Friday, June 15, 2012

How do you say progress in Micmac?


Tracadie Baptist Church Youth Choir
One thing led to another the other day and I found myself fixed on the name of Tracadie.  It’s a town in Nova Scotia, pronounced TRACK-a-dee, and it sort of entered my consciousness out of nowhere and wouldn’t go away.   I was talking with my friend Jason, who has a delightful blog, which I hope you will look at sometime.  His latest entry is all about the naming of streets and highways after dead people,  and for some reason the name Tracadie came out of nowhere and I was suddenly hounded by a question that simply demanded an answer.  How come, in addition to Tracadie, there is a Little Tracadie and an Upper Big Tracadie, but no Upper (or Lower) Little Tracadie.  And why upper?  Why not North?  Or New Tracadie?

With Google always at the ready to distract me from the laundry or cleaning the pile of junk off my desk, I went looking for answers.  Turns out it’s Micmac, (or Mi'kmaq, if you’re not doing simple government work and want some precision) and in Micmac/ Mi'kmaq it means either “Ideal Camping Location” or “My friends (plural),” depending on whom you ask.

STOP! in Micmac
There are two other Tracadies in the Maritimes, one in New Brunswick and one on Prince Edward Island.  The one in New Brunswick has merged with the neighboring town of Sheila, and is now called Tracadie-Sheila, but you don’t need to know that.  One of the things people do in Tracadie-Sheila, apparently, is race their motor vehicles through the mud. See here and here.

You might also like to know that Mi'kmaq uses free word order, based on emphasis rather than a traditionally fixed order of subjects, objects and verbs. For instance, the sentence "I saw a moose standing right there on the hill" could be stated "sapmi'k ala nemaqt'k na tett ti'am kaqamit" (I saw him/there/on the hill/right-there/a moose/he was standing) or "sapmi'k ala ti'am nemaqt'k na tett kaqamit" (I saw him/there/a moose/on the hill/right-there/he was standing); the latter sentence puts emphasis on the moose by placing ti'am (moose) earlier in the utterance. 

But I digress.

The reason the name Tracadie has left an indelible mark on my memory (no mean feat, with this memory) is that it was always associated with evidence that the long three-day journey from our home in Connecticut to Aunt Carrie’s house in Manchester, Nova Scotia, was almost over.  The turn off the Trans-Canada Highway to Monastery was a sure sign we were almost there.  And Tracadie (Upper Big Tracadie, actually) was right there just a few miles down the road from the turn-off.

But let me go back to the beginning.

There’s a story I used to love to hear told as a kid in Connecticut about the Daughters of the American Revolution coming to visit my grandmother, my father’s mother - the one from Nova Scotia.  They had uncovered her roots among early American settlers.  We used to like to think they came over on the Mayflower, but I have no evidence of that.  In any case, she served them tea and spoke of her pride in being from Nova Scotia, where she and six generations or so of her ancestors that she knew of had lived before her.  When the DAR went a-diggin’ for her Pilgrim ancestors they probably should have continued digging until they uncovered the loyalist ones who fled to Nova Scotia in Revolutionary War days and stayed within smooching distance of George III.

She may have reconnected with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or whatever it’s called today, and married a Scotsman from Dumfries and raised three boys there, including my father, but she was still Canadian at heart.  As soon as she was able, she snatched said Scotsman grandfather off to live in the old homestead at the end of the road in North Ogden, in Guysborough County, where she was born, near where her sister and several brothers still lived.  The house, if it had had any self-respect, would have fallen to the ground decades before, but it was still standing when I was a kid and used to sleep in the attic with the bats.

That house was a bit too far off the beaten path for my mother, and we ended up spending most of our time when I was a kid with my grandmother’s sister, Carrie, in a town called Manchester, just outside of Boylston, which is just outside of Guysborough, the county seat.

Guysborough Main Street
Guysborough (Chedabuctou, in Micmac; Baile Mhainisdear in Gaelic), population 992 today, was where we went whenever my mother started going stir crazy for the big city.  It had stores and a post office, schools (Guysborough Academy) and churches and several streets with actual names.  And a hospital with a doctor to whom I have been grateful my whole life long, for recognizing the severity of the cut on my hand in 1956 and rushing me off to the hospital in Antigonish.  My grandmother and grandfather are buried on a hill in Guysborough.

I was sixteen when I went to get water from the well one day and fell and cut seven tendons in my right hand and ended up spending an entire month in St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish, the nearest place with a doctor who knew how to reach up to my elbow, find the tendons and connect them back to my right hand.  My parents had to go back to Connecticut, and I was there all alone for a month while I recuperated. 

