Mapping Mi'kmaq history at SMU

Digital atlas project seeks to preserve cultural history

Tim Bernard of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq gives a presentation on the digital atlas project at Saint Mary’s University. (Photo: Max Leighton)

Documenting more than 10,000 years of cultural history in one website is an ambitious task.

But that's the goal of the digital atlas project, a massive archive of Mi'kmaq place names, orthography and oral history, currently in its developing stages.

The three-year, $250,000 grant project is a collaboration between the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary's University and several Mi'kmaq and provincial organizations.

Also included is the Mi'kmaq, Nova Scotia, Canada Tripartite Forum, a partnership that includes the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq and Parks Canada.

The web-based atlas will create an interactive map of a Nova Scotia lost to time.

Sites such as traditional resource gathering areas and trade routes will be shown, along with links to information on translations, oral histories and stories. The site will also include a query-based search engine and multi-media content.

"This is a chance to show people where these original names come from and what these places mean," says Rob Ferguson of Parks Canada.

"We will see a lot coming out of Cape Breton around the Bras d'Or Lakes area. Another good example is Kejimkujik in the southwest of the province. It was (formerly) called Fairy Lake, which comes from a Mi'kmaq word."

The atlas will be created using Geographic Information Systems mapping technology.

The software "allows us to put these different layers together starting with a the base map, then adding the roads, the river ways, critical resource areas, and various data in French, English and Mi'kmaq," said Trudy Sable, project co-coordinator from the Gorsebrook Institute.

"The whole idea is to look at the landscape from the point of view of the Mi'kmaq people."

Much of that view is being drawn from the knowledge of Mi'kmaq elders. Native researchers and a full time SMU student intern will interview elders from Nova Scotia's 28 Mi'kmaq reserves and various urban communities. The information will be saved in MP3 and video form.

"Having a website where you can have this kind of information and hear the elders talk and have this kind of expression is very powerful," said Sable.

Tim Bernard, director of history and culture at the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq, believes the project will be an ideal resource for Nova Scotia students. He hopes local school boards will use the atlas to teach both native and non-native youth the history of the province's first peoples.

"It shows that the Mi'kmaq people have been here for over 11,000 years and not only have we been here but we're still here," he says.

The atlas should be accessible by 2013. For now, the focus is on securing further funding, compiling existing data and conducting the hundreds of interviews it will take to build the database.

"Our fingerprints are all over this land," Bernard says. "Our language is strong and we are going to try to document every piece of landscape we can."

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