Cover image for Finding Kluskap: A Journey into Mi'kmaw Myth By Jennifer Reid

Finding Kluskap

A Journey into Mi'kmaw Myth

Jennifer Reid


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06068-2

$28.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06069-9

Available as an e-book

136 pages
6" × 9"
3 maps

Signifying (on) Scriptures

Finding Kluskap

A Journey into Mi'kmaw Myth

Jennifer Reid

“Jennifer Reid presents truly original material—previously unknown stories that she recorded with Mi’kmaw friends. She also ties existing sources together in new ways. Finding Kluskap thus succeeds in presenting both new material and new interpretation—while still synthesizing existing literature in meaningful ways.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The Mi’kmaq of eastern Canada were among the first indigenous North Americans to encounter colonial Europeans. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, they were trading with French fishers, and by the mid-seventeenth century, large numbers of Mi’kmaq had converted to Catholicism. Mi’kmaw Catholicism is perhaps best exemplified by the community’s regard for the figure of Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. Every year for a week, coinciding with the saint’s feast day of July 26, Mi’kmaw peoples from communities throughout Quebec and eastern Canada gather on the small island of Potlotek, off the coast of Nova Scotia. It is, however, far from a conventional Catholic celebration. In fact, it expresses a complex relationship between the Mi’kmaq, Saint Anne, a series of eighteenth-century treaties, and a cultural hero named Kluskap.

Finding Kluskap brings together years of historical research and learning among Mi’kmaw peoples on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The author’s long-term relationship with Mi’kmaw friends and colleagues provides a unique vantage point for scholarship, one shaped not only by personal relationships but also by the cultural, intellectual, and historical situations that inform postcolonial peoples. The picture that emerges when Saint Anne, Kluskap, and the mission are considered in concert with one another is one of the sacred life as a site of adjudication for both the meaning and efficacy of religion—and the impact of modern history on contemporary indigenous religion.

“Jennifer Reid presents truly original material—previously unknown stories that she recorded with Mi’kmaw friends. She also ties existing sources together in new ways. Finding Kluskap thus succeeds in presenting both new material and new interpretation—while still synthesizing existing literature in meaningful ways.”
Finding Kluskap weaves a distinctive way of understanding New World religious phenomena that takes seriously the mythological consequences of European presence in Native American territories. It is a scholarly engagement with the mythic dimensions of the New World and colonialism that can be seen as an indigenous critique of a settler culture through the captivating story of Kluskap and Mi'kmaw cultural survival.”
“Jennifer Reid’s well-written text examines several interconnected stories arising from the lives of the Mi'kmaw people of Nova Scotia. Reid describes how, with the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century, Mi'kmaw customs of reciprocity were transformed into the language of treaties—and the land of origin, habitation, and sustenance became property that could be bought and sold. These stories are told against a backdrop evoked by the presence of the primordial Mi'kmaw culture hero Kluskap as well as Saint Anne, the matriarch of the Holy Family in the Roman Catholic tradition. Reid demonstrates how the Mi'kmaq creatively responded to ambiguous and dangerous contact with European cultures. The Mi'kmaq, she shows, were able to maintain relationships with their own traditions and, through a careful deciphering of the contact zone, create new modes of being human.”
“[Finding Kluskap] shows how the fixed nature of the sacredness of place (particularly the island Potlotek) is the axis mundi that runs through the metamorphosis of cultural transformation into Mi’kmaw Christianity. Kluskap’s relationship to this place continues to provide a sacred orienting narrative that grounds not just the sacred nature of Mi’kmaw land, but also the sacred nature of legal agreements about that land. . . . [The book] will be of interest to a wide array of scholars in religious studies, Native American Studies, historiography, and anthropology.”
“There is much in the book that is of great interest to folklorists including the connection among Mi’kmaw belief, stories of treaties, stories of broken promises and Mi’kmaw experience of the sacred. It is fascinating also that the treaties, perceived as sacred agreements to Mi’kmaw people, remain at the center of religious ritual even when ignored by the Canadian government. In the end, the book is well worth reading, especially as a starting point for additional folklore and historical research.”

