Primary Sources and Secondary Sources
What is a Primary Source?
A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you’ve chosen to study or by people who were observers of or participants in that event or topic.
If, for example, your topic is the experience of workers in the Chicago packinghouses during the first decades of the twentieth century, your primary sources might be:
- Chicago newspapers, c. 1900-1920, in a variety of languages.
- A short film, such as an actualité, made during the period that shows the yards.
- Settlement house records and manuscripts.
- Novels about the packing yards, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).
- U.S. census records concerning neighborhood residents for 1900 and 1910.
- A mechanical conveyor system, used to move carcasses from one room to another at the time and place you are researching.
- Autobiographies of meat packing executives, workers, etc., published even many years later.
- Maps that show the location of the packing house plants, made during the period you are studying.
- Music, such as work songs or blues ballads, made or adapted during the time you are researching.
- oral histories of packing house employees’ experiences, though a historian’s comments on those oral histories would be a secondary source.
The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a “primary” source is when it was made, not what it is.
Primary sources would not, however, include books written by historians about this topic, because books written by historians are called “secondary” sources. The same goes for historian’s introductions to and editorial comments on collections of primary documents; these materials, too, are secondary sources because they’re twice removed from the actual event or process you’re going to be writing about. So while a historian’s introduction to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906) is a secondary source, the novel itself, written in 1906, is a primary source.
What are Secondary Sources?
Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic. If they’ve used the same sources you were thinking of using and reached the same conclusions, there’s no point in repeating their work, so you should look for another topic. Most of the time, though, you’ll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective.
You want to move past just looking for books in the library. Now that you’re doing your own history research and writing, you should step up to the specialized bibliographies historians use for their own work. Don’t stop looking for secondary sources until you begin to turn up the same titles over and over again. Put those titles you see most frequently and those that are most recently published at the very top of your list of things to read, since they are likely to be the most significant and/or complete interpretations.
After you’ve located and analyzed some primary sources and read the existing secondary literature on your topic, you’re ready to begin researching and writing your paper.
Remember: when lost, confused etc., ask a reference librarian! They are there to help.
[adapted in part from Peggy Pascoe’s site at the University of Oregon]
Questions to Consider When Reading Primary Historical Documents
- When and by whom was this particular document written? What is the format of the document? Has the document been edited? Was the document published? If so, when and where and how? How do the layout, typographical details, and accompanying illustrations inform you about the purpose of the document, the author’s historical and cultural position, and that of the intended audience?
- Who is the author, and why did he or she create the document? Why does the author choose to narrate the text in the manner chosen? Remember that the author of the text (i.e., the person who creates it) and the narrator of the text (i.e. the person who tells it) are not necessarily one and the same.
- Using clues from the document itself, its form, and its content, who is the intended audience for the text? Is the audience regional? National? A particular subset of “the American people”? How do you think the text was received by this audience? How might the text be received by those for whom it was NOT intended?
- How does the text reflect or mask such factors as the class, race, gender, ethnicity, or regional background of its creator/narrator? (Remember that “race” is a factor when dealing with cultural forms of people identified as “white,” that “men” possess “gender,” and that the North and Midwest are regions of local as well as national significance.)
- How does the author describe, grapple with, or ignore contemporaneous historical events? Why? Which cultural myths or ideologies does the author endorse or attack? Are there any oversights or “blind spots” that strike you as particularly salient? What cultural value systems does the writer/narrator embrace?
- From a literary perspective, does the writer employ any generic conventions? Use such devices as metaphor, simile, or other rhetorical devices?
- With what aspects of the text (content, form, style) can you most readily identify? Which seem most foreign to you? Why? Does the document remind you of contemporaneous or present-day cultural forms that you have encountered? How and why?
Asking a Good Historical Question; Or, How to Develop a Manageable Topic
When writing a historical research paper, your goal is to choose a topic and write a paper that
- Asks a good historical question
- Tells how its interpretation connects to previous work by other historians, and
- Offers a well-organized and persuasive thesis of its own.
Let’s take this one step at a time.
- Asking a good historical question:
A good historical question is broad enough to interest you and, hopefully, your classmates. Pick a topic that students in the class and average people walking down the street could find interesting or useful. If you think interracial relationships are an interesting topic and you find the 1940s to be an equally fascinating time period, come up with a question that incorporates both these interests.
For example: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” This question investigates broad issues—interracial romance, sexual identity—but within a specific context—World War Two and the defense industry.
WARNING: Avoid selecting a topic that is too broad: “How has war affected sex in America?” is too broad. It would take several books to answer this question.
A good question is narrow enough so that you can find a persuasive answer to it in time to meet the due date for this class paper.
