My Indian by Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill

It is so agreeable to see the awareness of Indigenous issues being given the attention they deserve so that reconciliation can advance. More and more, elders and other members of the Indigenous community whose voices were silent for so long are now being encouraged to speak. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Breakwater Books is an independent, socially aware Atlantic Canadian publisher and they have just released a small, but important book authored by two members of that provinces’ Mi’kmaq community, Saquamaw Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill.

A #ReadAtlantic book!

My Indian is a collaborative effort to tell the history, from both an oral and recorded viewpoint, of Sylvester Joe the Mi’kmaq guide who was hired by William Epps Cormack to assist him in crossing the island of Newfoundland in 1822. In his writings, Cormack always referred to Sylvester as “my Indian”, hence the title of the book, which was used as a way to reclaim the narrative, taking back the title of “My Indian” and giving it back to the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland, as the authors explain in the “Book Club Questions” portion of the book.

Cormack was crossing Newfoundland to look for evidence of the Beothuk people, who were very mistrustful of the white man (as well they should be) and Sylvester Joe is conflicted because he really doesn’t want to lead this man to them or their camps. However, after consulting with his Elders, he undertakes the journey always leading Cormack in the general direction of the Beothuk, but never close enough for actual contact. Throughout the journey, Cormack scoffs at traditional Mi’kmaq medicines and ways, until he falls quite ill and Joe nurses him back to health so that they can continue their arduous journey.

Interesting, too are the imagined conversations between the two, such as when Cormack asks Sylvester if he has a Bible:

I replied, "Yes, I do. We are walking on my Bible every day." There was no reply from him for several minutes.
Then Cormack asked, "What do you mean, we are walking on your Bible?"
"This land is Mother Earth. It provides nourishment to my body, my heart, and my spirit. It provides everything I need to survive on this land. It teaches me to be strong, it teaches me to be respectful, and it teaches me to be humble. This land is not mine or yours. It belongs to all the living creatures; it belongs to all of us. And we are all responsible for this land that we walk on. So you see, this is you see, this is my Bible," I explained to Cormack. "What does your Bible teach you?"
Cormack just looked at me for a long period of time and then said harshly, "We have a long way to go."

While not full of details from Cormack’s journal of the crossing, it tells the story sufficiently from an Indigenous perspective to understand what the mindset of Sylvester must have been as he is ordered around by Cormack and does the lion’s share of the chores while Cormack scribbles in his journal.

My Indian begs to have a special place in the public educational system curriculum. It is suitable reading for middle-grade readers on up. Aside from the book club questions, there is a glossary, black and white photographs and numbers in Mi’kmaq. Hopefully, My Indian will lead to more reinterpretations of the role of Indigenous people in colonial history from their perspective.

SAQAMAW MI’SEL JOE, LL. D, CM, is the author of Muinji’j Becomes a Man and An Aboriginal Chief’s Journey. He has been the District Traditional Chief of Miawpukek First Nation since 1983, appointed by the late Grand Chief Donald Marshall. Mi’sel Joe is considered the Spiritual Chief of the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sheila O’Neill, B.A., B.Ed., is from Kippens, NL, and is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Sheila is a Drum Carrier and carries many teachings passed down by respected Elders. As a founding member and past president of the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network (NAWN), she has been part of a grassroots movement of empowerment of Indigenous women within the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador. She lives in St. John’s.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Breakwater Books (April 30 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1550818783
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1550818789

*The Miramichi Reader encourages you to shop independent! However, shopping at a bookstore is not always possible, so we are supplying an link. Please note if you choose to purchase this book (or Kindle version) through Amazon using the link below we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: Thanks! 

James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.