Jennifer Reid is Professor of Religion at the University of Maine at Farmington.




1 Treaties and Aquatic Parasites

2 Kluskap and Aboriginal Rights

3 The Saint Anne’s Day Mission

4 Knowing How and Where to Be






The Mi’kmaq of eastern Canada were the first indigenous North Americans to encounter colonial Europeans. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, they were trading with French fishers, and by the mid-seventeenth century, large numbers of Mi’kmaq had converted to Catholicism. That association would persist to varying degrees to the present day. Mi’kmaw Catholicism is exemplified by the community’s regard for the figure of Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. Each year for a week, coinciding with the saint’s feast day of July 26, Mi’kmaw peoples from communities throughout Quebec and eastern Canada gather at a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia. The island of Potlotek is the site of Canada’s oldest Christian mission, and the celebration of Saint Anne on the island each July is a focal event for the community. It is, however, far from a conventional Catholic celebration. In fact, it expresses a complex set of relationships that exist between the Mi’kmaq, a cultural hero named Kluskap, a series of eighteenth-century treaties, and Saint Anne. This set of relationships is the focus of this book. In the following chapters I will relate how my desire to know something about the figure of Kluskap turned into a kind of pilgrimage. That journey ended up at Potlotek. Getting there, however, was not at all straightforward and, once I was there, the return to an original starting point was impossible.

Kluskap himself, for instance, eluded me for a long time. I came to him in the way a Western scholar often approaches an indigenous cultural form—through the lens of academic classifications. Kluskap is customarily typecast as a trickster, one of a class of mythic figures who have haunted scholarship on non-Europeans since the anthropologies of Daniel Brinton, Henry Schoolcraft, and Franz Boaz. Tricksters have been described as funny characters who are lacking in conventional morality, at times benevolent and at other times unscrupulous. They are satirical figures who often mock human ways, cultural institutions, religious figures, the gods, and even themselves. They are credited with creating crucial aspects of the human world, but what they create is as much a result of stupidity as it is of conscious intention. In a sense, they epitomize the highest and lowest points of human possibility: they create the world, but they also complicate it for us through their questionable behavior.

In recent years tricksters have found their way into other discourses, aside from the strictly anthropological. They have, for example, been recast as embodiments of postmodernism, slippery beings who defy classical constraint. Emerging largely from nonindigenous sectors, this interpretation has relied on a kind of exoticism that has blurred the cultural contexts out of which tricksters have emerged. They have also surfaced among indigenous writers and artists, cast as contemporary models for political and social action. In this work, trickster stories are no longer simply mythic tales set in the primordial past but are “parables” reflecting contemporary social contingencies and choices for action. They provide templates for resistance among indigenous peoples and, as such, are said by some to provide the trickster with a kind of ongoing animacy.

Kluskap is generally classified as a trickster. While it took me a while to learn anything constructive about him, one thing became clear rather quickly as I began pursuing him: if I held on to the trickster as my interpretive lens, I was going to find myself falling into a position frighteningly close to what the Métis writer Christina Fagan has characterized as fundamentally dishonest. Cultural symbols like the trickster, she writes, “can easily become labels, commodities, and stereotypes, ways of explaining and controlling that which is unfamiliar.”

I knew from the outset of my journey to find Kluskap that the trickster moniker simply was not going to hold. Although he clearly had a hand in the creation of the human world, and he had a dynamite sense of humor, he has never been unscrupulous or stupid. And I would later learn that while he can provide a model for action, this is not the primary source of his “animacy.” He is, rather, a kind of mnemonic presence who not only invokes archaic structures of creation but also emerges in the modern period as a champion of Aboriginal and treaty rights. In this most important work of his, he is not so much a model as an advocate whose spirit continues to be felt.

