Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaq Treaty Relations is a unique collection of essays describing Mi’kmaw treaties through personal stories and reflections. Marie Battiste has compiled stories from across the territory of Mi’kma’ki to address the various facets of truly living treaties from the perspectives of Mi’kmaw people and communities. These stories present the spirit and intent of the Treaties of Peace and Friendship signed between 1725 and 1761 as the authors reveal the role these treaties have played in their lives. Authors cover a wide range of topics related to treaties, including ecological knowledge, social justice, litigation, education, and language.
Throughout the book, the importance of oral history emerges. The treaties, their significance, and how they are to be interpreted today have all been passed on from one generation to the next. As the authors recount how they learned about the treaties, in many cases, it came back to family. Pamela Palmater spoke of how her older brother encouraged her to stand up for the treaties as a young girl by not standing for O Canada; Kerry Prosper recounted knowing he had a treaty right to fish as a young boy; and Stephen Augustine spoke of the Creation Story that instilled the treaties in him from generations past.
Other books on the topic of treaties tend to focus on the written text of treaties and their interpretations in the courts. As a result, much of this literature can be dense with legal jargon and leave readers with a skewed understanding of treaty intent and present-day understanding. Living Treaties, on the other hand, presents the treaties in a more digestible and anecdotal manner. The stories presented allow the reader to truly understand how treaties are relevant in the daily lives of Mi’kmaq while still learning about important Supreme Court Decisions. For example, Fred Metallic connects the oral history and knowledge to the signing of the peace and friendship treaties, the case of Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, and other cases, such as R. v. Simon, while outlining the importance of oral tradition and ecological knowledge.
This book is also a tribute to Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy and Kji-keptin Alexander Denny who inspired many of the authors to continue to fight for Mi’kmaw treaty rights. Gabriel Sylliboy was convicted for the possession of muskrat pelts in 1928 and spent his entire life fighting for the recognition and validation of the treaties (Marie Battiste; Stephen Augustine; Jaime Battiste; Stuart Killen). Killen recounts the importance of his relationship and interactions as a non-Indigenous person with Gabriel Sylliboy in understanding the problems within Indian Affairs, which eventually caused him to resign and engage in Mi’kmaw social justice. James Sa’jej Youngblood Henderson, Russel Barsh, and Douglas E. Brown describe the triumphs of Alex Denny (who learned his passion for treaties from Gabriel Sylliboy) both locally and internationally as he fought for and truly believed in the capacity of the Mi’kmaw Nation. He advocated the importance of the orality, values, and beliefs enshrined within the treaties and had little interest in the written text.
Although most authors focus on the orality of treaty knowledge, Stephen Augustine, Natasha Simon, and Victor Carter-Julien recount the signing of the 1761 treaty at Lieutenant Governor Jonathan Belcher’s farm to understand treaty intent. There is a focus on common understanding and a collective way of determining goals based on religion to build nation-to-nation relationships (Natasha Simon; Victor Carter-Julien; Marie Battiste). These texts have been important in the successes in court and the agreements have also been encoded in wampum belts as another form of story-telling. Whether analyzed orally or through written text, it is clear that the intent of the treaties was “mutual respect, mutual benefit, and mutual protection” (34).
Policies implemented by the government (including the Indian Act, the White Paper in 1969, residential schools, and Indian Day Schools) altered the lives of the Mi’kmaw people; however, they could rely on their traditional knowledge, stories, and memories of teachings to keep their culture alive during times of marginalization, racism, and denial of treaty rights (Patrick J. Augustine; Jaime Battiste; Daniel N. Paul). The role of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians in Mi’kmaw social justice is noted by many, but outlined particularly well in Jaime Battiste’s chapter written in consultation with Joe B. Marshall. This chapter demonstrates the true perseverance and patience of Joe B. Marshall and the organization in their fight for validation of the treaties. This is evident in the well-known fight by Donald Marshall Jr. to have treaty rights recognized and affirmed, which Victor Carter-Julien noted as significant in his understanding of the treaties as the actions of one man led to national focus on a treaty signed so long ago.
The final chapters of the book address the importance of education in treaty implementation. Naomi Metallic speaks of her father’s commitment to the Mi’kmaw language, her own work on language rights in Canada, and how Indigenous languages became more significant in federal, provincial, and territorial polices with the implementation of self-government agreements. Eleanor Tu’ti Bernard describes the successes of Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey (MK) as an organization that has regional management and jurisdiction over Mi’kmaw education. She describes how colonial policies have failed Mi’kmaw students and educators with increased racism within the provincial school systems; however, with the implementation of MK and its policies they have seen graduation and success rates significantly increase. Marie Battiste concludes the book describing her role in developing a bilingual-bicultural education program for the Mi’kmaw nation. Combined with the role of MK, the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Education Act is an example of modern treaty implementation and this continued commitment to education will allow the Mi’kmaw Nation to thrive and continue to fight for the treaties.
Families, community leaders, and Elders are the carriers of treaty knowledge and they have been able to successfully pass this knowledge along despite many hardships. All of the voices in the book are interconnected through their experiences living treaties and navigating the complexities of justice for the Mi’kmaw Nation. I found that the chapters written by Daniel N. Paul and Naomi Metallic did not match the tone of the book as well as others because they were recounting past work. Nevertheless, non-indigenous readers will gain a better understanding of what it means to be a treaty partner and the importance of reconciliation moving forward.