After selecting a broad topic of interest, narrow it down so that it will not take hundreds of pages to communicate what happened and why it was important. The best way write a narrow question is to put some limitations on the question’s range. Choosing a particular geographic place (a specific location), subject group (who? what groups?), and periodization (from when to when?) are the most common ways to limit a historical question. The example above already contains a limited subject group (whites and African-Americans) and a short time period (WWII, 1941-1945); simply adding a place, such as “in the Bay Area” or “in Puget Sound” further narrows the topic: “How did white and African-American defense plant workers in the San Francisco Bay area create and think about interracial relationships during World War Two?” is a much more manageable question than one that addresses all defense workers.
WARNING: Avoid a question that only looks at one specific event or process. For example, “What happened on Thursday, Dec.12, 1943 at the Boeing bomber plant in Albany, California?” is too narrow. Perhaps there may have been several important events that day, including a fight over an interracial relationship. However, this question does not position you to explore the larger processes that were taking place in the plant over time, nor why they are important for understanding sex, race and gender in American history.
A good historical question demands an answer that is not just yes or no. Why and how questions are often good choices, and so are questions that ask you to compare and contrast a topic in different locations or time periods; so are questions that ask you to explain the relationship between one event or historical process and another.
Examples (why and how, compare/contrast, explanatory):
- “Why and how did Latina women in Texas challenge their traditional sexual identities in the 1960s?” or “Why and how did captivity narratives define interracial romance in colonial America?”
- “Gay liberation over time and space: The Stonewall Uprising and Harvey Milk assassination protests compared;” or “Sex and gender after the war is over: The contrast between the post-World War One and World War Two eras.”
- “Go West, Young Woman: the rise of the popular newspaper, western boosterism, and the origins of women in professional journalism;” or “Sit-coms, kitchens, and Mom: TV and the redefinition of femininity and domesticity, 1950-1975.”
A good historical question must be phrased in such a way that the question doesn’t predetermine the answer.
Let’s say you’ve decided to study the Tillamook Ku Klux Klan. You’re fascinating by the development of the Klan, and repelled by its ideas, so the first question you think about asking is “Why was the Klan so racist?’ This is not a good historical question, because it assumed what you ought to prove in your paper that the Klan was racist. A better question so ask would be “What was the Klan’s attitude and behavior toward African Americans and immigrants, and why?”
- Connecting your interpretation to previous work by other historians:
Once you have a topic in mind, you need to find out what other scholars have written about your topic. If they’ve used the same sources you were thinking of using and reached the same conclusions, there’s no point in repeating their work, so you should look for another topic. Most of the time, though, you’ll find that other scholars have used different sources and/or asked different questions, and that reading their work will help you place your own paper in perspective. When you are writing your paper, you will cite these historians—both their arguments about the material, and also (sometimes) their research findings. Example: “As Tera Hunter has argued concerning Atlanta’s laundresses, black women workers preferred work outside the homes of their white employers”(and then you would cite Hunter in a footnote, including page numbers).
- Offering a well-organized and persuasive thesis.
Think of your thesis as answering a question. Have your thesis answer a “how” or “why” question, rather than a “what” question. A “what” question will usually land you in the world of endless description, and while some description is often necessary, what you really should focus on is your thinking, your analysis, your insights.
Consider the following questions when reviewing your thesis paragraphs:
- Does the thesis answer a research question?
- What sort of question is the thesis answering?
The thesis paragraph usually has three parts: (1) the subject of your paper, (2) your argument about the topic, and (3) the evidence you’ll be using to argue your thesis.
- Is the thesis overly descriptive? Does it simply describe something in the past? OR,
- Does the thesis present an argument about the material? (This is your goal.)
- Is the thesis clearly and succinctly stated?
- Does the thesis paragraph suggest how the author plans to make his or her argument?
Examples of Thesis Statements: From Bad to Better
“Dorothy Richardson’s The Long Day is a provocative portrayal of working class women’s lives in the early part of the twentieth century.” This is a weak thesis for a paper, since it is overly vague and general, and is basically descriptive in nature. The thesis does not suggest why or how Richardson’s book is “provocative.”
“The narrator of Dorothy Richardson’s 1905 work, The Long Day, exemplifies many ideas and perspectives of the early twentieth century’s new feminism.” This is a bit better, since the author is actually suggesting that there might be an argument about early twentieth-century feminism. But note how the language is still vague. What ideas and perspectives? To what effect does Richardson’s work deal with these ideas?
“While The Long Day’s narrator exemplifies many tenets of the new feminism, such as a commitment to women’s economic independence, her feminist sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes towards female sexual expression.” OK. Now we are getting somewhere! This is a solid thesis. Note that the language is specific (commitment to women’s economic independence, as example). Also, the author has detected a contradiction in the text, a tension that the paper can fruitfully analyze. It could be strengthened further by suggesting HOW Richardson’s sympathies are undermined by her traditional attitudes.
