Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Myth, Symbol, and Colonial Encounter

 | 
Jennifer Reid

Chapter one. Religion and the colonial world

Texte intégral

  • 1 Joe, Lnu and Indians We’re Called, 64. Mi’kmaq has been used throughout this book in place of the (...)

The native of the land is still a stranger
The native of the land is in no man’s land...
—Rita Joe1

I

  • 2 The name Acadia refers to the modern Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince (...)
  • 3 Davis, The Micmac, 11 ff., considers evidence relating to the length of the Mi’kmaq presence in th (...)

1The Oxford Dictionary defines the word stranger as a “foreigner, a person in a country or town or company that he does not belong to.” Rita Joe is Mi’kmaq, a poet born of a community of people who have lived in the region of Acadia2 for at least five thousand years. She is also a stranger. She has experienced the ambiguity of the post-Columbian world, as one who knows her home has been re-created by a “company” of people to which she does not belong, a company that has taken precautions against her inclusion in a society constructed on the graves of her great-grandparents.3 Her sense of estrangement points not only to a failure of human community, but more specifically to the failure of European Canadians to acknowledge the meaningful presence of a substantial number of human beings with whom they have shared their corner of the Americas.

2This sort of denial of mutuality comes perilously close to a denial of demographic reality, and consequently raises at least two critical issues: the first concerns the question of why it is that white colonials have historically confronted their world in a piecemeal fashion, thus alienating themselves from selected “others”; and the second concerns the problem of whether or not we can do otherwise—whether we have other options for confronting our world in a more authentic manner, thereby allowing us to distance ourselves from a distasteful historical tradition of alienating and devaluing our fellow human beings.

  • 4 The phrase “mutual products” is borrowed from Jennings, The Invasion of America, 328.

3Since the introduction of the ethnohistorical approach to native-white relations in the mid 1970s, many historians have sought to rethink colonial history in terms of human relationships, thereby demonstrating that post-colonial societies are the “mutual products” of all New World peoples.4 They have thus hoped to demonstrate that the notion of culturally pure societies that has sustained white alienation of non-whites is without substance. Scholars like J. R. Miller have applied the ethnohistorical approach within the Canadian context and have had a good deal of success in dealing with the first issue raised above—why it is that whites have estranged native peoples from the social, economic, and political structures they value in Canadian society. In his book Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, Miller has suggested that

  • 5 Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, 275. Cf. pages ix-x, 268. Jennings makes a related assertion (...)

the relationship between the indigenous peoples and non-natives has been shaped by practical, often economic, factors. The record of Indian-white relations in Canada is one molded by the reasons that the various parties have had for making contact and maintaining relations.5

  • 6 Miller, 274.
  • 7 Miller, x.

4Alienation of native peoples can be accounted for, Miller believes, by this fact of expediency. As the fur trade declined and colonization became a priority for incoming Europeans, the native community was regarded as an impediment to settlement, and the destruction that followed was a consequence of this.6 He goes on to demonstrate that indigenous Canadians have consistently influenced the political, economic, and social fabric of Canadian society, a fact that he feels has not been sufficiently recognized by white Canadians. In fact his principal goal in writing the book hinges on this point: “If these pages succeed in persuading some people that the native peoples have always been active, assertive contributors to the unfolding of Canadian history, they will have achieved their primary objective.”7 This constitutes the foundation on which Miller attempts to contend with the second issue raised at the beginning of the chapter, that of whether—or how—it is possible for white Canadians to enter into a truly constructive relationship with aboriginal peoples, a relationship fabricated upon mutual recognition of a shared humanity.

  • 8 Miller, 278.

5It is at this point that his options are significantly attenuated. Knowledge of the fact that native Canadians have contributed to the formation of Canadian society should be sufficient, he hopes, to induce whites to enter into genuine discourse, or “meaningful consultation” with them.8 The sentiment is heartfelt, to be sure, but the possibility for its realization is unlikely. This is not to suggest that Miller is an isolated idealist, but only that the approach to the problem of native-white relations that he competently represents in the Canadian context may be inadequate given the depth of the problem itself. That knowledge of historical truth should bring about a fundamental transformation within the hearts and minds of those who presumably lived formerly in ignorance, is a form of optimism that stumbles in the face of the reality of colonialism. In reference to this question of ignorance, the historian of religion Charles Long has pointed to the white Mississippi boy in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust who asked an adult why, when a white mob discovered that the man they were about to lynch was innocent, they failed to acknowledge the mistake and apologize. The older man answered that

  • 9 Long, Significations, 165.

though they do not make public and concrete amends, they know and they remember. But it is a memory that is concealed, for to make [it] concrete and public would be to plunge the community into a radically contingent state.9

6White Canadians, like Faulkner’s mob, are not blind victims of ignorance in respect to the reality of their having shared this place with aboriginal peoples. A genuine recognition of the human composition of Canadian society and a consequent embrace of relationships founded in mutuality are not simply a matter of knowing that others have been here in some meaningful capacity for longer than whites can possibly remember. It may be, rather, a matter of understanding why this knowledge has historically had very little significance for the white community. This kind of question contains a very different sort of dynamic than that of many historical questions. Its underlying assumption is that it is not historical fact that must constitute the focus of inquiry but notions of what is meaningful that emerge in the midst of such fact.

