On a quiet summer’s evening I sat outside in the cool air at my grandparent’s house. I was thinking of a discovery I had made while searching through a box of old papers at home. I held it like gold in my hands because I felt it was equally valuable. It was an old tattered school newspaper yellowed with age. Inside the newspaper was the Paul family tree and I wanted to ask my grandfather more about it.Read Natasha Jones's An Oral Tradition
When I read about the writing challenge I thought of many events and moments in aboriginal history which I could write about. But I decided that sharing my family’s past and my present was the story I should tell.
As a child I was curious especially when it came to my family and my Mi’kmaq heritage. Growing up I knew I was Mi’Kmaq and I was deeply proud to be native. I had always wanted to make a family tree and to discover more about my past. I began researching into my family’s past over the last couple years. Since that time I have created two family trees, one for each side of my family. They are still incomplete but I have discovered many amazing things about the people in them.
My story is about my mother’s family, the Paul’s and it speaks truth. I learned many valuable things through the many discussions I had with my grandfather, Jerome Paul. Our family has carried on the tradition of orally passing down memories and stories. My grandfather continued this tradition with me and this is why I choose the title “An Oral Tradition” for my story. I want to retell some of the precious stories I heard from him in the form of a narrative compiling our discussions into a single conversation.
My story also shares an important moment in my Mi’kmaq heritage and my family’s place in Canadian history. In the summer of 1914 Anthropologist Frank Speck came to Badger Brook, Newfoundland. My Great Great Grandfather John Paul and his children, Frank, Jack and Maggie lived in Badger Brook at that time.
This is our story.
On a quiet summer’s evening I sat outside in the cool air at my grandparent’s house. I was thinking of a discovery I had made while searching through a box of old papers at home.
I held it like gold in my hands because I felt it was equally valuable. It was an old tattered school newspaper yellowed with age. Inside the newspaper was the Paul family tree and I wanted to ask my grandfather more about it.
Our family had gathered for supper earlier that evening and I thought now was a perfect time to ask about my precious find. I went into the house and found my grandfather in the basement watching an old movie.
He was a small, quiet man and I always thought his long beard seemed to resemble that of Jeremiah Johnson’s.
“Pop…I found our family tree in this old school newspaper that mom had… The Avoca Press,” I handed him the paper.
He took the paper and flipped through its pages. I sat next to him and watched him as he looked at the family tree and the age old photographs inside.
“This is my father,” he told me, pointing to the picture titled Francis Walter Paul. I took the newspaper back from him and looked closely at my Great Grandfather.
“What did he work at?” I asked unable to suppress my curiosity.
“He worked at many things. But after he came back from World War I he worked as a river man and a dam tender. But he was also a trapper and a guide.”
“A river man runs on logs that float in the river right?” I asked looking to my grandfather to confirm what I had said. He nodded in response and was silent as I pondered my next questions.
“Did his father teach him to trap and guide? What did his father work at? Did your father teach you those same things?” I said blurting out question after question.
My grandfather took in all my questions and I waited in anticipation for his answers. After what seemed to be a long time he began telling me everything he knew.
“In 1899 my Grandfather moved from Seal Cove and came to Badger with his wife and my father. The Paul’s were one of the earliest families to come here and Badger being known as Badger Brook back then.”
I interrupted his story and pointed at the first paper of our family tree. “So your grandfather was John Paul right?” I asked.
My grandfather nodded and continued his story. “My Uncle Jack was born on Hodges Hill and he might have been the first child born here in Badger. My father also had a sister Margaret but we all called her Aunt Maggie.”
“Wait… there’s no Jack in this family tree… but there is a John?” I said.
My grandfather laughed and smiled at me.
“Yes his name was John but everybody called him Jack. Dad and his brother and sister all had nicknames,” he answered and then continued his story.
“My grandfather taught his children about the Mi’kmaq way and about everything he knew.”
“He taught his children how to tell when it was safe to cross the river and when it wasn’t. And he also taught dad and Uncle Jack about trapping lines and how to guide and hunt. Dad and Uncle Jack taught their children the same things and I passed it on to my kids.”
“That’s really neat,” I replied as my curiosity continued to grow. It was interesting to learn my family had been among the earliest settlers in Badger. I was thrilled that they were proud to be Mi’kmaq and they believed in carrying on Mi’kmaq traditions. I knew that in the past a lot of Mi’kmaq were made to feel ashamed of who they were. I scanned the newspaper again and took note of the family photographs. More questions came to mind and I didn’t hesitate to ask them.
“Where did the pictures in the newspaper come from? I know the floods here destroyed a lot of our family pictures…” I let my words hang in the air.
“You see that picture of Aunt Maggie?” his finger touched the photo. I nodded yes and waited.
“A man visited Badger when dad, Uncle Jack and Aunt Maggie were kids. He took pictures of them and how they lived. He talked with my grandfather about the Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk. He wanted to know everything my grandfather could tell him. And you see the coat that Aunt Maggie is wearing? And the doll she is holding?”
