"Memories of a Mi'kmaq"
Chief Joe Knockwood
Chief Knockwood of Fort Folly First Nation in New Brunswick has only been in office since 1997 to 2003, then again from 2005 to 2013. However, his life experiences has more than adequately prepared him for such an undertaking.
Chief Knockwood's varying work experience followed both traditional and non-traditional activities. Like most young Mi'kmaq boys of his generation, he spent time with his father who taught him how to hunt and fish. In his young adult life, he worked in factories and traveled extensively, living in Germany, the United States and other parts of Canada. He joined the American Forces where he had the opportunity to complete his high school education. When he returned to New Brunswick, Chief Knockwood attended a professional school in Moncton and learned to be a barber. He set up a barber shop and did quite well.
At the end of the 1960s Chief Knockwood became interested in politics. Later, a member of the Union of New Brunswick Indians was looking for a Native person to do historical land claim research and asked Chief Knockwood if he would accept the task. At the time, land claims within the federal government did not exist. Soon Chief Knockwood became fascinated by the power of history which was the beginning of his 27-year career in Native history.
From his practical experience, Chief Knockwood noticed that in order to succeed with a historical investigation or any political issue, the most important skills are patience and awareness. When encountering bad will, he does not show frustration. Instead he looks elsewhere. Even if the system is slow to reply, it can also be friendly if we can find someone inside who has the ability to understand the situation, said Chief Knockwood.
Now Chief Knockwood works in his community and has established cooperative relations with neighboring communities. As the leader of Fort Folly, he takes time to visit communities and give awareness seminars on his culture and the Mi'kmaq language. He has acquired a deep understanding of Mi'kmaq history, genealogy and culture and he enjoys sharing this understanding. We are neighbors, he says, and we help each other. For example, The Town of Dorchester needs a new fire Truck. Chief Knockwood successfully negotiated with the Department of Indian Affairs in Amherst for monies to help the Town of Dorchester with its purchase of a new Fire Truck. And it works very well, added Chief Knockwood.
While many people in their late fifties take early retirement, Chief Knockwood is still very busy. Being a Chief is not an easy job, he said seriously. His wish is to see his community grow and his culture recognized. He makes sure that people remember the contribution of Native civilization to the Canadian history of yesterday and today. These events are historical facts that should be recognized, said Chief Knockwood.
Although Chief Knockwood likes to teach, he also likes to learn - a challenge that he welcomed all his life. Appreciating the power of new technology, he is interested in computers. He wants his Band Council to be up-to-date with this fast moving technology.
The stillness of a cold winter's night was suddenly broken for a brief interval by the crackling of frost. A much-anticipated sound of horse hooves and the squeaking of the sled runners on the packed snow of the roadway ran across the midnight calm. Dr. John was arriving from his home in Hillsborough, some 10 miles away. The date was January 20th, 1925. Dr. John timed it very well, as I was born soon after his arrival. The place was Albert Mines, in the province of New Brunswick, Canada, near the shores of the Bay of Fundy, where the 40 foot rise and fall of ocean tides is among the highest in the world. These 40-foot tides have produced one of natures most beautiful and awesome handiwork natural pillars of rock, shale and earth known as the giant flowerpots. These natural flowerpots have a diameter of several hundred feet and stand some sixty feet high. Above these may be seen lush vegetation and trees manifesting more of the many wonders of the Bay of Fundy. There are four distinct seasons here.
In the summer, the sight-seeking people from around the world come and visit this beautiful area. During the fall, nature puts on its beautiful display of red, scarlet, orange, yellow, pink and brown colors and the tourist love to see such splendor. Winter brings its beautiful covering of snow, which makes a white and green contrast seen from afar. Out of the forest comes the beautiful sound of chickadees, finches and blue jays sounding off to compete with red squirrels for the airwaves. There among God’s beautiful creation stood a small tar papered shack, nestled on the edge of the spruce and air forest – my first home upon this earth. This was our temporary home and we lived there only when my father worked at the lumber mills during the Canadian winters. During my childhood years, we enjoyed our winters with sports, such as skiing, sledding, snowball throwing, snow shoeing through the woods, skating and last, but not least, hockey. We dressed for the winter and we enjoyed it. As the winter waned and the days were getting warmer, the sun’s heat would begin melting the snow and one could hear the beautiful sound of water trickling from every direction forming a large stream. The trickling sound would stop as the sun began to set. There would be repetition of this melting day after and soon the pond where we skated and played hockey would be turned into a lake.
Even before the snow was all melted in the wooded areas, my mother and other Indian ladies would get together and plan mayflower picking in the nearby woods. The Indian ladies knew just where these beautiful white and very scentful flowers grew. They would pick all day and in the evening they would make up little bouquets decorated beautifully with green leaves. The bouquets and their pleasant fragrances would fill the whole house. The next morning the ladies would be bustling with activity, preparing to take a railway train to the city where they would sell the bouquets. The Indian ladies would repeat this for only a week or so as the mayflowers had a very short season. Albert Mines was a modest little village of some dozen homes composed of 3 or 4 permanent houses, the others were tar papered shacks. These shacks housed lumber mill workers such as my father. The mills were portable and run by stream and could be moved very readily to wherever a brow of logs had to been piled. Brow is a word used by lumbermen meaning a huge pile of logs ready for the mill. It was mostly during the winter months that the portable mills operated.