7The places in which fact and meaning diverge (when, for instance, we discover groups of human beings who fail to acknowledge other groups of humans as autonomous agents) are more than just cannon-fodder for historians’ pleas that future actions be based upon past reality. They are also spaces in historical studies that invite speculation on behaviour that goes beyond history. In other words, they are moments for which social, political, or economic factors fail to fully account, for they are refractions of the creative capacity of the human imagination. Although this capacity exists within history, it does not necessarily exist in accord with history, if we mean by “history” some objective chain of events. It is for this reason that calls for human behaviour that bear some consistency with the chain are generally ineffectual.

8Does this mean that historians are constrained by their data from contributing to the sorts of transformation suggested by our second issue above? Certainly not. In fact, one might argue that such transformation is possible only within a context of profound self-knowledge and since there is no identifiable moment that separates past from present, such knowledge must be, to a great measure, retrospective. Edward T. Hall underscored the necessity for self-understanding when he wrote:

  • 10 Hall, The Silent Language, 165–166. I would also refer in this respect to Gardner’s The Quest for (...)

The analysis of one’s own culture simply makes explicit the many things we take for granted in our everyday lives. Talking about them, however, changes our relation with them. We move into an active and understanding correspondence with those aspects of our existence which are all too frequently taken for granted or which sometimes weigh heavily on us. Talking about them frees us from their restraint.10

  • 11 Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, viii.
  • 12 This discussion of the nature of history and its study has been influenced by the Annales French s (...)

9In speaking of historical studies, Roy Harvey Pearce similarly noted: “Knowing the past... [the historian] will perhaps begin to free himself of the limitations which he sets about him and to use more intelligently the opportunities it offers him.”11 Yet recounting facts alone does not engender retrospective knowledge of this sort; facts and events are meaningless unless the historian is able to situate them within some form of explanatory framework12 that reflects back on the historian or the historian’s community. Facts delineated chronologically provide what Ernst Cassirer has referred to as “a skeleton of history” devoid of the very vitality of human existence that historians seek to understand:

  • 13 Cassirer. An Essay on Man, 184. In reference to his mentor Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel reiterated (...)

In history we regard all the works of man, and all his deeds, as precipitates of his life; and we wish to reconstitute them into this original state, we wish to understand and feel the life from which they are derived.13

  • 14 See Heik, History and Myth, 23. For a discussion of the symbolic nature of historical sources, and (...)
  • 15 Cf. Fogelson, 141.
  • 16 Febvre is quoted in Ricoeur, The Contribution of French Historiography, 9.

10It is through this desire for understanding that historians enter into a creative process, engaging themselves with sources that are representations of inaccessible events, in such a way as to engender something very new in the moment of coming together. The historian Welf Heik addressed this point when he asked the question of whether any good-quality historical work could be written without the historian beginning in the sphere of the imagination. He suggested that there exists between historical material and the writer a space that can only be bridged by an act of creativity.14 Resulting’ “histories” are something quite distinct from the events themselves, for they are, in the first instance, the creations of the historian.15 In this sense, Lucien Febvre’s assertion that “there is no history, there are only historians”16 is not distant from the reality of historical analysis.

11As the past is exhausted in order to understand what is significant for human beings, the fixed quality of historical events emerges as a limitation that must be circumvented. In attempting to do this we discover the need to subject these moments to questions that are other than historical. Marshall Hodgson confronted this paradox in The Venture of Islam:

  • 17 Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 22–23. I became aware of Hodgson’s work through Sullivan’s excellen (...)

Whether the objects of the questions are dated or dateless, the questions themselves (as befits a cumulative discipline) ought to be, in some degree, of timeless significance to human beings: sometimes perhaps leading to manipulative power, but always leading to better understanding of the things that matter to us humanly... here we cannot rule out a potential need to develop relatively dateless generalizations, for instance about what may be possible in cultural change, such generalizations are not simply derivable from any other discipline as such, yet they are necessary for studying what is timelessly important about the dated and placed events of human culture.17

  • 18 Eliade discussed this interchange between historical and religious existence in Images and Symbols (...)
  • 19 See, for example, Wach, Introduction to the History of Religions, 164.
  • 20 See Jennings, The Invasion of America, 15.

12Although Hodgson could not locate a comprehensive disciplinary framework for generating timeless questions, his suggestion of a fusion between the dated and the dateless resonates with the religious character of the human species. Despite the fact that human beings are historical in terms of physical existence, we are religious in the sense that we lay claim to the ability to re-imagine history in such a way as to give our lives meaning. Hence our condition of being dated and placed coexists with our ability to transcend time and space in the interest of retaining a sense of our own significance in the face of historical reality.18 Historians of religion have for some time stressed the fact that religion cannot be studied apart from history.19 Perhaps the reverse might also be true. To examine history from the perspective of human religiosity might well prove to be an effective manner of acquiring knowledge of what “matters to us humanly.” There is no doubt that some ethnohistory has already tended to approach historical material from such a perspective. Francis Jennings, in his discussion of the American “conquest myth,” for instance, has explored the relationship between the “myth” and the ways in which Americans of European descent have spoken and thought about the New World. What is being suggested here, perhaps, is an increased self-consciousness on the part of the historian in terms of the use of religious language and methodology.20

