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Dancing to the beat of the almost forgotten Maliseet traditions

When she was a young woman, Maggie Paul knew almost nothing about Maliseet culture. The traditions had nearly disappeared, but she keenly wanted to learn—so she spent years listening to old recordings, learning songs from others, and devoting herself to the spiritual practice of drumming.

Today, Paul is a respected elder in her community—the St. Mary’s First Nation, near Fredericton—and she has helped lead a revival in traditional singing, drumming and dancing. Over the years, she has performed and shared knowledge at institutions such as prisons and Aboriginal health centres, and has toured in countries including the US, France and Mexico. She has also recorded several CDs, and performed for the Queen during the 2010 royal visit.

Maggie Paul and I chatted for several hours at her kitchen table—overlooking the homemade sweat lodge in her backyard.

I WAS BORN in 1946 on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Maine. The midwife who delivered me just wrote “Baby Girl, August 13” in her book. No name, nothing.

I went to a Catholic school down home in the early 1950s. I couldn’t read or write English well—I just couldn’t catch it—and when I sat in the classroom, I would look out the window at my home. Sometimes I could see my grandmother drying her fish, or washing the tripe. My heart just wasn’t in school. My heart was out there.

But one thing I loved about school was the music. I liked the songs. One of the nuns taught me how to play the piano—I remember her teaching me “Clementine”—and then, when I was 10 or 11, I got to be one of the girls in the choir. At home, my mom had one of those standup radios with the big dial, and I would sing along to the music. Sometimes I’d go up to the top of the hill near our house and sing.

It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, I love it.

In 1961, a man from St. Mary’s called James Lawrence Paul was travelling through Passamaquoddy, doing work like picking potatoes. He was 19 and I was only 14, but I left with him to come here, and when I turned 15 we got married. We stayed together until the early 1970s.

That was the first time I had ever travelled anywhere, and when I got here I loved it. There was only one street then: Paul Street. Everyone had old wooden houses, and they painted them colours like turquoise, yellow and blue. It was beautiful.

After I moved here, I started thinking about why people my age didn’t know much about our traditions. Our elders used to do drumming and singing and dancing. How come we didn’t do anything like that? I had a friend, and I’d go to her house, or she would come to mine, and we’d drink coffee and tea and talk about it. We talked about it for nearly 10 years before we made up our minds to do something.

So one day in 1970 or ’71 we wrote a proposal and got a $10,000 grant to buy things to do with drums, and leather to make traditional regalia, moccasins and stuff for the children. Then we put it out in the community: Anyone who wants to dance, come on down. We had about 40 people, adults and children show up. And then we started travelling all through New Brunswick and Maine.

I would dance, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to just be a performer. I wanted something more spiritual. I wanted to learn more about our ceremonies. I wanted to learn how to do the sunrise ceremony, how to sing for the earth, for the trees. I wanted to drum.

One night, St. Thomas University [in Fredericton] had brought in First Nations drummers and singers. I was outside somewhere and when I heard the drum it’s like my heart jumped, and I had to go look for it. As soon as I got inside, I thought, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” Later, I had a vision that the world was beautiful but I was stuck in a black box, and then I said to myself, “This is it. No more drinking, no more doping, no more nothing.” Even cigarettes, and I used to smoke three packs a day. I quit and I didn’t crave it. I didn’t need it. I wanted to sing the songs and I wanted to drum.

I went down home to where I come from and learned from my sister, who had already started on this road. She’d learned songs from Akwesasne and Onondaga. We didn’t even know how to sing our own songs, but eventually we learned. We found these old recordings made by William Mechling. He was an anthropologist who came up here in 1911 and recorded old Maliseet songs on wax cylinders. My favourite one is the Trading Song. That and the Welcome Song—that’s the one I sang for the Queen.

Now I’ve got about 15, 16, 17 drums. One of the oldest was made by my husband, Stanley. He went to Sudbury with another man from the community to learn how to make drums from an Ojibwa elder named Art Solomon. They stayed a week and made a big drum. It’s awesome.

As the years went by, I really got connected to the drum. I really did. Anyone wants to learn, I teach about the drum. It’s the heartbeat of our people. It’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth. When you’re holding the drum, sometimes you connect with it and all of a sudden there’s nothing else there but you and the drum. You’re singing for that drum. That drum wants to hear the songs.

Those traditions had been almost forgotten, and we brought them back here: the dances, the drumming, the pipes, the sweat lodge.

When I was 33, I started going into prisons to visit Aboriginal inmates. There was an elder of ours from this reserve who would go in all the time and do it alone. He was going back and forth a lot, and he was tired. My friends and I talked about it, and I said I think I’ll go help him.

The first time when I stepped in there and saw all them guys I thought, “Frig, all these guys and I bet nobody comes to visit.” They were all from out west. You would be taken away from your reserve and sent to prison far from your people. The prisoners were kind of leery, because they didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them. Some wouldn’t talk, and some were far away in the corner. We did a circle and talked—whatever anyone wanted to talk about. As the years went by we did a lot of talking circles. I also sang, and taught them how to sing.

We would go to Dorchester, Springhill, Westmorland, Renous and the Kingston Prison for Women [P4W], in Ontario. One day we got a call from P4W because they were supposed to have a powwow the next day, and nobody was going to be there. So we drove up, did the powwow—a few of the women came—and then we left and drove right back home the next day.

I did prison work for about 30 years, but it’s hard. I was spent right out. It was volunteer when I started, and then I think we would get $16 a day for gas and food. Then it went to $25. By the end it was up to $500 for a full day if you were doing something like a pow-wow.

A lot has changed since we started. They have sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies in there now; they do fasts.

My husband and I have a sweat lodge we built here in our backyard. When someone asks you to do a sweat for them [see “Sacred Sweat Site,” below], you have to make time for them, and they have to make time for you.

If it’s an emergency, you just put everything else on hold to do the lodge for them. Maybe they want to be done drinking and they’re desperate for help, or they think they might commit suicide or do something they might regret. You don’t pounce these things on people. You don’t tell them, “You know you should come to the lodge! Come do some healing.” But if they want some healing I’ll put them through, or my husband will. He does the lodge too.

The knowledge and respect for our traditions is growing. People are taking it upon themselves to make their own regalia and do dances. I think the children are leading it. Parents see that their kids are interested, so the parents learn too.

One of my grandsons—he just turned six in December—oh my God, he couldn’t leave the dancing grounds one day last year. He’s always out there at the dancing grounds. He’s got a little grass outfit, and one day he told his dad, “Go get Grandma! I want Grandma to see me!” I ran over… I wanted to make sure he knew I could see his dancing.

If you’re taught when you’re little, even if you stray in your teens, you’ll be back. That’s why I tell my husband we’ve got to have young kids from the community around—to carry on the traditions.

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