How to Document Your Sources
In history courses, you should use the traditional endnote or footnote system with superscript numbers when citing sources. Do not use parenthetical author-page numbers as a general rule. Exceptions include: short discussion assignments; five page analytical papers where you have been assigned the specific texts that you are analyzing.
The preferred guide for citations in history is The Chicago Manual of Style. The University of Wisconsin’s writing center page offers a helpful introduction to the traditional method of citing sources laid out in The Chicago Manual. Also visit U of T’s advice file on documenting sources for a concise overview on the traditional method.
The Mi’kmaw people have a rich history which can often best be understood by listening to the elders of the communities. It is through their eloquent words that we may sometimes understand the joy, the sense of wonder in living, and the essential wisdom that is such an integral part of the Mi’kmaw character.
Kevin Sack | William G. Paul | Cecile Marr | Wilfred Prosper
Daniel J. Stevens | Annie Claire Googoo
Oral History One with Kevin Sack
This following is based on an interview with Kevin Sack conducted by Leslie Googoo, June 1998. Mr. Sack limited his discussion of tribal rites, however, out of respect for the sacred nature of Mi’kmaq traditional practices.
In 1984-85, Indian Brook was visited by a native of the western tribes, a medicine man named Albert Lightning. He had concerns about the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, believing they were losing touch with their culture and traditions. Since the time of Mr. Lightning’s visit, however, there has been a renewed interest in Mi’kmaw practices, traditional beliefs, and language, though there is always more to be learned. As the Mi’kmaw people say, there must be a life long journey for knowledge.
Kevin Sack had the privilege of meeting Mr. Lightning during his visit to Indian Brook, and has tried to practice what he learned since that time. Kevin Sack’s traditional name is “Peace Maker”, and he continues to learn about the ways of his people. The following was shared by Peace Maker.
There are a number of types of ceremonies – Fasting, The Vision Quest, Talking Circle, Pipe, Sweet Grass, and the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Items involved in these ceremonies include sweet grasses, cedar, sage, tobacco, pipe, drum, rocks, and eagle feathers. These all play their individual roles in asking and receiving from the Creator.
Fasting plays an important role in different ceremonies, like the Pipe and Sweat Lodge Ceremonies. A person has to fast for four days before entering into these ceremonies, and this includes food, drugs, and alcohol. The purpose of fasting is to cleanse the body and mind, the better to communicate with the Creator.
A Vision Quest traditionally takes place when a person comes to a critical moment in his or her life, when a new direction or better purpose must be chosen. To do this, he or she must fast and look to the Creator for guidance. A Vision Quest is a very personal venture, and quite sacred to the Mi’kmaq.
Talking Circles have been used for centuries by our Mi’kmaw ancestors. At present, Talking Circles are growing in importance in Mi’kmaw communities. Whenever there is a problem or crisis situation in a community, a Talking Circle is called for all ages. There could be one Talking Circle or more. There is no special time for a Talking Circle to commence, and anybody can call one. It is considered very sacred because it is a form of counselling. Different symbols are held during a Talking Circle to ensure that the person holding the symbol may speak without interruption. The symbol could be a walking stick, sweet grass braid, a rock, or a pipe. (The pipe, however, is most commonly used in an elders’ Talking Circle).
The Pipe Ceremony
The pipe is used to exchange information after a period of fasting. It is usually held by a healer or medicine man. It is said that this sacred Mi’kmaw pipe was last seen centuries ago, during a massacre in the area now known as Kentville in Nova Scotia. During the massacre, several of the Mi’kmaq fled westward, and it is believed that someone out among the western tribes has possession of this sacred pipe to this day.
Sweet Grass Ceremony and Other Ceremonial Items
Sweet grass is found between bodies of salt and fresh water. However, it is generally difficult to locate because it blends in with regular grass. On windy days , one is able to smell the sweet aroma of this grass. The root ends of sweet grass are a shade of purple. Sweet grass is sacred to the First Nations tribes across Canada. It is used in various ceremonies, and is often woven into a braid. The smoke from burning sweet grass is used for smudging.
The drum represents the centre of all life and creation. The drum beat is the heart beat of Mother Earth. In Mi’kmaw culture, woman is the ‘life line’ for all creation.
Cedar is used for smudging in traditional ceremonies. When using cedar, one cannot use too much, because of the high chemical content the cedar tree seems to absorb in modern times.
Sage is a wild plant that is found in Nova Scotia and the western provinces, commonly used among the Mi’kmaq for smudging. There are two types of sage – horse sage, found along beaches, and buffalo sage which is normally found out west.
Tobacco is used to send a message to ask for the help of the people in your community. It is also used in Mi’kmaw burial ceremonies. By giving a tobacco offering to the spirits, it helps the deceased to get to the spirit world. Tobacco is commonly used in Pipe ceremonies.