13In respect to this particular analysis of Acadia, it is important that we begin with the necessity for transformation of white Canadian attitudes. Whites approach aboriginal peoples as strangers, despite our knowledge of a history that demonstrates they are not. In confronting the problem, it must be recognized that we are clearly dealing with modes of existence that go beyond history. If we truly want to alter white patterns of behaviour, we must come to understand why we have concerned ourselves with the denial of other peoples’ fundamental significance. More specifically, rather than looking to history for verification that our actions are ill-founded, we would be better served by looking to religious valuations of the world that emerge from history, to understand why it has mattered to white Canadians that the Mi’kmaq be regarded as strangers. Perhaps in coming to such an understanding we will discover much more. If we regard history as the context out of which humans create notions of significance that reflect back onto historical existence, it follows that the context has the possibility of containing multiple meanings—and these then must bear upon the meaning of history itself. By approaching Acadian history from the perspective of religion, we may change our relationship with those things we “take for granted” and discover freedom from their restraint. As European Canadians, we may also find ourselves awakened to other meanings of the past (in this case, Mi’kmaq), meanings that unveil a face of colonial history that whites have never had to encounter, nor withstand.

II

14A religious analysis of any historical event requires some basic assumptions about the nature of religion from which discussion can proceed. This means initially constructing a definition of religion, and secondarily, locating the space in the event itself in which aspects of the religious are articulated.

  • 21 Smith, Map Is Not Territory, 290.
  • 22 For a number of variations on this simplified definition see Albenese, America: Religions and Reli (...)

15Religion begins in history. History, as Jonathan Z. Smith has noted, “is the framework within whose perimeter those human expressions, activities and intentionalities that we call ‘religious’ occur.”21 Historical existence necessarily confronts the human being with physical, human, and psychic boundaries within which life must be lived in some meaningful fashion. Religion is the mode by which, as individuals and as communities, we both discover and construct such boundaries, in such a way as to sustain a sense of our own significance.22 It is, at its most basic, the way in which we define what it means to be a human being within any given context of time and place.

  • 23 Albenese, America: Religions and Religion, 5.
  • 24 I was made aware of this critical connection in an introductory lecture given by Long, for “Myth, (...)

16The search for ways in which to believe one’s existence matters raises the problem of identity. As Catherine Albenese has suggested, “our religion concerns the way we locate ourselves in space... location is always social. It concerns our place among other human beings, and it means staking out a claim on the landscape of identity.”23 The notion of identity, then, is directly related to the meaning of religion. It is through our sense of identity that the issue of origins, both ontological and historical, is raised.24

  • 25 Eliade, Images and Symbols, 37–38. For more detailed discussion of the distinction between order a (...)

17Human origins and identity emerge within patterns of human existence that we both imagine and perceive—patterns that to a great extent are understood in relation to their boundaries and what is situated beyond. The patterns we recognize as meaningful are those that are somehow differentiated from the rest of creation. We are contained in space that is thus “sacred,” and surrounded by that which is chaotic and meaningless. It follows that the boundaries around what we regard as meaningful space are extremely precarious; they cannot be changed without producing a consequent change in the pattern itself. We might add that it is always in the realm of the chaos beyond the pattern that additional dangers reside, and as Eliade noted, these can variously include “demons,” “the dead,” and “foreigners.”25

  • 26 Belden Lane provides a useful discussion of the relationship between place and identity in Landsca (...)
  • 27 Lane refers to this quotation of Simone Weil in Landscapes of the Sacred, 4. We might also note th (...)

18 The image of a meaningful pattern of existence that is flanked by what opposes such meaning is a predominant one in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Acadian history, and so it is the relationship between religion and origins that will dominate this work. This, in turn, will require that attention is focussed upon the human experience of landscape, for it is in relation to particular “places” that human beings create patterns and derive, to a substantial degree, a sense of identity and meaning.26 It has been said that “to be rooted is the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”27

  • 28 Cf. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred, 46; Gill, Native American Religions, 29, 115.
  • 29 Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred, 188. We could also note that Braudel, in his comprehensive history (...)

19For some time, scholars have been directing attention toward the relationship between native American religion and “place,” noting that the religious life of America’s aboriginal peoples can only be understood if one recognizes the basic interchange between mythical and geographical space.28 The concept of “place” has been conspicuously absent from much of our discussion of religion in the West, and this has amounted to a deficit that has limited what can be said and understood about ourselves. As Belden Lane has suggested, the drive toward recognizing and experiencing the sacred within the physical world we inhabit is something shared by all humans, and at the level of lived experience, Western peoples are not satisfied with the intellectual dualism inherited from the Enlightenment: “We are creatures ultimately discontent with the full-scale Cartesian separation of subject and object. It is the tangible ordinariness of everyday life that we want most to be informed by the holy.”29

  • 30 Donald Meinig, in the introduction to The Shaping of America, notes that historical geography assu (...)
  • 31 Relph, Place and Placelessness, 63–65.

