Reclaiming the Story of Suliewey, Honouring Mi’kmaq Culture through the Power of Storytelling
Adventure Canada speaks with Mi’kmaw authors Chief Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill about their books, My Indian and Suliewey. Through the power of storytelling, the two are reclaiming and humanizing the trivialized narrative of Sylvester Joe (Suliewey). Sylvester is a Mi’kmaw guide, who accompanied colonial settler William Epps Cormack on a quest to locate the last surviving Beothuk encampments in 1822. Learn how they are reframing the settler perspective and dispelling colonial myths.
The covers to the My Indian and Suliewey books by Chief Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neil. Jerry Evans produced the cover artwork for My Indian using prismacolour pencils on rag. In designing the cover, he researched the historical clothing and equipment of the time—the skin boots, Cormack’s pack, and Sylvester’s bundle with the traditional tumpline (strap). The cover art for Suliewey is a kitpu (eagle) talon neck piece made by Chief Mi'sel Joe using seven eagle talons, seven red stones, and seven pieces of silver strung on babiche and washed with red ochre powder. It was photographed by Angelina Francis (Angelina's Photography) and the cover was designed by Rhonda Molloy at Breakwater Books Ltd.
In 1822, a colonial settler by the name of William Epps Cormack enlisted the assistance of a knowledgeable guide who would lead him across the interior of Newfoundland in aim of locating the last surviving Beothuk encampments on the island. Throughout his journal starting from the first page, Cormack refers to his guide only as “my Indian” dozens of times.
Two hundred years later, authors Chief Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neil are reclaiming the narrative of Sylvester Joe in their first book together entitled, My Indian, released in 2021. Sylvester is a Mi’kmaw guide who is known as Suliewey by his traditional name, and he accompanies Cormack on the journey. Through a work of extraordinary historical fiction, the book traces Sylvester’s life from his early days of growing up on what is now recognized as Miawpukek First Nation to his pivotal role in guiding Cormack across the island.
In My Indian, the big question lies in whether Sylvester will lead Cormack to the Beothuk or follow the advice of his Elders by diverting the colonial explorer away from the Beothuk and protect them. By reframing the story of Cormack’s expedition from the perspective of the Mi’kmaw guide, My Indian humanizes the long-overlooked and disparaged identity of Sylvester and the profound impact he had on this historical journey.
Chief Mi’sel Joe examining a map of William Epps Cormack’s and Sylvester Joe’s travels across the island of Newfoundland in 1822.
Offering a Different Perspective to a One-Sided Story
Chief Joe and Sheila say they knew nothing about the history of Sylvester or Cormack growing up as it was never a part of their education. They knew about Sylvester, but beyond that not much. “Anything that we wrote, we had to do research on to find information and hard facts,” Chief Joe explained.
The idea of writing the book took a turning point when Chief Joe ran into Sheila at a powwow in 2017. He had some notes written and was getting ready to write the story, which he had been dabbling in for years—trying to find more information when Sheila came along at the right time. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a project kind of on the go, would you like to get involved?’ And that's basically how our collaboration on the book started,” Chief Joe explained.
Sheila O’Neil and Chief Mi’sel Joe at the Miawpukek First Nation powwow in 2022.
Later that day Sheila agreed to meet with Chief Joe and look over the outline and chapters he already had for the entire story. Then as Sheila was taking notes, it occurred to her that the book should be called My Indian, considering that is how Cormack referred to Sylvester. “It's historically accurate, but it's also a very clear indication of the relationship between colonizers and our people at the time, like you're a piece of property, but also in entitling the book My Indian, we wanted to reclaim the narrative. This is our story, that was the logic behind it,” Sheila expressed.
“When you read it—it's like, ‘Oh my God’, he's calling him my Indian again and he's not trusting his own guide,” she added.
Sheila goes on to say that reading Cormack’s journal undoubtedly brought up strong emotions, including frustration, which ultimately served as a driving force in pushing the two authors to work tirelessly on the book in order to tell Sylvester’s story. It is a story that has been historically overshadowed by Cormack’s journal and the narrow colonial perspective it was written in.
Sheila reveals one of the things she’s most proud about My Indian is how authentically Chief Joe’s voice comes across. Chief Joe would write on lined yellow paper; part of her role was to help organize it without losing his voice, “it was immensely important,” she noted. Sheila knew she accomplished her goal when someone who read the book said it felt as though they could hear Chief Joe telling the story as they read it. “There are no award frames that could mean more than those words, because it needed to sound like it came right from Chief’s voice, since it's his oral history. It's our oral history. I didn't want us to write a book that didn't sound like it was written by Indigenous authors.”
A map Chief Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neil had created of Sylvester Joe and William Epps Cormack’s journey across Newfoundland by Greg Jeddore.