My father never lacked work even during depression winters for he knew all aspects of setting up and operating portable mills. I was very young and I remember that we lived quite close to these mills, probably within walking distance from my father’s work. I can still picture our small home consisting of the kitchen, and a bedroom where I lived during my first four winters of my life. Nearby was a railroad track where passengers and freight trains would pass by several times a week. These trains would stop by a large watering tank within sight of our home. My mother explained to me that the steam engines had to stop to fill up with water. The water became steam produced by these engines which gave them power to pull heavily loaded box cars and a caboose.
It was on, this very railroad track that I had my first close call with death. One day when I was about three years old, I was sitting in the middle of the railroad tracks playing with the gravel. Nearby was my big, black, part Labador dog who always followed me around, and I thank God that he did on this occasion. Suddenly a train engine blew its whistle at a distance. My mother realized that I was missing from home. She frantically called my name several times and it was my dog that gave an answering bark from the direction of the railroad tracks. My mother swept me off the middle of the tracks just seconds before the train roared by.
Wow! What a close call! My mother often related this incident to me thereafter. It would be many years later, before I would know why I was saved from death so many times. God foreknew me before the foundations of this world and had a calling on my life. He knew that someday I would accept His Son Jesus as my Lord and Savior and that my name would be written in the Lamb's Book of Life.
I remember going with my father on his trap line, as I got a bit older. It was on one of these occasions that I had the opportunity to witness my father snaring a silver fox and bring it home to sell it to a fox ranch near where we lived. I watched my dad as he carefully took the live fox off of the snare and fastened its hind legs tied onto a pole and its fore legs free to walk. With the pole in his hand, my father steered the fox home. I recall vividly my father showing me the danger of being bit by an animal like this fox. He would place his axe near the fox's head and the fox would snap at the steel head of the axe like lightning. It was one of the lessons I will never forget.
Another lesson that my father taught me was to never let him out of my sight. I was a little guy, I believe I was about four years old, when we went for a walk in the forest along a mountain stream. I must have been slow because my father kept reminding me to catch up. I would catch up but I would soon lag behind as I was carried away by the sounds of the rippling stream nearby, the singing of the birds, the squawking of a blue jay and the chartering of squirrels. We came upon a beautiful clearing of green grass dotted with individual trees. I suddenly realized that I was alone and no father in sight. I recalled that I should remain brave and calm but that thought lasted for only a minute as anxiety gripped me. With all of my young lung power, I yelled and cried out so loudly that I even scared my father who was hiding behind a nearby tree. When he stepped out, what a relief it was to set my eyes on him again.
This incident reminds me of a story in the Bible, an incident that happened on the Sea of Galilee, found in Mathew 14:24-31. The disciples found themselves in a big storm at the Sea of Galilee and were afraid. When they saw Jesus walking on the sea they thought he was a ghost. Jesus said to them, “ Be not afraid it is I.” It was Peter who wanted more proof so he asked, "If that is really you, Jesus, tell me that I can walk over to you.” Jesus said, "Come, Peter." So Peter then jumped out of the boat and started to walk across the water toward Jesus when he suddenly noticed the boisterous wind and took his eyes off of Jesus. He began to sink. Peter came to his senses and called to Jesus, "Lord save me." Jesus then reached for his hand and caught him. This lesson of keeping your eyes on Jesus is more important, but is somewhat parallel to my earthly father's lesson.
During the summer months, we would move to our permanent home on the small Indian reservation called Fort Folly. I never did find out why it was called Fort Folly, It was here where I had my second close call with death. I was about three years old when I climbed up on a bench and pulled down a paper bag of paris green, a poison used for killing potato bugs.
It was mother again who came to the rescue and forced me to drink warm milk and kept me awake while my Uncle called for a doctor. The doctor arrived and pumped my stomach and informed my mother that I had had a very close call with death and that she was responsible for my living. I loved Fort Folly because my Grandparents and my other relatives lived there. Having no other kids to play with except for my younger brother.
Henry and I spent a lot of time with my Grandmother Rose and Grandfather Israel, who was the Chief of our reservation. I was with grandfather when he cut his foot with an axe while cutting firewood. He hobbled back home to have his foot taken care of. On the brighter side, he would take me on a dory, which is a sea going boat with oars. Rowing to Dorchester Island, he would tell me stories of other relatives and tales of our ancestors and Glooscap. Glooscap is a fable of a great Micmac strongman or god and many Micmac tales are about Glooscap. I was the apple of my grandfather’s eye and his desire was for me to have an education. When my Uncle Llewellin was electrocuted on his job, my grandfather used the insurance money to buy the Boomer property in the town of Dorchester where we would eventually move, When I was five, I commenced my education there. My grandfather would play a flute for me, but he never told me about the time he was with the circus. It was my Uncle Louie that told me about grandfather's high balance acts where he would stack chairs twelve high and sit on the top chair. My grandfather was the last of the Indian chiefs under the hereditary line and I was the first chief on the voting procedure.
