston Common which was surrounded by armed guards. No food was supplied. Bostonians were too busy fighting their revolution to be concerned with hundreds of women and children who didn’t speak English. The armed soldiers watched the Acadian women and children die on Boston Common.

The stories were similar in many of the states. Many thousands of Acadians died aboard British ships, at sea, and in harbors, separated from their loved ones. Many Acadian children were indentured to British colonists… and you thought our only slaves were Africans!

Pennsylvania was an exception. The “Quaker State” welcomed the Acadians. They were clothed and fed and nursed to health. They were offered land and homes and a chance to make a living side by side with the Quakers. The grateful Acadians chose to journey back to Acadia.

Some of the Acadians were brought to France, the logic being that 150 years ago they originated from France. The problem was, the Acadian people still spoke long-outdated King Louis XIV French. They knew no system of money. They just didn’t integrate into French society. They wound up being shipped out again and settled in the bayou section of French-colonized Louisiana. We know them today as Cajuns.

Jacques and Pierre Cormier were 13 and 18 years old. In typical Cormier fashion, they skipped church that fateful day in 1755. For five years they hid from British troops and loyalists. Many times they were taken in and cared for by the Mi’kmaq Indians. Jacques and Pierre were finally caught by the British in 1760 and imprisoned in Fort Beausejour in Nova Scotia. The British used this fort to hold Acadian men who had escaped the expulsion until they had enough to ship to the colonies. Jacques and Pierre Cormier went down in history as the only two men to ever escape Fort Beausejour. They dressed as women and walked out of the fort with a group of female visitors. I often joke that it also marked the birth of the Cormier sense of humor.

The British claim that, out of over 12,000 Acadians, about a third died between 1755 and 1760 as a result of the expulsion. Acadian records claim that, out of more than 18,000 Acadians, less than 3,000 survived. Believe who you will. It’s an obscure history and, in the words of the late Howard Zinn, “History is written by the victor.” Most of my best sources have been obscure Acadian books and letters written just after the expulsion. A hundred years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would write his famous poem, “Evangeline” to tell the story of the Acadian expulsion. “Evangeline” has been published in 130 languages!

The Acadian Expulsion is a history that isn’t often taught in schools outside of Canada’s Maritime provinces. The American Revolution was much bigger news than the extermination of thousands of non-political Canadian settlers who didn’t even speak modern French. I mentioned this history to my father, back when I was first researching and studying it. He told me that his parents used to invite Acadian friends and neighbors to their home. My grandmother would read from a book and their guests would cry. My father was just a child and didn’t understand what everyone was crying about but he said she must have been telling the story of the Acadian expulsion.

If it weren’t for the Mi’kmaq Indians, those original Acadian families would have died out three centuries ago. Instead, they lived as good neighbors for 150 years, despite not speaking each other’s language. When the British ordered the Mi’kmaqs hunted and killed, the Acadians flatly refused, resulting in their near-extinction.

In August, 2004, we took a trip to Caraquet, New Brunswick to attend the Acadian Festival. Instead of finding a bitter, angry people lamenting their sad history, we met a happy, fun-loving, music-loving people. The festival concluded with the “Tintamarre” (noisy parade) where for one hour, 35,000 Acadians walked up and down the length of five city blocks making as much noise as they could. 35,000 Acadians of all ages and no drunkenness, no trouble, no police presence. Drive through the Acadian coast of New Brunswick and you’ll see the Acadian flag flying proudly over the Canadian flag and the New Brunswick flag.

Meet the Cajuns in Louisiana: More happy, fun loving, music-loving people. They made famous the phrase, “Laissez les bon temps roulez” (Let the good times roll!)

Apparently, my roots are in a happy, noisy, fun-loving, music-loving, people-loving people.

My pueblo Indian friends don’t know the story of the Acadians and the Mi’kmaqs… and they should.  Do I feel connected to American Indians because I know the history of my people or because I treat everyone the same anyway? I used to enjoy holidays with the Cormier side of my family because the Cormiers were open-hearted and loved everybody (until you gave them a reason not to.) Holidays with the Cormiers meant lots of laughter, food, and music.

Holidays with pueblo friends consists of storytelling (laughter) and food… and we’re usually asked to play music. Do our pueblo friends remind me of my own family? …or do they just feellike family?

Culture is an important thing. It gives us a sense of history and tradition. But, in the end, it’s who we are in our heart… who we bring to one another… that matters most.