Andrea Bear Nicholas analyses Maliseet history with settler colonialism

Written by Gerry McAlister on April 13, 2019

Andrea Bear Nicholas spoke about Maliseet history in Fredericton on April 11. Photo from the Fredericton Region Museum.

Understanding history is crucial to shaping the common future of Indigenous peoples and settlers. On April 11, Andrea Bear Nicholas shared her knowledge of the history of the Indigenous people in the land now known as New Brunswick. Bear Nicholas, who uses the term “Maliseet” for her people and language, also known as Wolatoqiyik, spoke to a packed room of about 100 people at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton.

Bear Nicholas, professor emeritus and chair of Native Studies for 20 years at St. Thomas University, is a recognized expert in Native languages and has organized immersion and teaching programs in the Maliseet language at Sitansik (St. Mary’s First Nation) and elsewhere.

Her talk, focused on the wider Fredericton area, reviewed the early Indigenous presence based on evidence including rock paintings and tools dating back 13,000 years. During a series of wars between French and English colonial powers, from 1675 to 1760 and again from 1776 to 1783, the Wabanaki Confederacy, including the Maliseet, generally took the French side.

However the French betrayed the Maliseet by handing over Native land to the English in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Subsequently the Maliseet signed treaties with the English Crown in 1721 and 1725, guaranteeing, among other things, hunting and fishing rights forever. The Crown, in London, forbade any appropriation of or settlement on Native lands. This was ignored by local settlers who proceeded to herd the Native people off their lands on to what is now the St. Mary’s reserve.

What followed led to a reduction of the Native population from 1,500 in 1783 to 300 in 1850. Severe malnutrition and even starvation played a role here, genocide by any other name. Bear Nicholas illustrated that period with a series of images showing how colonial artists, usually military personnel, portrayed the Maliseet in a prosperous light even though the population was being decimated by hunger and disease.

Bear Nicholas finished her talk with an appeal for the return of the remains of two of her community’s ancestors that are believed to have been in the possession of the Fredericton Region Museum at one point. The request was endorsed by the audience. The event ended with a presentation by Anne Marie Lane Jonah, a Parks Canada historian: ‘Uncovering Siknikt: A Shared River Journey,’ which fit well with the themes of the Bear Nicholas talk.

Gerry McAlister delivers The Brief in Fredericton.

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