When rocks are used in a Sweat Lodge ceremony, it is believed that the rock is being asked to give up its life. The Mi’kmaq believe that everything is living, in one form or another. It is thought that a rock will ‘speak’ to you if you earn that right, and when asking a rock to give up its life, it cannot be for selfish reasons.
Smudging is similar to blessing oneself with Holy Water in the Catholic faith. The smoke from burning sweet grass, cedar, or sage, is brushed toward one’s body to cleanse the spirit. The smudging is usually done before a person involves himself in a traditional ceremony.
Sweat Lodge Ceremony
A Sweat Lodge is constructed out of willow or alder bushes because of the flexibility of these woods. When constructing a Sweat Lodge, the entrance must always face east. A Sweat Lodge can accommodate four to twelve people, seated in a circle. In the centre of the Lodge is a dugout where hot rocks are positioned. People go for several ’rounds’, which means that they exit and enter the Sweat Lodge several times throughout the ceremony. The ceremony itself is for spiritual cleansing and healing. Everyone who goes through a ‘sweat’ will have a different personal experience – or even no experience at all.
When praying toward the four directions, the Mi’kmaq give thanks to the elements that each of the directions represent:
# the North represents the cool and refreshing northerly breeze. It also represents the white race, the doers, the active, and the builders
# when praying to the South, thanks is given for the warmth and the rain it has to offer. It also represents the black race, the trend setters, innovators, and artists
# the east represents light, energy, and the sunrise. It also represents the red race, the spirit seekers, and the visionaries
# the West represents the rise and chatter of the thunder. It also stands for the yellow race, peace, serenity, patience, and wisdom.
It is vitally important for the Mi’kmaq to live the four seasons to the fullest. Every day is a sacred day. There is no special day to hold a traditional ceremony. The Mi’kmaq feel spring is the most important season of all. It represents a new beginning for all of earth’s creations.
The Four Directions and the Eagle
There is an eagle which represents each of the four directions. Mr. Sack mentioned only three – the spotted eagle, the marsh eagle, and the fish or bald eagle. The spotted and marsh eagles stay within the directional boundaries each represents, but the bald eagle has no boundaries. It represents the Mi’kmaw tribe of the east.
The eagle feather is significant to all First Nations tribes across Canada. The eagle feather is a way of delivering a message to the Creator. It is an honour to receive an eagle feather in recognition of helping one’s people.
This interview was part of research material collected and compiled by Leslie Googoo and Darin J. Googoo.
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Oral History Two with William G. Paul
This oral history was researched and prepared by Violet Paul in the early 1990’s while she was in a student employment program. Violet chose to write the history of her grandfather, William G. Paul, to show that Mi’kmaw elders have a history that is evocative and alive. William Paul passed away in 1993, but we remember him in his stories.
William G. Paul – Indian Brook First Nation, Nova Scotia
I was born August 4, 1896, at Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia. My father was John Edward Paul and my mother was Rhonda Hubley. I was born on my parents’ farm, not on the Indian squatting grounds. At that time my parents did not live on Indian land. I had four brothers and one sister – Leta, who passed away in the summer of 1990. She was ninety-five years old and lived in Boston, Massachusetts.
My father was Micmac Indian, and he was born on Joe Paul’s grant in Sheet Harbour. Joe Paul’s grant belonged to my grandfather, Joe Paul. The land was later taken by the government. My mother was Dutch, and she was born and raised in Mushaboom.
I remember that we lived in a house made of rough lumber. A lot of people in those days lived in birch bark wigwams. We lived on caribou and moose meat. I remember my father killing a moose one hundred feet away from our house. You could never do that today. I think that the animals moved deeper into the woods because they will not stay if there are a lot of people. I remember, too, that the Indians all lived near the water. They lived on the fish they caught, for if they had not, they would have starved. They also lived on lands that were known as squatting grounds. They lived near Sober Island, Mushaboom, and all down the eastern shores of Nova Scotia.
I used to help my father plant potatoes in the spring. Planting was all done by hand. We did not have any tools to make our work easier. We planted potatoes and different vegetables. In those days people worked together, and we received a lot of help. Once we were finished planting, then we helped other people.
I remember the bread the people made in my childhood. First they would build a fire and then heat up the sand on the ground. Once the sand was hot enough, the lady would make the bread. She would then dig a hole in the sand and place the dough in the hole. She then covered the dough with the remaining hot sand and let it sit for about an hour and a half. When the bread was done, it would be as white as snow. It was the best tasting bread that I have ever eaten.
I remember the first car I ever saw. It scared me because it had no horses attached to it. I was used to seeing a wagon with horses. I ran a mile through the woods to tell my grandfather about what I had seen. I could not figure out what the thing was, because I did not know about cars.
I remember when my grandfather went off to the Boer War; I was just a little boy. He picked me up and gave me a hug. He was wearing a pair of blue pants with yellow stripes down the side. I never went to war, but my brother Roop was in the American navy.
