[Cover ofLiving Treaties: Narrating Mi'kmaw Treaty Relations]

Living Treaties: Narrating Mi'kmaw Treaty Relations

Edited by Marie Battiste. 2016. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press. 317 pages. ISBN: 978-1-77206-053-9 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Bruno Seraphin, Oregon Folklife Network

[Review length: 911 words • Review posted on March 22, 2017]


This important collection, edited by Potlotek First Nation educator Marie Battiste, draws together insights from contemporary Mi’kmaw scholars, activists, elders, lawyers, and allies in order to present a broad, interdisciplinary discussion of current and past relations between the Mi’kmaw First Nation and British and Canadian societies. The book aims to rescue little- or mis-understood treaties from the “black hole” of historical and political “omission” and bring them to life for cultural “restoration, renaissance, and mobilization” (6).

Battiste and her co-authors emphasize that unlike the numbered treaties that structure First Nations politics throughout much of Canada, Mi’kmaw treaties are “shared relationships of peace and friendship” (1) that were intended to establish amicable and mutually beneficial government-to-government relations. A central recurring thesis is that these treaties cannot be wholly understood by reading the historical English-language documents. Rather, the full significance of the treaties comes to light only when one considers Mi’kmaw oral traditions and ceremonial practices as well as the day-to-day sociality between Mi’kmaw and settler communities. The treaties, more than legal contracts, must be understood as agreements around how peoples should treat one another and share the land. Throughout the book’s seventeen chapters, the intricacy of Mi’kmaw treaty relations comes into view via memoirs attesting to personal and community struggles against racism, colonialism, and state duplicity. Many of the essays focus upon the key events of treaty activism, legal scholarship, and debate of the last fifty years, although the book discusses Mi’kmaw history from time immemorial through 2016.

Battiste explains in her introduction that treaties are sacred to the Mi’kmaw people. In a chapter titled “Negotiating for Life and Survival,” Stephen J. Augustine explains that the treaties of the 1700s are in fact continuous with other traditional Mi’kmaw practices for establishing various kinds of reciprocal relationships. “Through spiritual ceremonies we have ‘negotiated’ our survival with our environment” (17), he elaborates, and “treaties with Europeans involved the same spiritual considerations” (18). Indeed, a theme that is developed over several essays sees Mi’kmaw treaties as an intricate intersection between traditional Mi’kmaw systems of law and governance—with a focus on practices around the Wampum belt—and Western legal structures.

Several essays, notably “Treaty and Mi’gmewey” by Fred Metallic, explore the deep sense of belonging that Mi’kmaw people feel with Mi’kmak’i, their territory (also known as Atlantic Canada: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island). A chapter by Jaime Battiste offers an account of Grand Chief Sylliboy, the Mi’kmaw Grand Chief who challenged the courts in 1928 only to see his trapping rights denied in a devastating decision by the Supreme Court, a ruling that was finally overturned in 1985. Stuart Killen offers testimony as a former Indian agent who objected to the assimilationist policies that the Canadian government prescribed for managing Mi’kmaw communities. Killen narrates transitioning toward treaty-rights advocate work. “Alexander Denny and the Treaty Imperative,” by James [Sa’kej] Youngblood Henderson, is one of several essays that describe the remarkable leadership of Grand Captain Alex Denny, who in the 1970s led a movement to reexamine the treaties, and helped win a string of legal successes around hunting, fishing, and sovereign rights. A contribution by Russel Barsh discusses the Mi’kmaw peoples’ efforts to define themselves as a nation among the international political community. Natasha Simon’s chapter, “Beyond Cultural Differences: Interpreting a Treaty between the Mi’kmaq and British at Belcher’s Farm, 1761” re-theorizes political rights as relationships of “interdependence and mutual recognition” (175). Essays by Douglas E. Brown and Kerry Prosper focus on legal struggles around hunting and fishing rights, and astutely place these issues at the heart of Mi’kmaw struggles for survival and self-determination. The final three chapters explore contemporary work to decolonize the Mi’kmaw education system, including language revitalization efforts. Each chapter in its way speaks to the continuing relevance of the treaties and the great need for continued work toward realizing the promise of these peace and friendship agreements.

Toward the stated end of educating Mi’kmaw, Canadian, and UK readers about the ongoing importance of treaty relations, the book is written in a lively and accessible narrative style. Even the more technical legal sections are relatively free of specialized jargon. Many readers will appreciate that most chapters begin with a personal introduction from the author. Much of the writing manages to convey complex and exigent arguments while avoiding the sometimes obtuse stylistic conventions of the scholarly article.

Living Treaties does present a few difficulties, especially for a reader with little or no experience with Mi’kmaw culture or politics (such as this reviewer). The overall structure of the book lacks a coherent linearity. Breaking the essays up into subsections or designating chapter titles by topic would have helped orient the reader with a road map. Further, the book’s rich multivocality, in general a positive, presents a paradox. On one hand, many of the chapters will only be legible if the reader has a greater context than the chapter individually provides, yet on the other hand, in reading the entire book straight through the reader will encounter a good deal of repeated information.

With broad interdisciplinary and temporal scope, as well as a unique and compelling focus—treaties as living relationships—this collection stands alone among literature exploring the political life of Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Living Treaties is an invaluable resource for those interested in the Mi’kmaw nation, yet it is also applicable for other First Nations community members, lawyers, scholars, activists, and allies, as well as anyone interested in Canadian history and politics.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.