I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.
The Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation is about half an hour east of highway 105, and it’s home to splendid views, awesome fishing, and a proud people. After learning that the venue had changed, I made it to the Elder’s Centre and found Mi’kmaw culture on full display.
Out front, I notice someone else with a media pass – a local Eskasoni guy who has been doing photography in the area for a long time. He introduces me to Alex Poulette because I ask if anyone can speak about Mi’kmaw history, and I get exactly that. Alex tells me about his life as a musician, and that’s a calling that he casts as inextricable from the culture that he’s a part of. You can see a bit of our conversation in this video:
What I saw for the whole rest of the day showed how Mi’kmaw culture arises from the everyday lives of its people. For every piece of the culture’s rich tapestry, there is a practice that keeps it going. Alex found that music could connect him with the myths of his forebears so that he could pass on history to the next generation – but I spoke with cooks, with hunters, with weavers and drum-makers who had all found that these activities let them continue the Mi’kmaw way of life.
The willingness of everyone at the Elder’s Centre to tell me about their culture was enough to make an anthropologist jealous, but I was there as a blogger, and we are famously hedonistic types. I am happy to report that I genuinely had fun there, for a couple really good reasons:
1. Waltes: the oldest game in Northern America
Also known as “Indian dice,” waltes is played with six dice and a round, concave wooden board. To play, you lift the board, then slam it back down. If five of the six dice land on the same side, you get a point. Don’t worry – they’re more like coins than dice, as they only have two sides each. If you do that twice in a row, you get an extra point – for those counting, that’s three points. The points are kept track of with sticks: three sticks make one point, and if you score three in a row, then you put a stick in your hair, which will count later on in the game.
There’s another way to win: get all the dice on the same side. That gets you an old lady stick, which is worth five points. Once the three old ladies are gone, the same process will get you an old man: that signals the end of round 1.
Round 2 is where my brain turned to mush. I was an instruction-following, waltes-playing automaton. I was in the zone. It really does get somewhat more complicated, though, and my notes and memory cannot be relied upon after this point. I can only implore you to go out and try waltes for yourself. It takes a long time to build the skills to be good at it (one sweet trick involves waving briskly over the still-spinning dice to flatten them out on the side you want), but you will certainly have fun.
Sit for a while, and you’ll see how this very lively game is also a cultural treasure. The dice are made from animal bones. The board is made by boiling a knot of a tree for about a day; the one we played with was the last one made by a local craftsman. “I had to beg him to make this one!” says my playing partner (she kicked my butt). The old man and the old ladies refer directly to Mi’kmaw history: the chief, it’s said, had a few wives – and the fifty-one scoring sticks are their many kids.
The cost for the Eskasoni Cultural Day was $25, and it got you a meal. Your choice: moose stew or baked salmon and scallops.
Both dishes were caught, hunted, gathered, or otherwise procured from Cape Breton. You’re wondering about the moose, so I’ll tell you: it was hunted by Lindsay Paul, an Eskasoni man who was helping out at the Cultural Day. Hunting’s about more than just food. It’s where the considerable Mi’kmaw oral history gets transmitted. Lindsay’s dad taught him to hunt when he was about eight, and Lindsay will do the same for his kids. Once the moose is felled and butchered, the meat gets marinated overnight to soften it up. It’s cooked simply, and served with traditional bread and stewed vegetables. In terms of taste and texture, it was close to unseasoned beef brisket – not exactly fine dining, but it was super wholesome and delicious. The seafood dish was lighter and more contemporary, served with a lemon wedge and bacon-wrapped scallops, and it was really well-cooked.
After my day in Eskasoni, I headed down to Port Morien and St. Peter’s for a night of celtic music – check back to hear a bit more about my adventures tomorrow!