INDSPIRE award recipient Maggie Paul, 67, is a Passamaquoddy elder who uses songs as part of an ancient healing tradition.
Born in Maine, she has raised six children and lived most of her adult life on the Maliseet St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton. Her work was recognized in the category of culture, heritage and spirituality at the Aboriginal Achievement Awards gala ceremony in Winnipeg March 21.
Paul has kept a sweat lodge for more than 15 years and uses songs to mentor young people. The award in Winnipeg recognizes Paul as an inspiration to a new generation of singers.
During the course of nearly 40 years of work, she's made two CDs that capture the traditional songs of the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet people, but most of her work has been face to face with people. To hear her talk about how songs transmit culture is to hear a voice from an indigenous tradition that seemed on the edge of oblivion, only to be sung back to life again. She recently talked to Free Press reporter Alexandra Paul.
FP: A lot of people think your culture was gone forever, especially on the east coast. So did the music ever die?
PAUL: The music never died. The culture never died. The traditions never died. It was all just waiting for somebody to say 'Hey, this is what we got to do.'
It's been 500 years and it was with the elders who went before us. The ones who speak to us through our dreams, who speak to us through our visions. Some people remember the songs. Some people don't, but they remember hearing the songs from the ones who went before us, the ancestors... The language is who you are.
FP: What's so important in the songs, that they can carry the culture?
PAUL: It's a spirit. You know, when you sing, nothing else matters in this whole world. It comes from the earth. It comes from the sky. It comes from the Creator. It comes from underneath. It comes from all the way around when you're singing. That's why singing is so important to our culture, to our children. The children want to learn the songs. They want to learn the drum. Why is it? Because it's the beat, the heart beat. The beat of Mother Earth. That's why it's so important to sing. It keeps us alive.
FP: Where did you learn the songs?
PAUL: The very first songs we went to look for was with my sister Deanna. (Deanna Francis was a Passamaquoddy medicine woman)... All the ceremonies are still working, the connection, it's the vibration (through song).
FP: Rok Wiseman (another noted Maliseet singer) went to the National Archives in Ottawa and taped old songs recorded on wax cylinders from the 1800s and early 1900s. Did you learn any of those songs?
PAUL: Him and I sat six months, seven months, a whole year to listen to these scratchy, these old wax cylinders, trying to bring back what was there. We finally go the trading song... We got the songs. We sing them.
FP: How do you bring the songs back to people?
PAUL: I travel all over the place: Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, Paris...
I was going to quit singing long ago until I took one of our community members to get healing done in Alberta. I was ready to throw in the towel. No more tradition. No more culture. No more singing. People would say 'You don't know what you're doing. You don't know what you're singing.' I was giving up...
When I was in Alberta, I was in the healer's house... they take them (people who are suffering) into the sweat lodge. Her son came in and said they want you in the lodge. I went in the lodge. The very first thing, when the door closed, he (an ancestor) was in my face. He said 'I never want to hear you say that again.' I even felt his breath: 'Ever since you started singing the songs, the ancestors heard you. They're happy. All the songs people asked you to sing, you sang. You didn't ask what kind of song it is. You sang it right off the bat. You didn't ask anything. We are so happy. The songs are alive. They're coming back again.'
That's how it came through. I said to myself, 'I'll never stop singing.' That ancestor had to come to me to say that... I'll never stop singing again.