The life, legends of Kluskap

Myths may be based in Mi’kmaw reality

Wendy Elliott
Published on December 21, 2010


Kings County Advertiser/Register

The first time I trekked out to Cape Split, my guide, Michael Fuller, who grew up near the Glooscap First Nation, told us it was necessary to make a sacrifice to the hero of the Mi’kmaw people.

It was fall, and he had carried a small pumpkin in his backpack. He tossed it off the cliff into the churning waters of the Bay of Fundy, a gift for Glooscap.

A place renowned for the highest tides on the planet, that overlooks twice each day more water than the combined flow of all the world’s fresh water rivers - it is no wonder our First Nations placed a mythic hero close by.

Nate Crawford, executive director of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, grew up surrounded by Mi’kmaq places and mythologies. Writing in Eastword recently, he says, they “seemed to me, in my childhood mind, to be as much as part of my life as anyone’s.”

Attending Glooscap Elementary in Canning, he remembers “it was hard not to think about Glooscap and the mythology that surrounds him when I woke up with a view of the Blomidon cliffs every morning.”


What do we know?

Much of what we know today about the traditional myths of the Mi’kmaw is due to the 1894 book by Silas Tertius Rand, a Baptist missionary. Fluent in Mi’kmaq, Rand documented stories between 1847 and 1870. He read his translated stories back to his storytellers.

Kluskap, the first creature, was created out of three bolts of lightening, according to Mi’kmaw legends. Gerald Gloade, a public information officer with the Mi’kmawey Cultural Centre at Debert, says the first bolt gave him form, the second life, but he was still connected to the land and could only observe and learn from nature. The third bolt set him free to walk about and teach.

Gloade notes Kluskap is the correct spelling because the Mi’kmaw have neither a “g” or a “c” in their alphabet.

In Truro, the Kluskap Outreach program helps achieve the Glooscap Heritage Centre's mission of communicating Mi'kmaq history and culture. The centre offers presentations at the elementary, junior and high school levels. Gordon Pictou, the senior heritage interpreter and program director at the centre, has told enough Kluskap tales to know children love them.

“There’s a lot for them to interpret,” he says. Most legends are not meant to be interpreted literally; rather, the importance lies in the interactions and connections made. “A good storyteller adapts the story to better relate with his audience, but does not change the actual sequence of events or the plot.”

For new readers, he recommends the Mi’kmaq Anthology, edited by Rita Joe and Lesley Choyce.

According to Pictou, Kluskap continues to be a role model for young Mi’kmaw in terms of balance, respect for nature and other respect for other people. Many tribes in the northeast view Kluskap as a means of explaining elements of their culture and natural world. According to the Passamaquoddy people, Kluskap arrived by sea in a great stone canoe, an island of granite covered with trees.

In The Stone Canoe, Peter Sanger describes him as a benevolent superhuman in the form of an Indian. Poet Arthur W. Eaton wrote in The Legend Of Glooskap how the “God-man” taught his people to hunt and sent moose into their hands. Eaton suggested he was driven away by actions of white men, but the Mi’kmaw still look for his return. Gloade says Mi’maw today believe he will “return in our time of need.”

In Glooscap and His Magic, Kay Hill wrote poetically about the great chief paddling up the Bay of Fundy; Stephen Knockwood, in The True Story of Glooskap, suggested one of his most famous tricks was to ride the tidal bore in his canoe like a surfer. In Stanley Spicer’s Glooscap, he indicates Isle Haute was created when Kluskap’s dogs chased a moose into the bay. When the drowning animal appealed to Kluskap for help, he turned the moose to stone to give it immortality.

Lorraine Smith-Collins, director of Diversity, Equity, & Special Projects with the Department of Education, says the ancient legends still have energy. A member of the Glooscap First Nation, Smith-Collins says Mi’kmaw in the Valley believe Kluskap resides on Cape Blomidon. In Cape Breton, they believe his home is atop Kelly’s Mountain, where some still leave offerings in a cave.

Because most history books are Eurocentric, the department is now incorporating Mi'kmaw, First Nations, Métis and Inuit histories into new textbooks and resources.

“We have a ways to go, mind you, but Nova Scotia's re-telling of history is becoming more inclusive of a variety of narratives, one which includes a Mi'kmaw voice, as well as application of critical literacy and analysis.”

“Balanced re-telling is critical, as is stating your sources of information. Who is the author? Are they creditable just because they hold a degree in history? Whose history? There are other ways of knowing besides the written form.”

Today, the legends of the Mi’kmaw explain changing sea levels at the end of the last ice age. John Shaw of the Geological Survey of Canada suggests legend can describe geological fact. The tidal range in the Minas Basin increased suddenly as a result of a catastrophic break at a natural barrier across the Minas Channel about 5,000 years ago: Shaw believes one of the Kluskap legends was first told to explain this event. Kluskap asks his friend, Beaver, to build a dam so he can take a bath. When Beaver won’t remove the dam, Kluskap asks Whale to flip his tail to take out the barrier.

The legend about Glooscap battling with the giant Winter and losing, Gloade says, is another good example: science can now line the legend up on a time line with a mini-ice age in the northeast region. Tales about giant beavers have also gained credibility: archeologists have discovered four ancient examples.

Even the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., is taking an interest. The Pjila’si Mi’kma’ki: Mi’kmaw digital atlas and website will document more than 13,000 years of Mi’kmaw presence in Nova Scotia, including place names, traditional land uses and oral histories.

Legends and myths

The Legend of the Tidal Bore

(Why the water is muddy)

In the days of Kluskap, the river water from the Bay of Fundy was clear and fresh. Then, a monster Eel swam down the river and pushed all of the fishes and all the fresh water into the salty bay. Turtle told Kluskap of the cruel hardships that resulted.

Kluskap gave great powers to Lobster, who grew much in size and strength and fought the evil Eel. The long battle stirred up much mud, and many waves far up the river, until the Eel was killed. Even today in Kluskap’s bay and on the muddy river, with an elbow bend, the battle scene takes place twice a day.


The improbable

Henry Sinclair, (c. 1345 – c. 1400), was a model for Glooscap.

The Earl of Orkney and feudal Scottish baron supposedly explored Greenland and North America about 100 years before Christopher Columbus.

Some writers, like Native American historian Evan Pritchard, have claimed Glooscap could have been a depiction of an early European explorer like Sinclair. Writer Frederick J. Pohl wrote a book outlining the theory. A 15-ton granite boulder and plaque located at Halfway Cove on Rt. 16 in Guysborough Co., marks what might have been the landing site of Sinclair’s 1398 expedition. It was erected in 1996.

Last May, a story in The Toronto Star detailed a retired Bedford Institute of Oceanography engineer’s efforts to explain how the western world’s most famous poetic journey might have taken place in the Bay of Fundy. George Fowler contends Odysseus, the ancient Greek hero of the epic The Odyssey, had adventures in this region. Fowler sees a description of foggy Fundy in the “smoke and heavy breakers” of The Odyssey; “booming thunder” is the roaring water around Cape Split; tidal whirlpools are a match for “awesome Charybdis” gulping dark water.

And Cape Bretoner Paul Chiasson, a Yale-trained architect and amateur historian, has a theory Ming Dynasty Chinese discovered North America, and settled in Cape Breton in the 15th century. It was hiking trips up Kelly’s Mountain that resulted in Chiasson’s 2006 book, The Island of Seven Cities. His theory has been met with a storm of skepticism.