20In focussing upon the relationship between the human being and place, however, we confront a fundamental ambiguity. Landscape is experienced both as concrete reality and as symbol, so that any particular landscape exists in relation to a geographical location as well as to the human imagination. It is symbolic insofar as we construct rather than perceive it. On this level, landscape is not an objective “something”—distinct from our own being—in which history unfolds, but an interpretation or an expectation that both reflects and shapes human meanings. This process of interpretation is in one sense crucial for coming to think of a “place” as one’s home.30 Yet, in another equally critical sense, we must experience place on its own terms, unencumbered by expectation or convention. This form of experience without reflection is described by Edward Relph as an “authentic attitude of place” that must exist to some extent if we are to arrive at a notion of belonging to a particular place. This experience of belonging in turn hinges on a perception of continuity within a given place, and continuity is a necessity if we wish to maintain a “sense of reality.”31

  • 32 The “dialogical” nature of humans is discussed by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, es (...)

21Landscape, then, presses itself upon us as both objective and symbolic reality from which certain notions of origins and identity emerge. Within the realm of the more objective or “authentic” experience of place, we encounter still another source for the generation of identity: the other human beings who share the landscape with us. Through communicative exchanges with other humans, we locate our own humanity, discovering a capacity for self-understanding that leads to a process through which we define identity. The essentially “dialogical” character of the human being requires that we enter into a process of communication with others in order to first acquire the languages of human definition and, subsequently, to exploit them.32

  • 33 This interpretation of religious symbols is suggested by Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of (...)
  • 34 Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 7–14.
  • 35 Gill points this out in respect to native American religion: “the symbolic process does not simply (...)
  • 36 Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 14.
  • 37 Albenese, America: Religions and Religion, 9.

22Whether in respect to landscape or to human exchange, our sense of origins and of meaningful existence depend upon a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the human, geographical, and imaginal boundaries we experience. Yet a problem arises for us precisely because of this ambivalence. Between those boundaries we experience directly and those experienced through the imagination, and again between all boundaries and our sense of meaning, there exists a tenuous territory in which varying degrees of negotiation are required in order that our understanding of ourselves remains consistent with our experience of the world. This is the space in which religious symbols function. Symbols are modes by which we interpret the world, for they provide a congruent link between the way our lives are lived and our particular sense of meaning.33 At times we manipulate them to reflect reality, and at other times we manipulate reality to bring it to conformity with our symbols. We rely on them to meaningfully account for experience and, when they fail to do so, we become extremely uncomfortable as we are threatened by a sense of the chaotic.34 Religious symbols evoke cultural patterns that effectively circumscribe possible interpretations of experience, and consequently they provide human beings with manageable numbers of options for confronting the next moment of existence.35 Because of this function, they (and especially those, as Clifford Geertz suggests, whose referents are landscape or society)36 constitute principles of unity between experience and notions of significance, and are the predominant mode by which communities orient themselves.37

  • 38 This is a point made by Albert B. Friedman in “The Usable Myth,” 39. Friedman is speaking of the “ (...)
  • 39 Sullivan, Icanchu’s Drum, 22.
  • 40 Cf. Eliade, Images and Symbols, 33.
  • 41 Friedman stresses the relationship between myths and notions of significance in “The Usable Myth”: (...)
  • 42 As Lévi-Strauss noted, “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a (...)

23The unity provided by religious symbols is articulated in myths and mythic thought. Between any instant of experience and its interpretation, humans embark upon a symbolic process of negotiation that acquires conceptual and verbal structure through myth.38 In a sense, myths demonstrate “the religious character of the imagination,”39 as they pivot on the human experience of boundaries.40 Yet they reveal more than the sacred structure of human creativity; they are statements about the fundamental value of human experience and they are constructed in terms of some or another originary meaning of the human being. As such, they reveal what is fundamentally meaningful within a community and, so, they are vehicles for the articulation and transmission of world view and cultural identity.41 Myths and mythic thought inhabit and structure the symbolic space between history and human religiosity and are consequently important focal points for a religious analysis of any moment of human experience.42

24This discussion of Acadia will seek out the religious within the arena of origins. Entrance into the religious world of both the British and Mi’kmaq will be through the human necessity for continuity of place, and this will direct us toward the consequent patterns of meaning these New World peoples carved from both imagined and actual relationships to place, as well as dialogical relationships with other peoples inhabiting the same landscape. The tenuous ground between origins and experience will be explored in terms of the symbols that created unified fields of meaning, and the mythic worlds of both communities will constitute the media for fashioning a religious portrait of the period.

  • 43 Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, 5.
  • 44 Frye, Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture, 185.
  • 45 Eliade explores this relationship between myth and folktales in Myth and Reality, 201: “the tale r (...)
  • 46 Hand, “The Index of American Folk Legends,” notes: “Historical legends dealing with people, places (...)
  • 47 Frye, The Bush Garden, 32. Cf. Frye, Creation and Recreation, 27–28, and Frye, Spiritus Mundi, 71– (...)

25A word should be said at this point in respect to the locus of these mythic worlds, since “mythology” in this context will refer to a more broad body of sketches, records, and ideas than that to which the term is often applied. In its most strict sense, a myth refers to something that “narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of ‘beginnings’. In other words, myth tells how... a reality came into existence.”43 It may be justifiable, however, to focus on a wider array of materials as mythic, if we take as a point of departure something akin to Northrop Frye’s assertion that “nobody can create, think or even act outside the mythology of his time.”44 Given such an assumption, we can begin to discern threads of mythic thought woven throughout the fabric of a given culture. Since what are commonly called legend and folktale repeat in various forms the primordial structures of significance supplied by myth, these sorts of tales are vehicles that express mythologies and religious valuations.45 Within this realm, we may reasonably also include “historical legends,”46 as well as literary works because, as Frye points out, literature might well be considered the offspring of mythology. Primordial valuations give rise to literature so that “mythical stories become structured principles of story-telling [and] mythical concepts... become habits of metaphorical thought.47 Extension of the sphere of mythic material may be necessary in this instance in order to arrive at something better than a superficial analysis of the valuational structures that operated most particularly in the Acadian British community.

