Danny Paul, Mi’kmaw elder and author, died one month ago on June 27, 2023. Danny was the author of We Were Not the Savages, a foundational text on the history of settler colonialism and the European invasion of Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq.
The following is an excerpt of an interview Danny did in 2022 with Nora Loreto for ThirtyWood, a podcast celebrating the 30th anniversary of Fernwood Publishing.
This interview is edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full podcast here.
Nora Loreto: Can you introduce yourself to people who might not be familiar with your work?
Danny Paul: Well, it’s a long story. I’ll give you a short version. I’m a Mi’kmaq elder, author and many other things along the way. I was born in Indian Brook, Nova Scotia–Indian Brook reserve– and now live in Halifax and have written such books as We Were Not the Savages and Chief Lightning Bolt and many chapters for other books, and have been involved with the writing profession for several years now.
Loreto: How have people reacted to your two books? The way that a reaction to someone that’s read your [novel Chief Lightning Bolt], how is it different to the readers that use and rely on We Were Not the Savages for research or understanding the history of the land?
Paul: Well, for We Were Not the Savages, I had a great reaction. Here, in Nova Scotia, in the late 1980s, I decided that the true history of the province and Canada should be brought out of the closet and put on the table. To put an end to some of the fairy tales that passed as history in the past, in particular about the relationship between the Mi’kmaq and the British, which was in my opinion, nothing but a fairy tale.
The Mi’kmaq suffered under the hands of the British colonial invasion. Everything from out-and-out genocide to malnutrition, starvation, and exclusion from the economic reality of this province and country over a long period of time.
Loreto: I imagine that your book has become a critical reference for people who want to explore and want to research and understand that history. How have you seen your work influence mainstream understanding of settler colonialism in Nova Scotia?
Paul: Well, I guess, to see the influence it had, in 1993, when the first edition was published, there was a statue of Edward Cornwallis located in the park named Cornwallis Park. Many buildings in the city of Halifax were named after him and many streets across the province and so forth and so on. And today, in 2022, virtually all of them are gone with a few exceptions, and I understand most of them will be gone in the near future.
So when you put the truth on the table, I think over a long period of time, you can convince people that they should begin to look at the history with a different viewpoint and come to better conclusions than what they did in the past.
And, when you’re looking at the the European invasion of the Americas, you’re probably looking at the worst case of genocide that ever happened in the world and the destruction of civilizations and two continents. I don’t think in any kind of history book you’ve ever read such a thing before, but it’s time for this information to be disseminated around the world and talked about and discussed. Europeans did not bring civilization to the Americas. What Europeans brought to the Americas in colonial times was death and destruction.
Loreto: Can you explain who [Edward Cornwallis] was and why it’s so important that his statues have come down?
Paul: Edward Cornwallis was a member of the British military. He was involved in some atrocities in Scotland. Him and his troops during the northern Jacobite rebellion slaughtered many of the wounded troops on the battlefield. And after a truce was called, they went into the highlands and murdered many of the Gaels that were located there. And, in some instances, they put some of these people in their houses, boarded the windows and doors and burned the houses to the ground and things like that.
And then in 1749, he was appointed British governor of the colony of Nova Scotia. And by October of 1749, he issued a proclamation for the scalps of Mi’kmaw men, women and children, and paid a bounty for such.
Loreto: What led you to write in the first place? What made you realize that there was definitely the need to have a book like We Were Not the Savages written?
Paul: Well, I was born in a society, in 1938, when I was born, we were considered wards of the state. We had the same legal rights as drunks and insane persons. We were widely discriminated against. And there were sections of the Indian Act that for those who have a beer in our possession, it was an offense and we could be fined for it or jailed. There was a provision of the Indian Act at that poin, that made it illegal for lawyers to take on the case of an Indigenous person. And the lawyer could be fined up to $500 for doing such, without permission of the superintendent general of Indian Affairs. And on and on. Women, of course, lost their status when they married non-Indians and we were openly and widely discriminated against.
When I went to school in the 1940s, we were taught that the Mi’kmaq, for instance, were good at making back baskets and axe handles and that was about the size of the story told about our people. And the Indian Agents employed by the department, Indian Agents were like Jesus Christ, they had complete control over our lives, how we got food, and how we got housing and clothing and all the rest. It was totally dependent on them.
We were, I guess, treated like inferior people that also had inferior intellectual abilities. And that’s evidenced by the fact that if you read We Were Not the Savages, you’ll see I relate the story of the Pictou Landing location of the effluent from a pulp mill going into Boat Harbour. And while bureaucrats were getting prepared to do so, they were lying their faces off to the Mi’kmaw residents of Pictou Landing, telling them that they could swim in the water afterwards, and fish in it, and so forth and so on. And they recorded all these things.