The category of the “trickster” was an early casualty of my pilgrimage. And it was the tip of the iceberg. As with most pilgrimages, initially the goal seemed clear, but I could not predict what would transpire along the way. And once I had reached my destination, there were suddenly new issues involved in returning to where I had started. Inherent in the process were problems relating to both interpretation and epistemic boundaries, and so this book is also tacitly, but unavoidably, about a hermeneutical pilgrimage.

The question of how to interpret something requires some measure of clarity about what constitutes the subject of interpretation. In this case, one would presume that this includes Kluskap, Saint Anne, and the treaties. But herein lies a bit of complexity. In chapter 4, I will raise the issue of a reflection on religion and modernity that appears to be embedded in the Saint Anne’s Day Mission—a critique that is enmeshed in the treaties that are both artifacts of the eighteenth-century colonial landscape of Atlantic Canada and blueprints for present and future postcolonial relationships in the Canadian state. While Kluskap, Saint Anne, and the treaties immediately pertain to the Mi’kmaw community, from my vantage point as a non-Native scholar they appear to be also unavoidably implicated in this evaluation of the broader society in which the community finds itself. Moreover, it seems to me that this critique presents a direct challenge to many of the discourses about religion and modernity that hold sway among contemporary academics. But this raises a question: what is at stake in my reflection on these broader cultural and academic implications and my writing about them? I can say with relative certainty that they are not central concerns among Mi’kmaw peoples. Five hundred years of colonial contact has not instilled in this community a driving need to have non-Mi’kmaw peoples “get it.” At the same time, my Mi’kmaw friends were willing to share some part of “it” with me, hoping, I suppose, that I would proceed to use that knowledge to better understand our shared situation as modern peoples. So where has that left me in terms of the subject of interpretation? Essentially, I have found myself left with a distinct sense that regardless of how much I can know about Mi’kmaw culture, this book is also unavoidably self-referential. As Charles H. Long puts it, “Every adequate hermeneutic is at heart an essay in self-understanding. It is the effort to understand the self through the mediation of the other.”

Of course, the issue I am raising is nothing new. The conventional way of dealing with it among academics has been to stake out fixed positionalities: etic/emic, insider/outsider. But in this case, these simply do not work. To be sure, I am an outsider. I am writing as an academic, and a good deal of the research underpinning this book involves anthropological and historical sources written from the seventeenth century onward. More critically, the scholarly tradition I represent is implicated in a centuries-long process of marginalization of indigenous cultures—the so-called primitives that lie at the ideological foundation of the rise of the West and, no less, of the modern study of religion and other disciplines in the humanities. I am rooted in both a cultural history and an academic culture that approached indigenous peoples in the modern period as either extraneous to the emergence of the West (hence the marginalization of indigenous peoples generally) or as raw material for cultural expansion (for example, the slave trade and the academic disciplines). In recent decades, Mi’kmaw peoples have generally abandoned an earlier willingness to engage the questions and research of non-Native scholars. They have simply tired of talking with people who went on to write books and articles that they never saw. Academics took what they heard from Native “informants” and then filled in the blanks to create narratives and descriptions that appealed to the tastes and sensitivities of non-Native readers. Additionally, academics too rarely raised issues or expressed frames of mind that pointed to the reciprocal character of both their relationship with their subjects and the “data” they had collected. An important point here is that there were indeed blanks.