The Halifax Explosion
I remember the Halifax Explosion. I was working in Halifax at the time. I was working in a big glass building, about one hundred feet long. Potatoes and vegetables were planted and grown in this building.
The only way that I can describe the noise that I heard that day was that it was as if a bomb went off, it was so loud. It was an awful time. People’s heads were cut off. Some people had sticks through their faces. The only thing that saved me was that I jumped under a table when I saw all the glass come shattering down where I was.
There was a Newfoundlander standing in the doorway before the explosion, and I never saw him again. There was a girl lying outside of a hotel. She was bleeding. I ran into the hotel and grabbed a quilt and wrapped her in it. I laid her against the wall. It was the best I could do for her. It was so very sad. Every man was for himself in those days, and God was for us all.
I remember that later that night about twenty-four inches of snow fell. The poor homeless people almost froze. There is a place in Dartmouth where the anchor and gun from that ship are located. The anchor and gun flew about three miles back into the woods. I still know where they are located.
I met my wife in Millbrook. I used to cut wood for her mother so that I could get on her good side. Sarah and I were married in a Catholic church in Truro, Nova Scotia. Mike Thomas was a guest at my wedding. He was a great friend of mine. He prepared all kinds of homemade beer for the reception. The gentleman who married us drove us around after the ceremony and never charged us one cent.
Traditional Indian Medicines
I remember once when my mother’s wife had a cold. She had a cold for about a year, but I cured it for her. I made medicine with balsam, cherry, and alder barks. I mixed everything together, then boiled it for a couple of hours. I took a rag and strained everything. She drank the brew and it took care of her cold.
Most of the remedies I had were passed on to other members of the community. If someone had a bad headache, I would go and get some alder bark. I scraped it up fine; then I would mix it with a little vinegar. I wrapped the cloth around the person’s head. This would be on for about four hours. By then the headache would be gone. The person was never troubled by those headaches again. I would like to make more medicine, but I need someone to go into the woods for me. I need the different bark from the trees, and they are all marked.
I think the Indian people would be better off today if they kept the Indian medicine from the woods, instead of going to doctors all the time and getting pills. People always want to know what I use. Flag and blood root grew around the old farms along the rivers. Those roots had large leaves on them. When the roots were squeezed, it looked as if blood was coming out. That must be where the name ‘blood root’ came from. Back in those days we never knew what someone died from. They just died, and that would be it.
I can’t say that I had any jobs that were special. I took jobs and worked any place because I needed money to live. I did all sorts of jobs. I did the best I could in all of them. I once worked at a place where we attended to shipments of supplies that came off the warships. I also worked on water mills, driving the logs to where they were supposed to go.
The old days were hard. You could never work seven hours and expect to feed your family. You had to work ten hours or more. At the age of fourteen, my daily pay was four dollars. Nobody could go shopping like they do today. Everything was prepared at home. Yes, they were hard old days.
The Depression days were hard days for everybody, but I can’t say that they affected my family more than anyone else. We had fourteen children, and I had to work hard to feed them. I had a steady job all the time, but during those days I also worked for myself. During the evenings and weekends, I made furniture. I made chairs, and one time I sold two hundred chairs in one day! A lady who owned a hotel bought them from me.
I can make anything from wood. I also made canvas canoes – never birch bark canoes. You could never stand up and go sword fishing in the canoes they make today. You would fall over and drown. The old Indians made really good canoes. I remember once when my mother was sick. I cooked for her and a nurse would come in once a day and clean her up. When my parents died, they had beautiful coffins. They were not like the ones you see today. The coffins in those days were made of birch bark.
About fifty years ago a man was lost in the woods for about seven days. I found him, after coming close to shooting him, mistaking him for a deer. The only thing that saved this man was that he was wearing a heavy jacket. I asked him what he was doing out in the woods. His reply was that he was waiting for the gates of heaven to open. I gave him tea, but was afraid to give him anything else, for it might have killed him.
Some Reflections on Life
I only had three sweethearts in my life, and the one that was the most special, I married. Sarah and I celebrated our sixtieth anniversary before she passed away. I have sons who are in politics or something like that. They come and see me and we talk. I tell them the things I believe in – to treat each person kindly and work hard. When the white men came to our country, we treated them like brothers and we gave them a hand. I believe that if you live a good life and help those in need, then there is nothing to be afraid of when you die.
I never had a chance to go to school. There were no schools within ten miles of where I lived. Once I moved to Sheet Harbour, I had to work. I was only fifteen years old. In those days, everyone had to work. People are always telling me how smart I am for not having gone to school a day in my life.
The Curse of the Halifax Bridge
I remember that the first bridge between Halifax and Dartmouth was made of wood. I can’t say that I recall anyone putting a curse on the bridge. I know that the bridge fell twice. I hear that an Indian put a curse on the bridge.
