Photo above, Elder Albert Marshall and myself, in front of his sweat lodge, Eskasoni, CB.
In Nova Scotia more and more often of late, at the opening of public meetings, we are hearing reference to our residing in the “traditional ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq,” or the “unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.” Coming from what we have come from, the forced and illegal taking and colonization of Mi’kmaki and the cultural genocide of First Nation peoples, as confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada, we as First Nation peoples are thankful to hear others make any reference at all to Mi’kmaki and our territory. It wasn’t long ago, that we did not hope to hear this word, let alone some form of recognition. For this, I am thankful that it is now recognized. But today I am not writing about what others say. I am writing to help us understand what we should say. Should we also say that we are in unceded Mi’kmaq territory? Or that we are in our ancestral territory? For reasons that I will explain, I believe that we should not say it. There is no need. We need only say, “we are in Mi’kmaki.” Nothing more needs to follow.
Unceded land refers to the Indian title. When we say that our land is unceded, we are recognizing that the Indian title is still there. So why should we avoid terms like “unceded?” Because when non-First Nation people hear this word, they tend to think immediately about correcting this wrong. But it is not the wrong that you are thinking. They do not think that they should never have taken the land and that they should give it back. They do not even think that they should pay for the land. Rather, they think that they should arrange for the Indian title to be taken. They think that the correct and proper thing to do is to arrange for the Indian title to be ceded. Like it was ceded out west with the numbered treaties, or more recently, like the Dene’s territory in the Yukon was ceded. By saying that our land is unceded Mi’kmaq territory, most non-First Nations immediately think that this wrong should be corrected by having the land ceded.
If you say to them that Halifax is on unceded Mi’kmaq territory, their first thought is that the land should be ceded. The fact that the land was illegally taken should be corrected by legally taking it, which means to cede it. But ask any elder, or ask the Grand Council. They are in agreement that Mi’kmaki is not for sale and that the land will not be willingly ceded. The Indian title that belongs to the Mi’kmaq over all of Mi’kmaki is not for sale. In other words, they will never agree to cede the land.
To give an example, when the United States buys some land in Ottawa to build their consulate, afterwards, do they give little opening speeches mentioning that they are on the unceded, ancestral territory of the Canadian people. They do not. The United States Government may have bought that particular plot of land, as you or I might buy it, but they did not buy, and did not attempt to buy Canada’s underlying title. Canada’s title is not for sale. Yet, the Government of Canada and the Government of Nova Scotia regularly attempt to discuss terms to purchase the underlying title from the Mi’kmaq. But it is not for sale. For this reason, we have no use for the word ‘unceded,’ and using this word at various opening ceremonies is an absurdity, or perhaps even, a minor insult. When we say that we are in Mi’kmaki, we are saying everything that needs to be said.
What about “ancestral territory?” The problem with using this term is that when we say that it is our ancestral territory, we are also saying something else. It sounds as though we are speaking of the past, and possibly, only the past. But this territory is ours today, and not merely in the past. We are in our current territory. It is Mi’kmaq territory, now, today, and so by saying that it is our ancestral territory, a little part is also saying that it is no longer our current territory, which is simply false. It is Mi’kmaki, the territory of the Mi’kmaq people, and we are in Mi’kmaki.