On my mother's side, my grandparents lived at Lennox Island on Prince Edward Island, an easten province known as the Cradle of the Gulf Prince Edward Island was known for potato growing and we were often called "Spud Islanders." The island is also known for its red soil and the beautiful flowers, which bloomed in the spring. The Gulf of St. Lawrence separates the Island from the mainland of New Brunswick by nine miles. To reach this island, you must use a ferry which can accommodate busses, trucks, train passenger cars and autos. I recall vividly the summer my family went to visit my grandparents who lived on Lennox Island. That was a trip that I would not easily forget.
We boarded the train at Dorchester station and changed trains at Sackville, where another train took us to Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick. Our passenger cars were loaded onto the PEI ferry at the bottom level where all large vehicles were put. I was very curious and fascinated about everything, when my mother showed me the parts of this large boat. We viewed all of the three decks. We sat down on the plush chairs and I noticed that everywhere was beautiful polished brass; even the smallest details intrigued me. My mother knew how mischievous I could be; however, she allowed me to go out in the deck area. I always remember my mother as having beautiful and kind features, a ready smile and laughter. She could also be stern when the occasion arose, especially when my bad behavior had to be corrected.
When we were nearing the Port of Borden, Prince Edward Island, I did not realize that I had been standing near the ship's horn. Suddenly the horn went off with a loud blast and I panicked and dashed off to the safety of my mother's arms. She explained to me that the horn blast was the signal that we were approaching the dock and that we must proceed below deck to board the train for our destination, Port Hill. The hundred-mile trip to Port Hill took about four hours at that time. At Port Hill, we walked down to the wharf where another ferry awaited us. It was much smaller, however, about forty feet long. We crossed a narrow strait about a mile wide.
My maternal grandparents Lem and Madeline Labobe were gentle people. Both were soft spoken, both wore a ready smile and a loving twinkle in their eyes as they gave welcoming words at the Lennox Island wharf. I don't recall any harsh words from any of my grandparents toward one another or to other people. All of my grandparents were avid storytellers and my grandfathers were great checker players. I was also blessed to know my maternal great grandmother, Mrs. Mary Ann Bernard, who lived to the ripe of age of 104 years. She was married at thirteen to my great-grandfather, who was born during the late 1700's. Praise the Lord!
I recall the first few hours of meeting my newfound cousins. It seemed that everybody was my relative. I was introduced to my aunts and uncles that I had never met before. I spent the next few days getting acquainted and playing with my cousins and their friends. My uncles and several other men were planning to go to Gull Island which stood isolated near our home on Lennox Island. It was the tern-nesting season and they would gather tern egg which were considered a delicacy. Gull Island is a small island whose high cliffs stand majestically above the sea and are a haven to many cliff dwelling birds. These terns would build thousands of pouches on the cliff for their nesting places. The Indian men would scale the high cliffs during the beginning of the nesting time to gather fresh eggs. They would call off the egg gathering sometimes to allow the birds to replenish their eggs. Any food gathering by my people would be a time of rejoicing, story telling and laughter. The young ones were allowed to listen in and my ears were always tickled by some of the stories that I heard even though I realized that some were boastful. I did not hear any swear words or cursing during these occasions or ever during my early childhood.
On one of my many trips to Lennox Island, my grandfather and my uncles were planning a dory trip to Richmond on the northeastern past of Prince Edward Island. My mother, my brother and I were to go with them. When all of our supplies were loaded into two boats, the men rowed the boats away from shore and put up their sails and began to move gently with the wind toward Richmond. It was a beautiful, sunny, summer's day. We were the lead dory and as I sat in the bow, I was fascinated with the way the bow of the boat would cut through the beautiful greenish water. When the wind would pick up, I was splashed with the cool liquid. In several hours we arrived at the shores of Richmond. The men got busy unloading the boats and began building our tar papered wigwams, which were to be our homes for a couple of weeks.
My great-grandmother, who I believe was in her nineties, was preparing a fire at the beach for baking Indian bread. We kids helped her with the firewood and watched as she started making bread for our dinner. She allowed the fire to burn hot for quite a while then she tested the sand around the fire. When she had made it hot enough she proceeded to bury the pieces of dough in the hot sand. We kept bringing more firewood for her. When the bread was cooked, she would take it out of the sand and give it a good spanking. She did this two or three times to knock out all of the sand that was in the bread. My mother and my grandmother were also cooking near the wigwams and dinnertime was soon.
During our stay on the shores of Richmond, we did a lot of clam digging and oyster picking. At night, the men would go out spearing eels, using a gas lantern with a tin reflector fastened on the bow of the boat for light. The eels would move around the shallow areas near the shore where there is what they call eel grass. You could spot the eels very easily at night with the light, but you had to know how to spear them from the boat. You had to allow for refraction of light if you wanted to hit them, for the eels were not where they appeared to be. The men also ran across a few bass, which were quickly caught and added to their catch.
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