III

  • 48 Naylor, Canada in the European Age, xv.
  • 49 Braudel, On History. In Braudel’s configuration, event history refers to the history of “surface d (...)
  • 50 Braudel, On History, 48. Alfred Crosby discusses the importance of situating historical studies wi (...)

26Before entering into a full discussion of Mi’kmaq-British relations in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Acadia, it might be useful to contextualize the period in question within the more generic framework of the New World. In the first instance, this is to suggest the possibility that an analysis of the Acadian colonial event might contribute to a more synthetic understanding of the issue of alienation in the New World. Despite the tendency of Canadians to regard our history as in some sense exceptional, it is, nonetheless, a story firmly imbedded in post-Columbian motifs. As one historian has noted, “Canadian history in general is part of the story of the conquest of America, and the fate of the Beothuk, Huron, Blackfoot, and Kwakiutle people is not quantitatively different from that of the Aztec, the Maya or the Arawak.”48 If this is true, then it follows that what is said in respect to the Canadian colonial experience could well have relevance beyond this context. The French historian Fernand Braudel has suggested that history might best be understood as something that simultaneously exists on a variety of collateral levels. Although he admits that the question of defining these temporal levels is one of creative speculation, he has, quite self-consciously, settled on three: those of (i) event history, (ii) the history of conjunctures, or social history, and (iii) structural history.49 Although time, he points out, is not a human creation, the way in which we choose to partition it is purely our own fabrication. Regardless of the number of measurements we impose upon it, all ultimately fall into one another so that, in a sense, to penetrate the meaning of any single level is to arrive at some understanding of them all.50 Likewise, to understand some measure of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Acadia within the context of the longer duration of the New World may well be a means of gaining insight into the New World itself. We might add here, that since much of the following discussion will focus upon the nature and function of religious symbols in Acadia, the possibility of extending the conclusions reached at the end of this work beyond the actual context of the Canadian Maritime Provinces is clearly possible. As Mary Douglas points out in Natural Symbols, symbols are meaningless in isolation. Their meanings derive wholly from their relationships to the wider symbolic patterns in which they are contained:

  • 51 Douglas, Natural Symbols, 11–12.

The mind tends in some natural way to use the same symbols for the same situations... the social relations of [human beings] provide the prototype for the logical relations between things... whenever this prototype falls into a common pattern, there should be something common to be discerned in the system of symbols it uses. Where regularities in the system are found, we should expect to find recurring... the same natural systems of symbols.51

27In another sense, placing our shorter period within the extended context of the New World also reflects back upon the meaning of the event and conjunctures of colonial Acadia, conferring upon these an anatomy of religious significance at the outset of our discussion.

  • 52 This quotation appears in Washburn, “The Meaning of Discovery in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centu (...)
  • 53 Washburn, “The Meaning of Discovery,” 19.

28To begin we should take note of the fact that the phrase “New World” is, for instance, heavily laden with religious meaning. Despite the fact that Columbus insisted to his death that he had recovered an “old world”—that he had come upon a mass of “terra firma, well known to the ancients and not unknown, as the envious and ignorant would have it”52—he nonetheless imagined the land in religious terms, as evoking the possibility of beginning again. In a letter he wrote in 1500, he quoted from John’s Gospel and the Book of Isaiah, writing of “a new heaven and a new Earth,” and he described himself as God’s envoy who had embarked upon “a new voyage to the new heaven and world.”53 Although on one level, the “terra firma” he had found existed in space, the New World from its inception was located in the religious imagination. Edmundo O’Gorman extended this point in his book The Invention of America, in which he has argued that the New World could not exist in fact because Columbus was incapable of conceiving of it.

  • 54 Eliade discusses the nature of settling as a cosmogony in The Sacred and the Profane, 31: “An unkn (...)
  • 55 See Relph, Place and Placelessness, 83.
  • 56 Nash, Red, White and Black, 27. Nash suggests that “it was ‘New Worlds,’ placed at the service of (...)
  • 57 See Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 48.

29In the wake of the Columbian event, European movement into the New World was permeated with the issues of human identity and origins. The act of colonizing, at its most basic, raised the problem of identity in terms of altering peoples’ notions of being “at home.” Settlement in a new region is always a fundamental exercise (in many respects tantamount to the primordial creation)54 because “home” constitutes a locus of identity from which the world is interpreted.55 The problem of identity for Europeans was rendered all the more dubious because their sense of being at home in Europe had become increasingly uncertain on the eve of their movement toward the Americas. The century that preceded the beginning of the Atlantic era was a period of “pessimism, cynicism, and despair.” Populations had declined as a result of epidemics and warfare, economic activity had plummeted, and the intellectual climate had fallen into a state of inertia.56 In addition, continued defeat by the Turks in the southeast of the continent had compelled many to turn toward the Atlantic with a certain sense of dislocation.57

  • 58 Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 46, 51.
  • 59 Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 261.

