Sylliboy, a sculptor, poet, and photographer
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.”