Thoughts on Government Assistance
The government started giving handouts to the Indians about twenty years ago. At that time it wasn’t even money, just a piece of paper. I don’t recall too much about it. I never collected a ration in my life. I always worked for my money. The government used to give barrels of flour to the reserves, so the Indian people could make their own bread.
It’s hard to say how the Indians would be today, if the white man had not come. I know Indians fished and hunted for their food. They did not have many of the modern things, but they did not have diseases. I guess they helped each other. The Indians helped the white man by curing many of their diseases. I think the government should be good to the Indian people for if it were not for the Indians, the white man would not be here.
Oral history collected by Darin J. Googoo and Leslie Googoo.
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Oral History Three with Cecile Marr
This oral history is based on an interview with Cecile Marr, an elder of Indian Brook, Nova Scotia. Originally part of an assignment completed by Leslie Googoo for the Transitional Year Program at Dalhousie University, the interview was conducted in December, 1988. Cecile Marr was born March 11, 1916, and died February 19, 1992.
Cecile Marr, Indian Brook First Nation, Nova Scotia
Cecile Marr was born in 1916 into a family of twenty-two children, in the province of Quebec. She met her husband, John Marr, from Wellington, Nova Scotia, in Quebec. She would move to Indian Brook in 1933, and marry John Marr on November 20, 1935. (An older sister married John’s brother. ) John Marr was born in 1914, and eventually died from diabetes in 1977, at the age of sixty- three.
John and Cecile had two sons. Roland was born December 25, 1937 and died July 15, 1991. Their son Francis had already passed away at the time of the interview (1988), and the dates of his birth and death are unknown. Cecile told the interviewer that she was “going to outlive them all!”, and she did. Cecile said that her parents had died close together in time. Her husband John’s father, Isaac Marr, died of old age, and John’s mother, Alice Marr, died of diabetes related illness.
Early Days in Indian Brook
When Cecile first arrived in Indian Brook, there was only one path which lead out of the community. This path was known as “Indian Road”. There was no name for Indian Brook at the time, and the community itself consisted of only three houses. When people walked from Indian Road into town on a rainy day, they were forced to walk in mud up to their ankles. All of the houses looked like barns, and had no foundations. The outhouses had only side walls, a flat roof, no front or back walls, and two ‘seats’.
When Cecile came to Nova Scotia, she noticed the differences between English and French. No one spoke English on the Indian Road (Indian Brook) reserve; there were more full-blooded Mi’kmaq living there in the early days, and everyone spoke the Mi’kmaw language. When she arrived in the community, she only knew how to speak and write in French, though, happily, she eventually became fluent in both the Mi’kmaq language and English, which are spoken today on the reserve.
There was no medical care available in Indian Brook when Cecile first went to live there. Both of her children were born at home, and babies in the community were commonly born in a house or barn. If someone was sick or hurt, they had to attend to their own ailments.
When people wanted food they had to walk five or six miles into town. It cost five dollars for groceries, which would last John and Cecile for two weeks. They carried their groceries home in a burlap potato bag. Cecile made her own bread called “luski” from a Mi’kmaq recipe. Her cooking was done on a wood stove made from cast iron, and it also provided the house with heat. A kerosene lamp was their source of light.
Earning A Livelihood
Cecile and John derived their only income from basket making. They made both baskets and basket cradles, which sold for fifty dollars. They obtained their wood for basket making from Nine Mile River and Renew (Grand Lake). They commonly used ash for their baskets, and for implements such as axe, pick, hammer, and hoe handles. To do this, they used a tool called a draw knife. It had two handles at each end of a straight blade. A saw horse was used to hold the wood in place for carving.
There was a large marketplace located in Halifax where produce and meats were sold, generally displayed on tables. It was only open on Fridays and Saturdays from eight in the morning until twelve noon. Cecile also made and sold Christmas wreaths. Along with John and a friend, they also cut pulpwood which they sold by the cord. Logs were hauled with a horse and sled. A white man would come to purchase the pulpwood from them.
There was a small graveyard in Indian Brook when Cecile first arrived though no one realized what it was until a headstone was accidently discovered. A non-native man was interred there. The graveyard itself was located near a little church, and is still being used by the Indian Brook community in the 1990’s.
The road to Halifax was very narrow, and therefore most people travelling to Halifax had to go by train. This was how she and her husband travelled to Halifax to sell their baskets. There weren’t many cars around in those days, though Cecile’s husband owned an old car which Cecile referred to as a “tin can”. It only cost one dollar and fifty cents for gas to go from Indian Brook to Halifax.
The Marr Family
Cecile had only two sons, but she also had sixteen grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren at the time of the interview, though her family has increased in size since then. John Marr was chief of Indian Brook back in 1942. There was a federal law banning alcohol in Mi’kmaw communities, however, and John was deposed from office by the Council on June 13, 1944. He had been caught in possession of alcohol.