30England in particular had suffered from a shortage of feudal income in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and this had left members of the English aristocracy scrambling for ways to generate revenue so as to sustain dissolving social patterns and to stave off emerging class conflict.58 English expansion (as well as that of France and Holland) beginning in the sixteenth century occurred at a point of economic recession and concurrent population growth. Emigration, which began around 1590 (initially to Ireland, and then to the Americas), was seductive in this context because it proffered the possibility of “social mobility”—an accustomed way of European life that was dwindling markedly at home.59

  • 60 I have borrowed this language of “deconstruction/reconstruction” from Long, who focussed on these (...)
  • 61 See Long, Significations, 170, and Martin, Sacred Revolt, 178–185.

31In a sense, Europeans’ identities were deconstructed before they set out for America. Upon leaving the continent, they embarked upon a venture in which they reconstructed themselves, but in the course of affirming an identity they forced non-Europeans to undergo their own deconstruction of meaning.60 In this process, native Americans came to be regarded as a “counterimage” to the emerging colonial sense of identity—a designation that undercut the humanity of aboriginal peoples and set a stage for violence against them. The subversion of their human significance that accompanied the formation of colonial society forced them (as well as African Americans) into new modes of creativity through which their assaulted sense of meaning could remain vital. At a fundamental level, the colonized were compelled to reclaim their identity within the historical reality of violence, and they did so by re-imagining primordial constructions of human meaning that took precedence over colonial structures of power. In his recent book Sacred Revolt, for instance, Joel Martin has explored this phenomenon in relation to native American prophetic movements, and he has suggested that such movements have constituted constructive answers to the experience of oppression. Within the context of these phenomena, aboriginal peoples have sought to initiate new modes of being within the context of colonialism, and they have done so through renewed contact with their traditional spirituality. As such, they have constituted a religious means of reconstructing identity.61

  • 62 Martin, Sacred Revolt, 185.

32The New World, as a long duration, is a place and time that is cloaked in religious significance. In the colonial world the problem of identity and origins is a problem that has been shared by all peoples. It is within this context that we must initially encounter colonial Acadia. We are entering into a historical analysis from the perspective of religion, and if at all successful, this analysis may carry us closer to understanding—and confronting—the problem of alienation, first, in eastern Canada and, then, by extension, in a post-Columbian world. Joel Martin also recently suggested that “learning how to think and live in this new world along with its various inhabitants... continues to constitute a great religious project for every people in this world.”62 In some sense, the following discussion aspires to be a “religious project.”

Notes

1 Joe, Lnu and Indians We’re Called, 64. Mi’kmaq has been used throughout this book in place of the more common spelling of Micmac. The former spelling has, in recent years, been generally adopted by this community as a more accurate rendering of the name.

2 The name Acadia refers to the modern Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Dorothy Moore suggests that this nomenclature was adopted by the French in the early seventeenth century and based upon the Mi’kmaq word acadie meaning “fertile land.” Marcel Trudel traces the name to the year 1524, when Verrazano navigated the eastern coast of North America between Florida and Newfoundland in search of a passage through the continent to Asia. Two maps created from Verrazano’s account of this voyage were produced in 1527 and 1529, in which the name Arcadia was ascribed to present-day Virginia. In the course of the following few decades, cartographers modified its location so that by 1566, Acadia had come to refer to the area encompassed by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Cf. Moore, “Multiculturalism: Ideology or Social Reality?,” 86, and Trudel, The Beginnings of New France, xi, 6,10.

3 Davis, The Micmac, 11 ff., considers evidence relating to the length of the Mi’kmaq presence in the region and concludes that we are dealing with, at minimum, five thousand years of history.

4 The phrase “mutual products” is borrowed from Jennings, The Invasion of America, 328.

5 Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, 275. Cf. pages ix-x, 268. Jennings makes a related assertion in The Invasion of America: “Any given Englishman at any given time formed his views in accordance with his purposes. Those who came for quick plunder saw plots and malignancy on every side. When the Indians were regarded as partners in profitable trade, they appeared less threatening. When they were wanted as soldiers for war against the French, the martial abilities of these demons were appreciated rather than decried... the Englishman devised the savage’s form to fit his function” (59).

6 Miller, 274.

7 Miller, x.

8 Miller, 278.

9 Long, Significations, 165.

10 Hall, The Silent Language, 165–166. I would also refer in this respect to Gardner’s The Quest for Mind, 206, where he writes, “history is not a narration of dead facts and events. History... is an organon of our self-knowledge, an indispensable instrument for building up our human universe.”

11 Pearce, Savagism and Civilization, viii.

12 This discussion of the nature of history and its study has been influenced by the Annales French school of historiography. The movement was the offspring of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch who founded the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, in 1929. For an overview of the movement, see Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents,” 133–147. Paul Ricoeur has defined the Annales school against the background of “positivist history,” noting that the French historians reacted against “the reduction of history to the collection and critique of documents... the idea that the historical fact exists ready-made in documents... then, the idea that explanation is limited to relating accidents among themselves following a chronological chain imposed by the documents,-finally the idea that the individual is the ultimate relay of historical change and the limitation is the channel by which individual initiatives are propagated” (The Contribution of French Historiography, 473).