Antigonish in English and Gaelic
Antigonish, accent on the nish, population just over 4000, not counting the student population, which is about 5000, is a center of the descendents of Bloody Mary’s people, the Scottish queen whose head, you remember, was taken off by Elizabeth I over a religious squabble.  That meant they were all Roman Catholics.  It was also one of the few places in North America where Scots Gaelic was still spoken.   In fact the provincial Office of Gaelic Affairs is proud to let you know Gaelic has been spoken continually in Nova Scotia since the first settlers (refugees?) came from the Highlands and the Islands in 1773.  I know all this, because I developed a thing for Father John, who used to come over every day from the university to visit the boy from Conneck-ticut because he had no one else.  Sometimes he brought other priests with him and they would sit around speaking Gaelic.  My Aunt Carrie couldn’t drive in from Manchester alone and Uncle Charlie spent his life dreaming of the day he would release his bowels on Cape Breton Island, but found it too far away to make the effort.  Antigonish was even farther away.  The horse and buggy they would have used to go to church if they went to church would never have made it on the highway.  Besides, they lived very close to the earth, and one took a day off from farming only in dire emergencies, not for routine hospital visitations.

For a time, so taken with this Father John was I that he almost had me convinced I should go to college at St. Francis Xavier.   I even developed an ear for the bagpipes, which could be heard an hour every day on the radio.

The fates had other plans, but I got to live life with the notion of Antigonish as a path not taken.

In the 1940s and 1950s, it used to take three days to get from our home in Connecticut to Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie’s.  Eventually, when freeways went in in New England, the trip could be made in sixteen hours, but in those early days it was a long haul indeed.   We used to break it down in our heads to a series of accomplishments – crossing the border into Canada at Calais (pronounced like callous), entering Nova Scotia, and making the turn off the Trans Canada Highway a half hour beyond Antigonish, to Monastery, and then the final stretch down to Guysborough.

During my googling adventure the other day to jog my memory about where exactly Upper Big Tracadie was, I learned something unexpected.  Upper Big Tracadie, it turns out, is a black settlement, one of two in Nova Scotia, where freed slaves ended up.  The end of the long journey on the Underground Railroad.

I remember staring out the window of our 1948 Ford the first time I saw that collection of shacks by the side of the road with black kids playing out front and hearing that we were passing through Lincolnville and being told why it got that name.  It was not an inviting place, and when I suggested once that we stop and take a look, I remember my parents quickly changing the subject and making it clear stopping for tea would not be in the cards.  We never talked about the place.  We just knew it wasn’t our kind of people.

Where I came from in Connecticut, we were all about who was Italian, or German, or Polish.  In Nova Scotia, where a picture of Queen Victoria was on the wall in the bedroom where I slept, “difference” went only as far as being French-Canadian.  You admitted there were English people here and there, but mostly people had names like MacLean, MacLeod, MacKenzie, MacDonell, MacDonall, and MacDonald.

Lincolnville and Upper Big Tracadie are still essentially black towns today, half a century after I first learned about the Underground Railroad.  There may still be shacks there along the highway.  But if this video is any indication, my guess is things have gotten a whole lot better. 

The Guysborough County Heritage Association has some interesting facts about the origins of the place I knew as a child and still identify strongly with.  While most of the blacks from the American South who came to Nova Scotia ended up in Shelburne County, where the boats first landed, about 900 made their way to the eastern end of the province, to Guysborough and Antigonish Counties in 1783-4, and only today did I learn that this included the towns of Country Harbour, Isaacs Harbour and Goldboro; the last of these villages is where my sister has a home today.  Turns out Isaac was black, as were the first settlers of this place.   Goldboro today has a population of 450, including my sister and brother-in-law.

Isaacs Harbour
My Aunt Geraldine lived in Isaacs Harbour, just across the water from my sister.  How come nobody ever told me that Isaac was a black man?  The Isaacs Harbour website will tell you that the town has a population of fifty people, but there is no mention of how the settlement got its name.  It will tell you in all modesty that it doesn’t have as much sunshine as Larry’s River or Ecum Secum (Mi'kmaq for “a red house”), and it can’t hold a candle to the “prosperous community” of Goldboro across the bay, but it makes no mention of its place, and the place of Goldboro, in black Canadian history.  Wonder why that is.

To wonder too hard would be to see the glass as half empty.  There is good reason to see it as half full.  The Nova Scotia Heritage is, in fact, making the contributions of Black Canadians known.  See here and here and here, for example.

Amazing what you can turn up if you go back in your personal history and dig a little deeper.

 picture credits: The youth choir at Tracadie United Baptist Church,  Guysborough Main Street Antigonish in English and Gaelic, Stop sign in Micmac, Isaacs Harbour

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