Cecile Marr was four feet three inches tall and had blue eyes. Though a non-native, she resided in Indian Brook until the end of her life, and was also buried there in 1992. At the time of the interview two of her grandchildren were living with her. Cecile would become happy when anyone took the time to speak with her about the old days, and was always very pleasant and full of good humour. She is sadly missed.
Oral history collected by Leslie Googoo and Darin J. Googoo, from an interview conducted by Leslie Googoo, 1988.
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Oral History Four with Wilfred Prosper
One day we were over there, the next day we were here [Eskasoni]. My father was chief in the 1930s but not at the same time [as] Centralization. When he was the chief, he fixed the roads. It was a bit of a project. A lot of things happened that year – 1939. New school in the mid 30s and then the war started and the same time was the end of the Kojuwa. We used to have Kojuwa – dancing around the stove. We’d take the stove pipe off, some cases, and in some cases they didn’t. A fiddler just sat in the middle of the floor and [we] danced around him. So when the war came everybody moved. Joined the army, and whoever didn’t, went to work.
Changes of Scene
I left home when I was fifteen. I went to work for Duncan-ji’j from Membertou. I was fifteen when I went to Sydney. As soon as I got my registration card I went back home. I was only getting paid 50 cents an hour and I had to pay a dollar a day for board. By the end of the week I had nothing, hardly. When I got to age of sixteen, I could get my registration card and could apply for a job. I went to Halifax when my parents went. I stayed in Halifax off and on until 1945. Year after that, this bald headed fellow came, and Mac Kinnon, he looked over the place. Of course, then we didn’t have any livestock but before we did. We had horses, cows, geese, chickens – our own produce in Chapel Island. When they came, so my mother tells the story, the hay was up to their bellies. They were selling it because they had no livestock. They admired the place so they coaxed us to come to Eskasoni. I guess I had nothing to do with it. I was only a young fellow.
They did their dealings with my parents so they came another time. I guess it was the fall season because there was a ball tournament going on. They coaxed us to come to Eskasoni, but they didn’t seem to coax anybody else. Simon Cremo was here before anybody, and Ekkian Utjum, Grand Chief, Jitjij, Johnnikie, Duma Blonsoom – his son drown here. In the fall of 1947 we moved here. We came on the back of a truck. My parents came by boat. I think they stayed in that little dairy out there, but not much left to it. I stayed with my sister, John Denny, Qamsipuk. I’ve been here for fifty years. I’m still visiting – that’s how I feel like, anyway. My roots ain’t here. I’d go back any day, but Betsy wouldn’t go – neither the kids. Betsy wouldn’t even visit Barrahead. They really coaxed her.
How was it when I came down here? So exactly like what that fellow said to John Simon from Whycocomagh. He said to John Simon, “‘You stay put, John. There’s a profit there somehow.'” He said,”‘I’m going to tell you right now, there will be a boom there for ten years, and then it will flop. You’ll be walking around there without a job.'” And that’s exactly what happened.
What can you call it when a person goes from one reserve to another? Just like putting a war from this side to another. They promised…I guess they promised a lot. According to my parents, they said that you would have as much and better. We had acres of land that was cleared by hand. No machines, no nothing. My father ploughed the land, bought the place fifteen years ago. Then he ploughed year after year, clearing it. My mother was industrious, she worked. We had potatoes, turnips, carrots, beets, and lima beans, and so did Betsy and them. If anyone had any flock at all, they planted. But there were some poor people in Barrahead, I tell you. So the move was good for them. I didn’t work, I got winded.
You can blame those people. I don’t know who to blame, really. Can you really blame anybody? Anyway, we came in 1946 for a while. I did some painting. My father didn’t get much job opportunities. He was getting old. My father was born in 1894. He’d be fifty-three, and you don’t hire a fifty- three year old if you want work done. So he made baskets here – Indian’s way, anyway.
I did some work in the woods, logging, painting, digging, whatever, and the whole thing flopped! We had a mill here across the bridge, where the bridge is now on the side. Then it got moved and got a bigger mill here over where the rink is towards the brook. Then they were through building houses. They couldn’t sell the lumber because it didn’t pass the grade. They had sawers putting lumber every which way. If they had a proper saw, they probably could have sold it. You couldn’t tell Indians anything. The buyers weren’t going to look at that stuff. They would have to dress it up themselves and then cut half of it. The mill didn’t go. I don’t know what happened.
They had implements here, all kinds of fine implements here. Some of them from Truro got them for little to nothing. There were big trucks loading and everything. God knows what big barns – there was a big barn here, making a farm out of this. I guess it worked for a little while. Levi R. worked there. He was the farmer. They had stallions, horses. I don’t know why the hell they wanted the stallion here unless they were going to raise horses. They had goats, chickens – none of these things worked. I worked for a while, but they still lost money. Then it flopped, everything.