13 Cassirer. An Essay on Man, 184. In reference to his mentor Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel reiterated this necessity to bring “life” to history: “History, for him, was never a game of sterile learning sufficient unto itself. I always seemed to be concerned above all with the explanation of man and society in terms of that one precious, subtle, complex gauge—time... without which neither the societies nor the individuals of either past or present ever regain the appearance and warmth of life” (On History, 19).

14 See Heik, History and Myth, 23. For a discussion of the symbolic nature of historical sources, and the relationship between myth and history, see Cassirer, An Essay on Man, 174–175, and Heik, History and Myth, 1–4. In a related sense, Braudel also noted in the introduction to his Capitalism and Material Life, xi, that “general history always requires a model, good or bad, against which events can be interpreted. No theory, no history.”

15 Cf. Fogelson, 141.

16 Febvre is quoted in Ricoeur, The Contribution of French Historiography, 9.

17 Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 22–23. I became aware of Hodgson’s work through Sullivan’s excellent introduction and endnotes in Icanchu’s Drum.

18 Eliade discussed this interchange between historical and religious existence in Images and Symbols, 32–33. Eliade noted, “Although it is true that man is always found “in situation,” his situation is not, for all that, always a historical one in the sense of being conditioned solely by the contemporaneous historical moment. The man in his totality is aware of other situations over and above his historical condition.” Through his exploration of native American religion, Sam Gill has noted this same dynamic. In Native American Religious Action, 153, he notes, “Religion is the human assertion of power to shape and create culture and history so that human life may acquire meaning, even beyond the limits of human existence.”

19 See, for example, Wach, Introduction to the History of Religions, 164.

20 See Jennings, The Invasion of America, 15.

21 Smith, Map Is Not Territory, 290.

22 For a number of variations on this simplified definition see Albenese, America: Religions and Religion, 3–9; Gill, Native American Religious Action, 153; Smith, Map Is Not Territory, 291; and Long, “Silence and Signification,” 145–146.

23 Albenese, America: Religions and Religion, 5.

24 I was made aware of this critical connection in an introductory lecture given by Long, for “Myth, History, and Religion in African American Religion,” a course he taught at Syracuse University in 1991.

25 Eliade, Images and Symbols, 37–38. For more detailed discussion of the distinction between order and chaos see Douglas, Purity and Danger, esp. 115–117, 145, and Tuan, “Sacred Space: Explorations of an Idea,” 90–92.

26 Belden Lane provides a useful discussion of the relationship between place and identity in Landscapes of the Sacred, in which he notes: “personal identity is fixed for us by the feel of our own bodies, the naming of the places we occupy, and the environmental objects that beset our landscape.” He adds that human beings are incessantly driven to “anchor meaning in place” (4–5).

27 Lane refers to this quotation of Simone Weil in Landscapes of the Sacred, 4. We might also note that scholars such as Gill have for some time been suggesting that an understanding of religious events can only be reached through consideration of a culture’s “categories of place.” See Gill, Native American Traditions, 20.

28 Cf. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred, 46; Gill, Native American Religions, 29, 115.

29 Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred, 188. We could also note that Braudel, in his comprehensive history, The Mediterranean, pointed to the close relationship between geography and historical studies. More than half of the first volume (over three hundred and fifty pages) involved a detailed discussion of “The Role of the Environment,” covering such topics as mountains, plateaux, hills, plains, climate, and seasons.

30 Donald Meinig, in the introduction to The Shaping of America, notes that historical geography assumes, in the first instance, that “Geography is not just a physical stage for the historical drama, not just a set of facts about areas of the earth; it is a special way of looking at the world. Geography, like history, is an age-old and essential strategy for thinking about large and complex matters” (xv). Lane describes landscape as “a construed way of seeing the world which is distinctive to a people... [it is] an interpretive lens placed over an otherwise dull, placeless void” (Landscapes of the Sacred, 103), and McGregor adds, “nature, like other aspects of reality, is not simply perceived but socially constructed. By mythicizing our environment we convert it into a body of symbols, a kind of code which—like language—reveals both the ability to reflect and to coerce our experience of the world” (The Wacousta Syndrom, vii).

31 Relph, Place and Placelessness, 63–65.

32 The “dialogical” nature of humans is discussed by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, esp. 33, 47. Taylor defines these languages quite broadly, referring to “not only the words we speak but also other modes of expression whereby we define ourselves, including the ‘languages’ of art, of gesture, of love, and the like. But we are inducted into these in exchange with others. No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us—what George Herbert Mead called ‘significant others’” (33).

33 This interpretation of religious symbols is suggested by Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures. Geertz believes that these symbols stabilize the force of both the human being’s perceptions of particular realities as well as the ability to respond to given situations with appropriate emotions. They “formulate a basic congruence between a particular style of life and a specific... metaphysic” (90, cf. 104).

34 Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 7–14.

35 Gill points this out in respect to native American religion: “the symbolic process does not simply encode messages. It evokes the fundamental structures and patterns from the tradition and thereby establishes a meaningful form in which the future may unfold” (Native American Religions, 81).

36 Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 14.

37 Albenese, America: Religions and Religion, 9.

38 This is a point made by Albert B. Friedman in “The Usable Myth,” 39. Friedman is speaking of the “legendary,” but I believe his discussion is applicable here because, as I will presently suggest, legend and folklore are essentially modes by which mythic motifs are reiterated in a different framework.

