NACO’s Canada 150 tour: A lesson from Sugar

Sugar Poulette and her Waltes game. Photo: Peter Robb

ESKASONI FIRST NATION • Mi’kmaw people have been playing the game of Waltes on this land for 5,000 years.

Just ask Sugar Poulette. She’ll tell you all about it. And if you’re brave enough to sit across from her, watch your step. She’ll give you a lesson in competition as she explains what the game means.

Waltes is played on a shallow wooden bowl made from the burl of a tree that grows in the woods near Eskasoni. There are also five small discs made of bone from a caribou, a deer or a moose. The discs are flat on one side and round on the other. On the flat side of each disc are markings.

Sugar, who is a feisty, funny 60-plus, says the marks, which resemble Maltese crosses, follow the shape of a thumbnail, which is how people have marked these discs for time immemorial.

The game has endured through the ages as a way for the people of Eskasoni to entertain themselves. But it is more than that, it is a marker of their culture. One thing about the shallow bowl can be seen when it’s flipped over. It looks like a turtle shell. Flip over the discs too and place them strategically around the bowl and they look like a turtle’s head and four legs … a representation of Turtle Island.

During a dark time not so long ago, Sugar said, Waltes was considered gambling and therefore illegal. The RCMP used to arrest people for playing this game, so the Mi’kmaw just hid their bowls and their tokens whenever the police came by. And they pulled them out later and kept playing. It’s the kind of nasty paternalism that has many indigenous peoples rejecting the idea of celebrating Canada 150 and looking toward a better future.

If there is a legacy from NACO’s visit and concert at Eskasoni on Wednesday it is the knowledge gained … by the visitors.

The people of Eskasoni have welcomed visitors for centuries to their homes ever since Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence and Grand Chief Membertou was baptized by a priest at Annapolis Royal in 1610. Sometimes the meeting has been a positive experience. All too often it has not been so happy.

For NACO and for those travelling with the orchestra, the community was an eye-opener. Eskasoni has its own commercial fishing company called Crane Cove Seafoods which employs more than 135 members of the community of 4,500 and operates 13 boats from Ingonish on Cape Breton to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Eskasoni’s students are immersed in their language and culture from kindergarten to Grade 3 and 80 per cent of the students attending Allison Bernard Memorial High School graduate and many go on to university.

There are struggles: Maintaining the language and traditional culture is one, despite the immersion. George Paul, who does communications for the Eskasoni First Nation, told me on a car ride to the reserve Wednesday morning that the young people are not all retaining their language. His own son can pronounce the words, George said, but he doesn’t always know what those words mean. That worries Paul, but the community won’t give up on that, he said.

NACO shared something to the people of Eskasoni on Wednesday … I Lost My Talk, a piece of music that honours one of their own, the poet Rita Joe.

After the concert, Sugar, who knew the poet, like pretty much everyone over the age of 10 in Eskasoni, said she hoped the performance would carry Rita Joe’s words to the heaven she very much believes in.

A day later, it’s hard to really understand how meaningful the performance of I Lost My Talk was in the Dan K. Stevens arena. But a bus ride from Moncton to Saint John can help some.

I Lost My Talk gives voice to a mother of 10, who was badly treated in residential school and who lost her language there but not her creative spirit. In between raising her kids, Rita Joe wrote poems and a memoir, and taught her community, her province and her country about herself and her people. As AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the audience Wednesday, before the concert, a leader doesn’t have to be a politician to lead. That’s a lesson in life.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.