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A ways South to the Keji Petroglyphs

When someone carves something of themselves into rock, something at once insignificant and profound, we call it graffiti, but when we are separated from the artist by centuries, and the thing they carved has been largely lost to time, we call it a petroglyph. This is rock art, a startling reminder not only that people were here in centuries past, but that they thought and felt as intensely as we do now, and were just as prone to preserving what for them was commonplace, but for us, precious.

Prior to European settlement and for a time thereafter, the Mi’Kmaq made heavy use of Kejimkujik Lake, in the heart of modern day Kejimkujik National Park in southern Nova Scotia. Many of the bands which surrounded this lake took to the coasts of southern Nova Scotia in summer, making a practiced and resourceful living from the bounties of the Atlantic, but when things became cold they paddled up their various rivers in canoes of sturdy birch and gathered on this very lake, where there was shelter from the wind and the insects were waning.

Storytelling is a deeply human phenomenon, and the Mi’Kmaq were, and remain, masters of the oral tradition, but in addition to the spoken word, they once carved their discoveries and values into the smooth slate found on the shores of Kejimkujik Lake, a blank and begging canvas if ever I saw one. There are five sites known in the national park, and only one accessible by road and trail, just off the Merrymakedge parking lots.

You cannot visit without a Mi’Kmaq guide, as it should be. Unintentional harms like the grating of hard boots, zippers, belts or jewelry can accelerate erosion, and rampant insensitivity has allowed unsupervised visitors to carve graffiti onto these petroglyphs, prioritizing the casual love of teenagers – already preserved in the annals of Facebook – overtop the faded image of a sacred feather, only now losing its long struggle against the centuries. Yes, the guides are necessary, and they also have something to say.

Mine was Rose Meuse, a member of the L’sitkuk band and a fine storyteller all her own. On our walk to the petroglyphs we discussed our mutual admiration of wildlife and swapped stories, and she described her mission to learn the totality of the Mi’Kmaq language, its fragments scattered across different reserves and multiple elders. It’s a mission I found stirring, as I can only imagine the ferocity with which I would defend the English language if someone tried taking it away from me. She taught me pjila’si, which means come and take your place, the most beautiful brand of welcome I can imagine. In fact this word adorns the signage entering Kejimkujik National Park, and stuck with me. Then there is L’nu, which translates roughly to the people, a word the Mi’Kmaq use to refer to themselves. There were other words before we reached the water, but I can’t remember them.

Once in our bare feet and on the shore, we mounted the outcropping of slate and walked gingerly. I expected a few petroglyphs here and there, perhaps framed by wooden shields built by Parks Canada, but instead they were naked to the elements, and there were many dozens overlapping, centuries on centuries and pictures on pictures, so chaotic and subtle that the eyes need time to adjust. Here was the encyclopedia of the Mi’Kmaq, old thoughts and ambitions and dreams and lessons sharing space and competing for depth. It was magnificent.

First, we visited Rose’s favourite, a simple stick figured hunter with bow and arrow. It’s suspected by some that this particular petroglyph is among the oldest in the park, in part because it’s so faded, and in part because it’s so rudimentary, perhaps put here when this particular slate was relatively unmarked, and the bar for quality was set low. Rose also loves it because this hunter exudes a simple pride, one she remembers in her elders.

It is impossible to date any of these petroglyphs, and so we don’t know if they stretch back 200 years or 500, or how many are no longer legible but older still. There are clues, however. Some petroglyphs show European ships with exquisite detail, seen by Mi’Kmaq on the coast and recreated here for everyone’s benefit the following winter. In fact there were several ships carved into the rock, denoting, perhaps, the bustle of contact. Other petroglyphs are more forthcoming. Almost anywhere you look there is a single date repeated over and over and over again – 1877. Rose has been on a quest to understand the significance of this date, and while she has many theories, the one I found most interested was the Great Fire of Saint John which took place that very year, colouring surrounding skies for much of the region, certainly as far off as Kejimkujik.

Maltipictou is also carved into the rock, the name of a historic master canoe builder from Rose’s own band, alongside the date 1897, the importance of which is lost on her. Near the centre of the outcropping of slate is the figure of a man wearing a pious smile and a peculiar, swooping hat, a heart carved into his chest. This, it has been suggested, is a missionary or soldier, using the word “god” where Mi’Kmaq might say “creator.”

My personal favourite was a short ways off – what to me was the indisputable figure of an Atlantic caribou. This species once ranged across the whole of the Maritimes, but have since been driven to near extinction. Having personally tracked down the last 70 individuals in the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspesie, Quebec, I considered myself an expert on the identity of the figure in the slate. Because the image is very faint, however, no one can know for certain if it is in fact our absent caribou, or merely the White-tailed deer who took their place. By way of compromise, Rose and her fellow interpreters call it the Deerabou.

The last petroglyph to make an impression was by far the most eroded, a shape like a rectangle but with one of its peaks higher than the other. This is the peaked hat of the Mi’Kmaq, worn by women in times of ceremony or on special occasions. It’s a common petroglyph, sometimes shown on a woman’s head, sometimes on its own, as with the one I saw. I could tell the hat had been decorated, carrying more cultural weight than could be distinguish, in part buried under multitudes of graffiti. This I found infuriating, but Rose bore the loss with more grace.

She wondered aloud which of these petroglyphs had been carved by her direct ancestors, and which would be left when her three children reached her age. When Rose began her work in the park, this stretch of slate contained as many as a hundred clear petroglyphs, but now there are fewer than a dozen truly preserved. Protection is important, but even without the indiscretions of visitation, these petroglyphs will vanish. This difficult reality raises artistic and cultural questions as old as time. Should talented Mi’kmaq be brought here to continue telling their stories in rock, or should the existing petroglyphs be restored somehow, like Leonardo’s The Last Supper? These questions may never be answered, so I lingered on these carvings as long as was appropriate, a privilege to see while they are still here, but now, more than before, a torment to bid farewell.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.