Twenty-three years ago, decisions were made to revive Mi’gmaq traditions. A program began, titled – “Relearning a Way of Life.”
Twenty-two people came together to learn and share what they knew of traditional practices. Some even came from out west.
Claudia Gray remembers one elder from Gesgapegiag, who was going blind and deaf. She was teaching how to make baskets.
“If you did it wrong, she’d go up to you and just tear it apart and throw it down,” Gray said. “That’s how we learned. It was fantastic.”
The group wanted as close to a real understanding as possible of aspects of pre-contact culture.
“The only way to really do that,” Gray said. “Was creating the village, from the ground up.”
An entire village was built, with as much traditional knowledge as possible.
“Some of the students still practice the skills,” Gray said.
A lot was learned from a book Gray’s aunt – Vivian – had written, but never published.
“She studied this her entire life,” Gray said.
Her aunt had been teaching her things her as long as she could remember. So for Gray, a lot of practices were just a part of her life. Now they were being shared.
The program ran for three years, and then Gray was asked to teach “Pre-Contact Mi’gmaq Culture,” when AGS opened up. It has been open for 19 years now.
Vivian Gray’s work is now taught to every single kid in Listuguj. It is now just a part of growing up, and going through school.
This is a long way from when Claudia Gray was a kid. She remembers making crafts secretly. She would have history lessons and often wonder why textbooks never mentioned Mi’gmaq people.
Now – even when her students don’t seem interested in the material – Gray is certain the class is having a beneficial impact.
“We notice that our students, when they leave AGS,” she said. “[They] cross over and don’t feel inferior, don’t feel different. They feel equal, and happy with who they are. And if there’s something said that’s not correct, they correct it. They have the ability to do that. That makes us proud.”
“Who would ever think that this is what I would do,” Gray said.
She had never planned to move back to Listuguj. She thought she might of retired here. But things changed.
She found herself unexpectedly moving home as a single mother.
It happened to be at a time that interest in reviving traditions was growing.
Members of the LMG knew Gray’s family — particularly her aunt — had interests in traditional practices. Not that Gray had ever thought much of it herself. In fact, she didn’t always understand it as a kid.
“I thought it was torture,” she said.
Regardless, it was always remained a part of her life.
“Crafty Claudia is what they called me.”
Still, she never imagined these interests could be a job.
“Relearning a Way of Life” was so successful that it ran for three years, and changed Gray’s life.
“That was my ‘aha moment.’ That was my Oprah moment. Of — ‘this is it, I’m home for a reason,'” she said. “It saved my life.”
Pre-Contact Mi’gmaq Culture
The original program grew into “Pre-Contact Mi’gmaq Culture” at AGS. It’s been taught since the school opened. Gray now teaches some of the grandchildren of participants of “Relearning a Way of Life.”
They teach the kids a lot of what they learned 23 years ago, but they also try to pass on some of the experiences of rediscovering the knowledge for the first time. One exercise for fourth graders helps them begin imagining what life could have been like hundreds, and thousands, of years ago
“The scenario is — you’re in the woods. It’s October, so it’s kind of cool. And you’re bare naked. What are you going to do to survive?” Gray said. “It really sparks their thinking.”
The class does quill work with actual porcupines quills. They go out to the woods, and gather everything they need.
“They have to learn to wait. Patience is a big thing,” Gray said.
Some kids don’t necessarily appreciate everything that is taught, but then again, neither did Gray when she was young.
“I said the same thing at 13, and I’m sitting here in a Mi’gmaq school, doing something that I thought was totally irrelevant, totally unnecessary, but yet it was my whole life,” she said. “For them to have the opportunity to know where you come from, and why you are still here today, makes who you are – I think anyway – makes you a better person.”
For Gray, it’s important that the kids share what they learn. She encourages them to go home and talk with their parents and grandparents.
“They were part of the group that we were a part of. It wasn’t a part of our teachings everyday in school. Or even practiced with families.”
The class is proof that the decision to revitalize these aspects of culture 23-years ago was successful. Gray says the interest — and understanding of its importance — has grown tremendously over the last two decades.
“The spark was there. Now it’s fire.”
It is now at the point where students exposed to these traditions throughout their lives have grown up, graduated from university, and are doing great things. Gray certainly doesn’t take all the credit, but a healthy approach to history has undoubtedly contributed to pride, and confidence.
“Knowing who you are and where you come from – that’s all you need. And you know right from wrong. And you know that things that happen in the past can either break you, or shape you,” she said. “Most of them are standing their grounds, and changing the future. And that’s what makes us proud… they will make a difference. Because they’re not going to let history repeat itself.”