Artist Michelle Sylliboy
-by Anne Farries
Michelle Sylliboy likes carving in soapstone because it’s easier on her body than marble or bone.
And she likes hieroglyphs, because they contain the history of her people in a language created before white settlers arrived from Europe.
“We have a hieroglyphic language that not a lot of people know about,” Sylliboy, a sculptor, poet, and photographer, who grew up in Waycobah, said Saturday at the Inverness County Centre for the Arts, where, as artist-in-residence, she is giving two public workshops this month.
“Prior to contact, hieroglyphics were used to record the tribal records and to create maps,” she said. “When I was growing up, elders would hold the hieroglyphic books and read from them. They were fluent in the writing.”
“Then contact came, and the priests tried to convert the Mi’kmaq people. A priest (Chrétien Le Clercq, born 1641, Franciscan) noticed children writing on birch bark; he realized they were recording what he was saying. Children are smart about picking up languages, right?”
“He told his superiors in Europe that he ‘invented’ a language, but he didn’t. All he did was steal the language.”
“He made a mockery of the Mi’kmaq people. He wrote an autobiography and described his travels and meetings with the Mi’kmaq people, but never once wrote their names down.”
Sylliboy is the daughter of Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy, who died in November. She came home last summer for field work towards a PhD through Simon Fraser University. Her thesis-in-progress includes creating a school curriculum around Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs and, ironically, making use of Le Clercq’s writing.
“The book is problematic but also useful, because it explains where he went and who he spoke to,” she said. “It’s difficult because he was writing about my ancestors. He was condescending and harsh every time he spoke to one of my ancestors.”
“He outed himself, though, because he wrote, ‘I was surprised when I went to one village and they understood the hieroglyphics that I invented’.”
“So, there were all these half-truths, because we know that the hieroglyphics were used previously by the Mi’kmaq people.”
“The language was used for maps, and it comes from the land, so it’s important.”
Sylliboy’s research includes talking to elders in Mi’kmaq communities in Atlantic Canada.
There’s an urgency about the project.
“Since I came home last summer, I met up with hundreds of people,” she said. “Every single community I’ve been to, they’ve been thirsty for it.”
But two of the linguists and elders who guided Sylliboy’s work have died, and Dr. Murdena Marshall, who wrote the only modern book on Mi’kmaq hieroglyphs, recently had a stroke and can no longer communicate with Sylliboy.
At the request of the elders, Sylliboy is modernizing the definitions in a centuries-old dictionary that the priests collected so they could translate prayers.
She is also developing a curriculum to teach the language at schools. To that end, she has talked with teachers and given workshops across Cape Breton, including one in which all 220 students at We'koqma'q Mi'kmaw School painted hieroglyphs on birch bark.
And, she is taking the work to a broader audience.
“One of the things I want to do here is have workshops where people go through the dictionaries that I was given and get engaged in the language and do something creative with it,” she said.
That includes two workshops she is giving at ICCA in July. One is a half-day of painting hieroglyphs on birch bark; the second a full day of soapstone carving.
“It’s a nice workshop, because it’s all day, and people will do a small piece, a pendant, and create a hieroglyphic symbol on that,’ she said.
Inverness County Centre for the Arts: Birchbark hieroglyphs July 14th, $25. Soapstone pendant carving July 21st, all day, $90. Tools supplied. Soapstone available for purchase. Class size limited.
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