The terrible discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children, who were robbed of their families, identities, language, culture and even lives by the country’s residential school system has left Canadians and the world reeling. My Indian by Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill is truly one of those novels that helps bring the full significance of that horror into greater focus.
It is, of course, a fictionalized account of a trip across Newfoundland by two very real people who undertook the journey in the early 1820’s. A young Mi’kmaq named Suliewey (‘Silver’ because of a white streak in his hair) and an Englishman named William Epps Cormack set out from St. John’s to journey to the West coast of the island. Cormack’s objective was to find the few remaining members of the Beothuk First Nation. Although his true intentions towards the island’s Indigenous population – back then referred to as the Red Indians because of their tradition of painting their bodies in red ochre – were never known, it can safely be assumed that Cormack’s interest was not friendly. In fact, this is the sad period in the province’s history when that First Nation was hunted to extinction like animals, and were demonized by “civilized” White colonists.
What makes this book particularly relevant and insightful is that it recounts the very real traditions of the first inhabitants of the province’s Indigenous population. It showcases the reverence the Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk had for this untamed land and its wildlife, how they nurtured the wonders and natural beauty of the forest rivers marshes and land to create a rich culture.
The book remains relevant in the way it unveils how our White ancestors treated their fellow human beings as utterly inferior. Although Cormack knew the English name of his guide as Sylvester Joe, he kept insisting on referring to him as My Indian, even though he was reminded time and again that one could not own another human. In his own journal that he used to document the trek, Cormack acknowledged that he was welcomed by Indigenous population in ways that they themselves would not be if their roles were reversed. One hundred years later, can we in Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of Canada truly say that our society has evolved from that mindset, given that First Nations communities still suffer poor drinking water, substandard housing and other necessities, to say nothing of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls?
This historical view of the island, documented by in-depth research, describes a magnificent terrain lush with rivers and ponds teeming with fish and beavers, vast herds of caribou, bears and rabbits. It is not my intention to disparage the advances of the urbanization of the countryside, but I confess that I find it a little sad that we seem to have lost some of the spirit of conservation that is depicted in this book.
In the end Suliewey does not lead Cormack to the Beothuks, but rather tries his best to lead him astray and to get words of warnings through to others. He does, however, fulfill his promise to lead Cormack to the West coast as he had promised his elders.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book to all, not only to historical buffs or amateur conservationists, but to all readers. It is without a doubt an eye opener.
I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.