I first read this story in the mid 1990’s. It reminds me of a line from Edmund Ware Smith’s “The One-Eyed Poacher And The Maine Woods”, where he writes that the woodsmen in his stories “have their own idea of wealth, and it’s got nothing to do with money.”
“A Micmac Looks At The Ways Of Europeans”
About 350 years ago, when Acadian French traders, fishermen, and settlers began to inhabit what are now the Maritime provinces, some of them decided it would be a good idea to persuade the Micmac people to build houses like those of the Europeans. So a group of them went to speak with the regional chief of the Micmacs. First, they explained what they saw as the advantages of the European way of life; then they carefully outlined all the advantages of building houses in the European manner. They spoke for a long time, and when they had finished, they congratulated themselves for offering the best of their society to a man whom they considered an ignorant savage. But the wise chief of the Micmacs did not care for their advice. He turned to his guests, and here is what he said:
“Gentlemen, what you have told me about your houses is all very interesting, but why, now, do you Frenchmen, who are only five or six feet high, need houses that are as high as sixty or eighty feet? You know very well, my brothers, that we Micmacs find in our own wigwams all the conveniences that you will find in your houses, such as resting, drinking, eating, sleeping, and amusing ourselves with friends whenever we wish.
“And that’s not all — you French do not have the ingenuity and cleverness of the Micmac people, who can carry their houses with them. We can stay wherever we like, regardless of rent and landlords; you are not as bold or as stout as we, because when you travel, you can’t carry your buildings upon your shoulders, as we can. As a result, you must either build as many houses as you make changes of residence, or you must rent a house wherever you go, whereupon your house is not your own. As for us, why, we Micmacs are truly at home everywhere, because we can set up our wigwams wherever and as often as we please, without anyone’s permission.
“As for your criticizing our country and our way of life for being poor in comparison to France and French life, I really think you don’t know what you’re talking about. You say your France yields you every kind of provision in abundance, while you count the Micmacs as the most miserable and unhappy of all peoples. You say that we live without religion, without manners, without honor, without social order, indeed, without any of your rules, like the beasts in our forests, lacking bread, wine, and a thousand other comforts which you can get plentifully in France.
“Well, my brothers, if you don’t yet realize how we look on you, I’d better explain at once. As miserable as we may seem in your eyes, I can assure you that all Micmacs consider themselves far happier than you are, for we are very content with the little we have. You’re deceiving yourselves if you think you can persuade us to live as Frenchmen.
“If France is, as you tell us, heaven on earth, why did you leave it in the first place? Why abandon, wives, children, relatives, and friends to risk your lives and property in a dangerous sea voyage, only to come here, the place you keep telling us is the most barbarous, poor, and unfortunate in the world? The very fact that you bother at all convinces us of the opposite. Certainly , we have no wish to visit your France when in our own experience those who are native there must leave it every year in order to enrich themselves on our shores. We could only do poorly in such an impoverished country. Indeed, you must be incomparably poorer than the Micmacs, since you will give anything to get scraps of fur and miserable, worn-out beaver clothing which are no longer of much use to us, and since you consider the mere cod fishery as a sufficient source of income. Frankly, we Micmacs pity you.
“We find all our riches and conveniences among ourselves, without trouble and without exposing ourselves to the dangers of the open ocean and its storms. We are amazed at the way you worry yourselves, night and day, to fill your fishing boats; what’s your hurry? We see also that you people live, as a rule, only on the cod which you catch hereabouts. It’s cod in the morning, cod at noon, cod at night and cod forever more, until you can’t stand it any more. Then you come begging to us and asking us to go hunting, so that you can have a little variety in your meals.
“Now, tell me this one little thing, if you’ve any sense at all: who is the wiser and happier — one who works hard all the time, but only obtains with great difficulty a bare living, or one who rests in comfort and finds all he needs in the pleasures of hunting and fishing?
“It’s true, I know, that the Micmac people didn’t have bread or wine before you Frenchmen arrived, but before you came here, the Micmacs lived longer than they do now. If we no longer have wise leaders in our midst who are a hundred years old or more, it’s because we are gradually adopting too much of your European way of life. Those Micmacs live longest who will not eat your bread or drink your wine, but who instead drink water and eat beaver, moose, waterfowl and fish in accordance with the old customs of our Micmac ancestors. There is no Micmac who does not consider himself infinitely happier and more powerful than the French. We are a thousand times freer and more content in our woods and in our wigwams than we would be in the palaces and at the tables of the greatest kings on earth.”
So saying, the chief finished his speech. The Europeans who had heard him were so taken by the justice of his remarks that they were momentarily embarrassed by their presumption and resolved to give up the idea of making the Micmacs build houses instead of wigwams.
The story which the Micmac speaker tells comes from New Relations Of Gaspesia, With The Customs And Religion Of The Gaspesian Indians … by Chrestien LeClercq. Translated and edited , with a reporting of the original, by William F. Ganong Publications of the Champlain Society, Vol. V, The Champlain Society, Toronto (1910). Material not in quotations comes from School Television Teachers Guides 1983/84 for grade levels P-6, Nova Scotia Department of Education, Education Media Services, Halifax.
Entire selection comes from:
The Wabanakis Of Maine And The Maritimes; A resource book about Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki Indians. 1989. P. C31-32.