And one thing, in particular, that I found really galling was the fact that when they were paying the Caucasian residents around Boat Harbour for the loss of their property, one of the junior engineers asked the chief engineer, “What about the Indians?” And his response was simply “So what, they’re only Indians.” And that was recorded in the record. I’ve got to thank them for their racism, because without it, we couldn’t have won a $35 million lawsuit in that instance. I guess the thing to say here is never believe the propaganda that you spout over centuries.
Loreto: And so all of this is what moved you to do that research and put it down on the page and make sure that people understood that these were lies. This was propaganda. This was not true.
Paul: That’s true. Most of the information you’ll find throughout the Americas in the past, not all of it, of course, but most of it, is BS right through.
When you’re looking at civilization, you also have to look at, at that point in time, there were such things in Europe as burning at the stake, keelhauling, and disemboweling as methods of execution. The Mi’kmaw, for instance, weren’t involved in such horrors. And when you come from a civilization that has that as its history, and then go abroad and find another people and you brand them savages. I kind of think it’s a misuse of the term.
Loreto: There’s an incredible amount of resurgence and activism among Mi’kmaq people and in general Indigenous activism all across Canada. How do you see where we are now? Are you optimistic? Are things still very difficult? Is it both? How do you see current movements for civil rights?
Paul: I think we’re making progress in this country now and some of the history that’s been made readily available and has been brought out of the closet and put on the table, that scalp proclamations, residential schools, the horrors that went on in these institutions, what have you. And Canadians are beginning to learn just what the actual history was. And as a result, I think we’re seeing improved relationships here in Nova Scotia.
Economic development has taken off quite well in several communities in particular Membertou and Millbrook. These two communities have industries going. And now several bands have bought out a large fish company, Clearwater, a billion dollar entity. So we’re beginning to be brought into the economic field across the country and things are improving.
And I guess the best way to put it is that propaganda of the past is being dispelled and put away in a closet where it belongs and the truth is being digested by the Canadian public at large, and society has become more inclusive in the last 30 years in particular.
And I think We Were Not the Savages had a lot to do with it here in Canada.
Loreto: Going back to your book Chief Lightning Bolt. What was your inspiration for this story? How did you come up with it? And for how long before it was published? Had you been thinking about it and working on it?
Paul: Oh, I was writing that over a long period of time, several years, actually. And what I wanted to tell was the story of the Mi’kmaq prior to the onset of the European invasion in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and show what a real civilization was. The Mi’kmaq, for instance, operated on four principles and there was belief in the Great Spirit. Honour was top amongst [the principles] and sharing and, and so forth and so on. And so I wanted to tell the story of this type of civilization.
Believe it or not, in 1492, the Mi’kmaq probably had one of the highest standards of living in the world. And it was a totally democratic society, where people had the control of their political lives and the Chief served at the pleasure of the people not at their own pleasure. It was a democratic society that was very well established and had been for thousands of years prior to the European invasion.
One of the reasons, I think, European leadership at that point in time, kings and queens and so forth and so on, were so dead set against Indigenous civilizations of the Americas that most of them were democratic, and it posed a threat to the longevity of the royal houses of Europe in particular.
Loreto: What is a book that has changed your life?
Paul: No book has changed my life. Experience has changed my life. And that goes way back to when I was a child.
When I was very young, probably three or four years old, my father was away and didn’t get home that weekend because of a storm. And, of course, he had no car, he had to walk the twenty miles from where he worked. And he just started that job. We ran out of food on a Friday and Monday morning, my mother and I walked over to an Indian Agency, which was about a mile or so through the woods. And we got there at eight o’clock when the agency opened and she asked him for some assistance because we had nothing to eat for three days. And he made her beg and cry for three hours. And finally, at quarter to twelve that day, he finally called her in and gave her a small ration. And I looked at him that day, and as young as I was, I said to myself when I grow up, no bastard like you was going to do that to me. And I think that changed my life.
And then I left home when I was 14 and went to Boston and was working there. You know we were taught in school that we were an inferior people, that if we wanted to succeed in life, we had to adopt a white way which was the right way etcetera. And I was working in a hat factory in Boston, this Black lady who originated from Mississippi, I believe, called me over one day, that was probably around 17-18. And she said, “Boy, you walk around here with your head down like you think everybody here is better than you.” And she asked me what I know about my people and I knew very little. She said, “Why don’t you learn about them? And perhaps you’ll be very proud of it when you get all the facts together. And by the way, you get your head up off the floor because you’re just as good as anyone here and probably better than a lot of them.” And that inspired me to get on with life and be and change things.
And when I was 21, I decided I should come back to Nova Scotia and upgrade my education. And I worked at a slaughterhouse as an accountant, at a furniture company and at Stadacona Naval Base. And then Indian Affairs recruited me in 1951 and I worked for them for 15 years. And then six Chiefs in 1985 wanted me to start a tribal council for them in the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq and I did and set that up. And that gave me the liberty to begin to think about writing books.
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