Reflections On The Problem | Chief Hugh Akagi


Chief Hugh Akagi

By: Chief Hugh Akagi

My fellow authors’ introduction to this section have motivated me to react. We have more in common than our teaching experience. Ironically, I was a small part of the problem recounted by the teachers and journalists above. I taught from 1969-73 in Blacks Harbour and at Rothesay Collegiate School. Rothesay included first year university. I was one of the few teachers in New Brunswick with an education in science and I was told that if I didn’t teach, then the subject would have to be taught by someone with just one course or perhaps no courses in science. I was at the beginning of my career. I was focused on getting ahead and making a living. I did not focus on the absence of my own people from the curriculum. Blacks Harbour is a tough factory town. Most students knew they could get a job in the fishing and canning industries and told me so to illustrate that formal education was secondary to them. I could reach some who wanted to better themselves through education. I reached most through playing very rough hockey with them to earn their respect. As with my fellow authors, my failure was not my teaching. The failure was the curriculum—what was taught. We didn’t teach the Indigenous system, way of life, culture, traditional knowledge, or comparative views of science. Implicitly and explicitly, through errors of omission and commission, everything about the non-Indigenous cultures was better and everything about Indigenous people was inferior. Rothesay Collegiate was based on the British system. It is a militaristic boarding school. The separation of children from their parents was part of the system. The halls and dorms were named after famous and successful settlers—old and new.  

Some will say “That was then and this is now…”  

As the American writer William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”    

I was recently asked to speak to 45 teachers on their professional development (PD) day. I began by asking how many had ever been on an Indigenous reserve. A very few hands went up. I then asked how many had been on a Passamaquoddy reserve. Fewer hands went up. I then told the group that they were all on Passamaquoddy Territory and my people’s reserve. 

“Pull yourself up by your boot straps” some critics say. Many people think this is a good phrase meaning to better yourself without outside help. But in fact, it is physically impossible. The original meaning of the phrase was to encourage someone to do something absurd. It’s even more absurd to pull yourself up by your boot straps when you don’t even have boots. Also ironically, my people have actually done something that seems physically impossible. We’re still here. After official public policy and laws designed to cause us to disappear, assimilate, integrate, lose our land, and lose our culture, we’re still here. We’ve been kidnapped, taken from our homes, put into institutions with inadequate food, but we’re still here. We’ve had our land stolen, been denied medical care and education promised in Treaties, seen our reserves shrink and be harvested for timber, but we’re still here. 

We’ve done the hard work to preserve our culture, language, and existence. Roll your sleeves up Canada. You have some hard work to do too.

Some critics wonder out loud just what can be learned from peoples who were thinly spread over vast territory and lived in the Stone Age. Some historians dispel the first notion by estimating that the populations in the Americas may have been roughly the equivalent of the populations in Europe. Some of the cities were of similar sizes. The Indigenous populations in the Americas were simply spread over an area more than four times the size of Europe. As for being in the Stone Age, I have wondered about the benefits of the wheel, bronze, steel, and the other manifestations of cultures elsewhere. One interesting manifestation of having wheels and metals was war over vast areas. I’ve taken a look at wars in other cultures going back to Alexander the Great. A conservative estimate is that these wars, using the most modern technology available, from elephants to gunpowder, wheeled transport, and weapons of steel killed about 173 million people. The Jewish-Roman wars, designed to extinguish Jews, killed more than 4.5 million people. The Three Kingdoms’ War in China killed about 76 million people. War that pitted the Portuguese and Spanish against Muslims killed about 17 million. The crusades killed four million. Mongol conquests killed 70 million. The Hundred Years’ War killed almost six million, and the Conquest of Timur killed about 28 million. That brings us up to just before the time of Columbus when European settlers said they found savages and non-humans in the Americas. School children revere the use of paper and gunpowder in China, the wheel, stirrup, and long bow in Europe, but discount the habitation by my people in the Americas.

What can be learned from my people’s way of life? It’s a fair question that few take the trouble to answer. We were resourceful and self-sufficient. In modern terms, our supply chain was short. We traded with each other and didn’t fixate on sea and land routes to India and China. We had redundant capacity in our food supply. When one source became scarce or out of season, we used other sources. We conserved using the entire fish or animal for food, clothing, shelter, and even the bones for tools. We were unlikely to suffer something like the Irish potato famine. We were unlikely to destroy most of the strains of corn and grow so much of it that we’d have to turn it into high fructose corn syrup, eat it in all our foods, and drive up obesity and diabetes rates.   

It took more than 500 years and the pandemic to get settlers to start thinking about the vulnerability of long supply chains. Even before the pandemic Elon Musk was moving batteries for his electric cars from China to Thailand for further assembly where they corroded in the moist climate. Then he moved the batteries to England for installation in cars and later imported them into the US. He had hold ups at customs all along the way. He determined that shortening his supply chain and bringing much of his automobile and aerospace operations into the US could save him trouble and money. My people knew a version of this thousands of years ago. Mr. Musk also saw the benefits of reusing his rockets. My people knew a version of this thousands of years ago, too.

We also learned very quickly. Jean Teillet, Louis Riel’s great-grandniece, documents the resourcefulness and skill of both Métis and Indigenous people in her book The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation. Among the skills was buffalo hunting using and reusing the entire animal, and skill with horses. The author documents the way Métis could load a single barrel flintlock with loose powder in their pockets and bullets in their mouths. “While the horse kept charging through the [buffalo] herd, the hunter poured powder into the barrel of his gun, spat in a bullet, smacked the stock of the gun hard on the saddle and shot.” The gun could have exploded, even if the complex operation was completed safely. The fact that one hunter, “Jerry McKay…was said to have killed thirteen buffalo in a single run…” is startling. In fact, Oxford trained historian and fellow author, Dr. Michael Jackson Bonner notes that Indigenous people mastered the innovation of the horse and gun more quickly than many groups and nations under attack throughout history. Anatomically modern humans took about 70,000 years to domesticate horses. Indigenous people in what is now North America took one generation. He speculates that if Indigenous people had come upon horses a little earlier or had been better supplied with more modern equipment, they might have been successful in repelling improper settler advances and domination. How history would have changed if settlers had to negotiate and keep their words and Treaties, rather than lie and bully.  

To be fair and accurate, there has always been war. Michael Jackson Bonner cites the 1996 book War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley. The archaeological evidence is that war was actually more efficient and effective long ago. Instead of the millions of bullets and shells fired in World Wars I and II, most of which hit nothing, ancient war featured close battle with sharp objects, spears, and arrows. Most of them did their job and there were high death rates among family members and villagers. In fact, Indigenous groups regularly repelled European colonization campaigns for years using unconventional techniques, speed, smaller units, and the destruction of supplies. 

So, roll up your sleeves, Canada. You have a few things to learn from this Stone Age culture.           

It’s ironic that as I write I can hear the sound of a road crew paving at Indian Point, Saint Andrews, New Brunswick. I’ve asked the town to stop. I’ve told them it’s sacred and traditional land. How can we have meaningful consultations when I refer to a burial ground, and they call it a campground?  As Joni Mitchell sang in, Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot.”


More from Chief Hugh Akagi in the book,
Emergency! Quarantine, Evacuation, and Back Again