39 Sullivan, Icanchu’s Drum, 22.

40 Cf. Eliade, Images and Symbols, 33.

41 Friedman stresses the relationship between myths and notions of significance in “The Usable Myth”: “most Americans’ valorization of experience is keyed to a mythology. Each of us carries around in his head a fragment of a collective national fantasy that assures him of his society’s destiny and makes him accept his social obligations willingly” (41). Cf. Sullivan, Icanchu’s Drum, 22, and Gill, Native American Traditions, 29. In reference to the role of myth in respect to cultural continuity, see Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence, 3: “The mythology of a nation is the intelligible mask of that enigma called ‘national character.’ Through myths the psychology and world view of our cultural ancestors are transmitted to modern descendants.”

42 As Lévi-Strauss noted, “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction” (“The Structural Study of Myth,” 443).

43 Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, 5.

44 Frye, Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture, 185.

45 Eliade explores this relationship between myth and folktales in Myth and Reality, 201: “the tale repeats, on another plane and by other means, the exemplary initiation scenario.” Cf. Popescu, “Eliade and Folklore,” 85–87: “the historian of religion pushes himself back deeply in search of that mythology and that religious conception which express themselves in such oral documents and in such tradition [as folklore].” In respect to the function of folk tales and legend, Hugh Jansen has noted, “A Group’s image of itself and its images of other groups are reflected in its folklore repertoire” (“The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore,” 43).

46 Hand, “The Index of American Folk Legends,” notes: “Historical legends dealing with people, places, and events constitute an important body of material. This material will come partly, I suppose, from historical books; more of it will no doubt come from local historical and traditional accounts dealing with such diverse subjects as wars, skirmishes with the Indians... natural disasters... and other kinds of calamities associated with travel, industry, or commerce” (219). When speaking of historical studies, we noted that a creative act occurs between the historian and the data at hand. Albert Friedman likewise suggested that “between the inert recorded fact and the interpretation that energizes it there is plenty of breeding and breathing space for the legendary” (Friedman, “The Usable Myth,” 39).

47 Frye, The Bush Garden, 32. Cf. Frye, Creation and Recreation, 27–28, and Frye, Spiritus Mundi, 71–72. In respect to the function of reading works of literature, Eliade wrote, “reading includes a mythological function, not only because it replaces the recitation of myths... but particularly because, through reading, the modern man succeeds in obtaining an ‘escape from time’ comparable to the ‘emergence from time’ effected by myths... reading projects him out of his personal duration and incorporates him into other rhythms, making him live in another ‘history’” (The Sacred and the Profane, 205).

48 Naylor, Canada in the European Age, xv.

49 Braudel, On History. In Braudel’s configuration, event history refers to the history of “surface disturbance... of short, sharp nervous vibrations” (3); the history of conjunctures refers to “economic and social history... which lays open large sections of the past, ten, twenty, fifty years at a stretch ready for examination” (27); and structural history is “to be measured in centuries... the history of the long, even the very long time spans, of the long durée” (27). Cf. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World, 20–22.

50 Braudel, On History, 48. Alfred Crosby discusses the importance of situating historical studies within very broad contexts similar to the long duration of Braudel. In his book, The Columbian Exchange, Crosby comprehensively considers the biological changes brought on by the Columbian voyages and he suggests: “The first step to understanding man is to consider him as a biological entity which has existed on this globe, affecting, and in turn affected by, his fellow organisms, for thousands of years. Once we have placed man in his proper spatial and temporal context, we can begin to examine single aspects of events of his history with the assurance—or at least the hope—that the results will have a meaningful relationship to that context and will not merely send us off down the weedy little paths that lead from one antiquarian’s gazebo to another” (xiii).

51 Douglas, Natural Symbols, 11–12.

52 This quotation appears in Washburn, “The Meaning of Discovery in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” 12. Cf. O’Gorman, The Invention of America, 100.

53 Washburn, “The Meaning of Discovery,” 19.

54 Eliade discusses the nature of settling as a cosmogony in The Sacred and the Profane, 31: “An unknown, foreign, and unoccupied territory (which often means ‘unoccupied by our people’) still shares in the fluid modality of chaos. By occupying it and, above all, by settling it, man symbolically transforms it into a cosmos through a ritual repetition of the cosmogony. What is to become ‘our world’ must first be created, and every creation has a paradigmatic model—the creation of the universe by the gods.”

55 See Relph, Place and Placelessness, 83.

56 Nash, Red, White and Black, 27. Nash suggests that “it was ‘New Worlds,’ placed at the service of colonizing Europeans, that catapulted Europe out of a prolonged period of stagnation and regression.”

57 See Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 48.

58 Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 46, 51.

59 Wallerstein, The Modern World System, 261.

60 I have borrowed this language of “deconstruction/reconstruction” from Long, who focussed on these ideas in his course “Myth, History, and Religion in African American Religion,” 1991. Cf. Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization,” 597: “The sixteenth century colonizer was a proud and disdainful person, but he was also insecure and needed to remind himself constantly of his own superiority by looking to the imputed inferiority of others.”

61 See Long, Significations, 170, and Martin, Sacred Revolt, 178–185.

62 Martin, Sacred Revolt, 185.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1995

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540