Conne River Mi'kmaq Hieroglyphic ms. prayer book: some background
Permanent Mi'kmaq settlement at Conne River, Bay d'Espoir, on Newfoundland's southwest coast, occurred in the latter part of the 18th century, a couple of generations before the production of this manuscript - watermarked 1807.
It is an artifact directly from the ancestral homeland of the Miawpukek Mi'kmaw and speaks of an earlier French missionary effort and spiritual Catholicism. Its use within community was central to worship firstly within the wigwam, then the village chapel and later at St. Anne's church.
Geologist James P. Howley, who first visited Conne River in 1870, wrote in his Reminiscences that on Sunday, July 10th some of us "visited the little Micmac chapel after tea and heard the people recite their rosary and sing hymns in their own language. It was very quaint but they sing in admirable unison."1 Could the congregation have been using this prayer book at the time? Rev. Lenhard, in reference to later printed editions, captured community usage as: �Each Sunday in the absence of a priest the chief of the place gathered the Indians about him in the church, took with profound reverence the book into his hands, deciphered the hieroglyphics and then with great earnestness improssed (sic) upon the minds of his hearers it (sic) most important truths. And when the Catholic Indian was laid to rest eternal, the chief read the burial ritual from this book. Again when the Indian couples ��2 The prayer books were to serve the Micmac tribe �the eldest daughter of the Church among the Indians of North America.�
A controversy over the use of the Mi'kmaq language in church ritual occurred in the early 1920s, leading to the decision of Saqima Geodol (Noel Jeddore) to leave the community for Escasoni, Nova Scotia in 1925. The guardianship of the prayer book, then, transferred to his brother Joseph Jeddore and was subsequently limited in use.
Joe Jeddore was prominent within the community and the foremost Mi'kmaq guide of his generation, mentioned in numerous big game hunting accounts. One outfitter for whom he guided was Edgar Baird, of Gander. Baird was very supportive and sensitive to the Mi'kmaq and a bond of friendship formed. Joe shared "shared everything that was our community and Mi'kmaw in culture with Mr. Baird on their expeditions and time together" including eventually safe keeping of the prayer book. Baird was to form long lasting friendships with other guides from Conne River: Matty Jeddore, Paul Nicholas Jeddore, Maurice Jeddore, William (Billy) Joe and, a friend to the end of his days, John Nick Jeddore. To the "eager and enthusiastic" Billy Joe, however, he "took a liking" and their families remained life long friends.
While the book was in Mr. Baird's care he sought the advice of Professor John Hewson of Memorial University (who had it photographed in its entirety) and various curators at the Newfoundland Museum concerning its preservation. Chief Billy Joe's accidental death in 1982 spurred a return of the manuscript to Miawpukek for Mr. Baird felt that it was the property of the whole community and should be returned. In 1985 he brought the book to community elder Josep M. Jedddore's home. The following day Josep presented the book to Billy's nephew and current Saqamaw of the Miawpukek First Nation, Mi'sel Joe. After some review and discussion on its value Saqamaw Joe entrusted again the book to Mr. Jeddore who kept it during the ensuing years.
I first heard of the prayer book sometime during the late 1980s when working as a consultant with the Band Council and then-Chief Shayne McDonald. Its conservation became an action item in about 1994. It was the community's view that the manuscript be preserved for it was long recognized a 'sacred article"; an emblem of community leadership and traditional knowledge.
David Hanington's experienced bookbinding skills brought the prayer book from the brink of destruction, however, there were doubts as to the efficacy of the various long-treatment options. This was clearly a case where the options for restoration required expert consideration and wide consultation. The resources of the Canadian Conservation Institute were critical, as was Mr. Hanington's care and continued interest.
The prayer book is currently displayed within a specially-constructed case, central to a permanent exhibition of Mi'kmaq culture at a newly opened Coast of Bays Exploration Centre. Located on highway 360, it is a "gateway" to the regions historic attractions and 30 kilometers from the Miawpukek Samiajij reservation.
While initially conceived as a prompt for laypersons maintaining a liturgical year during seasonal movement, as well as tool to teach literacy, in our time it is a relic; an icon of the language, traditional culture, and Roman Catholic piety of the Mi'kmaw.
There is a lot more to this artifact than currently understood and I eagerly await further investigation and ethnographic analysis.
Gerald Penney, with John Nickolas and Josep M. Jeddore, and Shayne McDonald February 7th, 2008
1. He took a picture of it on a subsequent visit with Governor McGregor in 1908, Reminiscences, p. 232.
2. John M. Lenhart, O.M., Cap. History relating to manual of prayers, instructions, psalms and hymns in Micmac ideograms used by Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia Communications Society, 1976 (Sydney, Nova Scotia: Lynk Print.)