Well, I can tell you, when we first came here, everybody worked. Indian people had a little bit of pride. They had to go for a work order, they’d hide. A work order [had] a kind of a stigma attached to it – a little bit of shame to be seen with a work order. This destructive nature, within 2-3 years, they hold up their welfare cheques. They were making fun of this. Pride is gone. Alcoholism was at it today.
There was no budget. Nobody was getting any budget. Theeere wwwas an old lady in Chapel Island who was getting four dollars a month. The sick people with TB and all that, those who couldn’t work – my father used to supply them with milk. He used to fill out these statements and send them to Ottawa. He’d get his cheque, but it wasn’t very much. I don’t know what budget they were talking about. When they moved here, it was doubled because they had to build houses, put up a mill.
When we came here, they came with a bulldozer. You know how destructive that is. In Chapel Island, we cleared the land all by hand. We’d pull the stumps by hand, alder bushes. Well, not exactly by hand – we had a horse. The Johnsons were industrious people. They were hardworking people. We had our classes, too, even though we were all Indians. There was middle class, enough to eat, and then there was the poor. There [were] three classes and then there were drinkers. They were another class. Then there were travellers. They’d stay for months, and off they go again.
Everyone, most of them, lived in Qamsipuk. There weren’t that much families here. Those Dennys were always here. Sylliboy Denny, I guess his father lived where he lives now. Joe Googoo lived where Casey is, with a white woman. Around centralization time, there was a white settlement in Castle Bay. The government bought that. Bought those people out.
Oral history collected and compiled by Florence Dennis.
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Oral History Five with Daniel J. Stevens
Early Family Life
My name is Daniel Stevens. I was born in 1930 in North Sydney [Nova Scotia]. We moved here [Eskasoni] when I was twelve years old, 1942. We moved here in a old cattle truck. Our house was only a shell – no furnace. We got sick a lot. Not just me, but many elders. All we got was a little paper – a food order. It was $53.00 and there was many of us.
We once had a little pig that we didn’t let grow up – were too hungry. There was no electricity, power, no radio. Only white people had power. I remember when I was twelve, we had good times and bad, only good fun. Children were taught to respect their elders. There was a lot of fish. Cod fish, that was Sunday dinner. My mother would make stuffing for the fish – that was a great meal. If anyone caught any meat, like deer, it was shared with everyone. Back then we traded food. No money was involved.
Thoughts on Centralization and Indian Agents
I remember when we moved here, people came from Whycocomagh, many families. Indian agents destroyed their homes so they could not get back. We were treated the same as the Japanese. They were gathered to one spot, but when the war was over, they got their stuff back. We were treated worse, because Indians didn’t get anything back. We were treated very badly. The Indian people got potatoes … but the potatoes disappeared overnight. Indian agents sold them, and it was [a] good supply. Also, if we needed seed potatoes, you had to buy them. When we found out, the Indian agents already spent what was due to us. When they came, they had old trucks. When they left, they had fancy cars. They stole from us.
We used to live in North Sydney. We had a big home, a tar paper house, but it was warm. It was where I was born. My mother wanted to go back. She was tired of being hungry and cold. When she got there, our home wasn’t there. A white woman, our neighbour, told her the Indian agents burned our home as soon as we left. So, we couldn’t move back. I remember her crying when she told us our home was burned down.
Oral history collected and compiled by Florence Dennis.
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Oral History Six with Annie Claire Googoo
Early Days in Eskasoni After Centralization
Me and husband first lived in States. It was in 1942 when we came back from Portland. We were originally from Whycocomagh. When we came back, nobody was in Whycocomagh, only one family. We were told older people needed help. A teacher named Alex Mac Donald called John and told him he would get a job as a truck driver. He got paid thirty-five cents an hour. My in-laws wanted to move to Eskasoni, so we followed them. We were told we would get new houses, but the houses were only tar paper shacks.
My husband drove people here to Eskasoni. We would get a food order, called one or two rations. One ration was eight dollars, and two was twelve dollars. Then we would take it to the community store, the old band office. We got our stuff at the community store. The agent got a lot of money that we were supposed to get. But he sent it back or kept it. It was a hard life. They treated Indians very badly.
Our house was very cold. They could have helped our people but they didn’t. The agents got cows that were supposed to [have been for] our people. But they didn’t [get the cows], they kept them. If you got water for your house, you had to pay yourself. I went to ask for help, but this woman told me, ‘I heard that story before’, so she didn’t help me. Even the doctor was mean, and would throw people out. The older people could not communicate because they didn’t understand any English. Older people were really poor, because they could not ask for help. The houses were only shells with a wood burning stove. The people that first came in Castle Bay lived in tents until they got a tar paper shack. It is hard to believe we lived in those conditions.
Oral history collected and compiled by Florence Dennis.