Again I only nodded. I did not want my voice to enter these old stories. Everything my grandfather told me was magical and deserved my undivided attention.
“Well… he collected her coat and doll along with some other artifacts. They’re now in a museum in Ottawa. He stayed in Badger for some time and many of our old family pictures came from his visit here. My grandfather was happy to help the man and he was a guide for him during his visit here.”
I was completely absorbed after learning about this man and his visit here. I knew that finding out more about him would take me further on the journey to discover my family’s history. I couldn’t believe that the coat and doll my Great Great Aunt Maggie owned were in a museum in the capital city.
“Do you know the name of the man who took the picture of Aunt Maggie?”
“No but you might find something in a book I have upstairs in my room. It’s on the dresser right next to the bed if you want to go get it.”
“Sure. What does it look like?”
“It’s a somewhat yellow book with a picture of three Mi’kmaq women standing together on the cover.”
I hurried up the stairs and into my grandfather’s room. I had to search through a pile of papers and books to find what I was looking for. I took the book and ran back down into the basement.
“Is this it?”
My grandfather nodded his head and took the book from me. I watched his old hardened hands flip through the book’s pages. He had lost a finger on his left hand from a chainsaw accident as young man but it had never hindered him.
“Here it is,” he said, turning the book towards me.
In the book there was another photograph of Aunt Maggie that I had never seen before. She was in the same caribou skin coat as the other photo, but this time she was sitting on a log.
“Why don’t you have a look for yourself,” he motioned.
I pulled the book towards myself and began looking through its pages. I found a paragraph that explained more about the photos and who had taken them. It said that in the summer of 1914 anthropologist Frank Speck had spent time in Bay St. George and Badger’s Brook. During his stay he collected Mi’kmaq artifacts in the two locations and had taken photographs of Mi’kmaq people that he met.
It was amazing to read about Frank Speck and the work he had done in Newfoundland. I knew with certainty that I had found the stepping stone I needed to do more research. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from the coffee table so I could jot down his name. Maybe with this lead I would be able to find more information on the internet.
“My father once told me a story that his father told him.”
My attention snapped back to his words. “Can you tell me?”
“When the Beothuks were still alive John Paul’s grandfather and grandmother are said to have seen them while canoeing on the Exploits River.”
“So that makes them my great great great great grandparents.”
“Yes that’s right. It’s said that they came around a bend and saw a Beothuk man and his wife. When the Beothuks saw my great great grandparents they paddled ashore and hid in the woods. But my great great grandfather paddled alongside the canoe they left behind and looked inside. The canoe had no food so my great great grandfather put some meat inside it. Then my great great grandparents paddled up the river and went ashore to hide in the woods. They waited there because they wanted to see if the Beothuk man and his wife would take their present. The Beothuk came back to their canoe and found the meat and kept it.”
“Is that really true?”
“I don’t know but the story has been passed down through our family over time.”
“I think that’s an amazing story.”
I watched a smile spread across my grandfather’s face. I realized that my interest in our family meant a great deal to him. He knew that it was important for the younger generation to remember where they came from and to care about the past. If they didn’t care about the past it would simply become lost over time.
It was a sad fact that I had also become aware of during our conversation. What if today’s youth did not share my interest in the past? And what if we lost the older generation before they had a chance to share their stories? My grandfather was seventy-five years of age and I knew his time in this world was limited. I wanted my grandfather to know that his stories were important to me.
“Pop… thanks for telling me about our family.”
“Anytime,” he replied.
“I really mean it. It was great to hear your stories,” I smiled.
“Tasha… your mom is leaving to go home. She said to hurry up!” I heard my grandmother yell from upstairs.
I was disappointed I had to leave so soon. I knew my grandfather had more stories he could share but I started stuffing my papers into my book bag anyway.
“Pop, do you mind if I borrow your book for awhile?”
“Just bring it back the next time you come down.”
I started to walk up the stairs but my grandfather started talking again.
“Wait now… you interviewed me for maybe fifteen minutes?”
“Yeah I think so,” I hesitated.
“Well my cost is five dollars a minute… so that means you owe me seventy-five dollars.”
“Pop that’s extortion!”
“Maybe… maybe not,” he said with a laugh.
“You’ll have to take a rain check then,” My words bubbled out.
“Tasha… your mom said she’s leaving you here,” My grandmother yelled.
I turned around and ran up the stairs taking them two at time because I couldn’t leave my mother waiting any longer. I yelled goodbye to my grandparents and hurried out to my mother’s truck.
As we rode home I thought of that summer in 1914 when Frank Speck had visited Newfoundland. Had it been a wet summer with booming thunder and lightening shows? Or had it been a long Indian summer lasting into the fall? My questions had no answers but I couldn’t stop my curious mind from wondering about them.
I knew every day was filled with wonders and discoveries, and I believe that all I had to do was look for them. I found myself hoping that other youth looked for answers and discoveries through the past. The future does not always have the answers we seek, and in order to look ahead we must first look back.