Modern scholars and indigenous peoples came together in the first instance because European colonials had engaged in a permanent occupation of the non-European world. Indigenous spaces became contact zones and transcultural spaces. Mary Louise Pratt has described these as arenas in which “people geographically and historically separated come into contact with one another and establish on-going relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” In Canada, this conquest also entailed a presumption on the part of dominant sectors of the society that First Nations peoples could be geographically situated, culturally remade, and legally defined. Reserves (radically reduced tracts allotted to First Nations from their original heritage of land) ensured that Native peoples would be removed from the areas occupied by non-Natives. The Canadian government’s Indian Act of 1876 legislatively objectified First Nations peoples through the assumption of government control over virtually every aspect of life on reserves. The government prohibited dancing and other religious activity, for example; it specified who was and who was not an “Indian”; and it designated how bands could be governed and how land could be disposed of. While it has undergone amendment, the Indian Act remains a vehicle for exercising these forms of control. A residential school system, jointly administered by the federal government and the churches, and in place until the second half of the twentieth century, subjected generations of Aboriginal children to degradation and abuse, stripping them of their languages, tribal knowledge, and family relationships. In short, First Nations peoples have contended with a dominant culture that has consistently assumed that “Indians” could be defined and remade into integers consistent with colonial and postcolonial policies. These acts of definition are not, however, knowledge. The lack of cultural reciprocity (legal, social, and scholarly) that has characterized Native and non-Native relationships has ensured that critical aspects of collective Native self-knowledge have, for the sake of cultural survival, remained concealed and protected within their communities.

Time and again, as I looked for Kluskap, I was told that there were things I simply could not know. Cultural knowledge is not a product; it is the surplus that comes of reciprocal relationships. So, while I have stories to relate and events to describe in this book that have not found their way into other scholarly literature, I also embody the history of the West and because of this, there are limits to what I can—and should—know. Am I then an “outsider?” Do I have an “etic” point of view? Not entirely. I have a story to relate and a hermeneutical claim to stake here that are surpluses of a particular set of relationships I have with friends who are Mi’kmaq. But I do not pretend that these reflect a comprehensive understanding of a complex cultural expression or that they are even the sum total of our respective positionalities. They are, simply, surpluses accruing from the reciprocal nature of our relationship. As such, they point to a kind of understanding or knowledge gleaned from within what the historian of religions Joachim Wach would have described as “an intermediate field between the entirely foreign and the perfectly familiar.” The stories I learned, the memories of the past that were recalled in my presence, the sacred moments in which I was permitted to share were all offered in friendship. My questions that went unanswered, however, remained so because of a historical legacy of which I am unshakably a part. In other words, the contact zone out of which this book arises defies conventional classification with respect to scholarly perspective.

In writing this book, I have had to think a great deal about transcultural spaces. I have begun to think of such spaces as generally “metamorphic,” acknowledging my debt here to Davíd Carrasco, who has employed the term in relation to visions of place (which I will consider more fully later). A metamorphosis is a kind of second birth through which an organism undergoes an obvious and sudden transformation. In most cases, that organism can no longer fully function in its old environment; one example is the salmon, which must seek out salt—rather than fresh—water. What I find most helpful in thinking about transcultural spaces as metamorphic is that the analogy directs our attention to the radical nature of the contact zone, its relationship to things that came before, its re-creation of the human environment, and its role in the generation of profoundly new modes of being a human. Of course, anyone who has ever stopped long enough to watch, say, a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, also knows that the operation is not entirely pretty. In fact, it is a conflicted, almost painful process to witness.

We know that the European incursion into the Americas created that kind of painful rupture and new beginning. At the same time, it created a new hermeneutical situation, one that Charles Long describes as “a situation in which Homo Americanus was continually trying to discover and decipher the meaning of existence in the context of the most intense new and radical experience of Western humanity.” In many respects the Saint Anne’s Day Mission, which was the terminus of sorts in my search for Kluskap, confronts this kind of New World dilemma. But this book is equally a product of a hermeneutical situation. The space and time out of which it emerged was itself a transcultural and metamorphic context. Stories were shared, and others were withheld. New questions were generated, and others were abandoned. At times there was camaraderie and reciprocity, and at other times reticence, misgivings, and distrust. As a result, this book does not present a total portrait of a community’s sacred life, nor does it provide a comprehensive and novel hermeneutic. My guess is that it is fragmentary at best on both counts. The fact is, I don’t really know. And perhaps that’s just as it should be.