Much of the book is inspired by Chief Joe’s personal experiences growing up and travelling on the land in Newfoundland. From learning the ways of the animals that surrounded him, to hunting with his Elders, and providing for his family with his bare hands—all these powerful teachings encompass the generational and traditional knowledge passed down to him. “There was no such thing as getting a permit to carry a gun because nobody bothered us. We lived in the woods and shooting my first moose at thirteen years old was not uncommon,” Chief Joe recalled as he reminisced about his formative years.
Akin to Sylvester, the Indigenous and Mi’kmaq way of life taught him how to be one with the Earth that provides shelter, along with the animals that are seen as a source of food for survival, and not sport. “If you want to know what Chief’s childhood was like, you read the books because Sylvester’s experience of growing up on the land was Chief’s life,” Sheila said. “I feel very privileged actually, because I have learned so much in working with Chief on this—much about the culture, the language, and the impact of storytelling.”
Chief Mi’sel Joe examining a pitcher plant in Miawpukek First Nation.
While reading Cormack’s journal, Chief Joe couldn’t help but notice the way in which he talks about the land in regard to wanting to mine and herd wild qalipu (caribou) by bringing Laplanders to Newfoundland. These thoughts caught him off guard as it is not synonymous with the Mi’kmaq outlook on land or animal preservation. These conflicting views are carefully highlighted in the book when Sylvester internally voices his instinctual bewilderment and apprehension at the ideas, along with the thought of further colonial encroachment upon Mi’kmaq traditional land. It is land that had been protected by Indigenous environmental stewardship for centuries.
Helping Revitalize Mi’kmaq Culture
In writing My Indian and illustrating Mi’kmaq traditions, Chief Joe and Sheila hope the story will help further revitalization efforts of Indigenous culture, which has been historically frowned upon, and seen as “uncivilized,” simply because it is different from what settlers were and are accustomed to. Further to that point, the authors are hopeful readers, in particular Indigenous youth, reading the book will go back to their grandparents and Elders and ask them about what their upbringing was like. In doing so, the authors are optimistic this will ignite more opportunities for storytelling.
The pair incorporate the usage of Mi’kmaq language in their writing, often referring to animals, places, tools, shelter, individuals, and so forth by their Mi’kmaq name in an effort to bring more exposure to the language. The effortless inclusion of Mi’kmaq words also offers readers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the “beautiful and important” language in an easy-to-understand manner.
A floatplane dropped Sheila and Chief Mi’sel Joe off near the top of Mount Sylvester for research on My Indian.
Both authors say they feel a strong sense of pride and joy and are “absolutely astonished” by the impact My Indian has had in generating immense interest on many different levels—especially in academics. The book has won numerous awards and accolades. My Indian has also given them the opportunity to meet with itinerants for safe and inclusive schools around Indigenous safety. From that relationship, an Indigenous Student Alliance across the province was developed. The considerable support and recognition garnered from the book all throughout the country has encouraged the authors to continue their craft of storytelling.
“It's so important that we tell our own story, because nobody else is going to do it,” Chief Joe emphasized.
Who Were the Beothuk People?
Beothuk, which means “the people” or “true people” were an Indigenous community, who inhabited Newfoundland. A significant feature of Beothuk culture was the traditional use of powdered hematite, or red ochre, which they used to paint canoes, artefacts, and even their bodies. Historians have speculated that since they were the first Indigenous group in North America to encounter settlers, it is possible their custom of using red ochre is what led to the widespread use of the stereotypical moniker “Red Indians," which was later applied to all Indigenous people.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, as a result of European intrusion, slaughter, and diseases to which the Beothuk had no natural resistance, the community’s numbers diminished rapidly following contact. Additionally, it says Canadian history books often state the Beothuk consequently disappeared and that the last known remaining Beothuk member died in 1829. In the book, Sylvester refers to the Beothuk as his brothers and sisters on numerous occasions, instead of seeing them as dangerous or a violent and threatening enemy as the settlers, such as Cormack did. This is a teaching that was passed down to Sylvester by his Elders and is consistently reinforced by the various community members he encounters on his journey.
Bringing the story full circle, My Indian culminates in Chief Joe’s successful efforts in 2020 to repatriate two Beothuk skulls from the National Museum of Scotland. In 1828, the remains of Nonosabasut and Demasduit, who had been murdered by John Peyton in 1820, were removed from their gravesite on Beothuk Lake, formerly known as Red Indian Lake, by Cormack and brought to Scotland to be studied. The repatriation efforts were initiated and led by Chief Joe in 2015, which would go on for five years. In spite of the numerous obstacles that arose, he never deterred from his goal of seeking justice and bringing the remains back home.
Chief Mi’sel Joe in Scotland (2015) meeting with solicitor David J. Howat (deceased), who helped get the reparation process of the Beothuk remains moving with the museum in Edinburgh.
Suliewey: The Sequel to My Indian
Now, this October, Chief Joe and Sheila are back with their sequel to My Indian, entitled Suliewey. In this sequel, after parting ways with Cormack at St. George’s Bay, Sylvester makes the bold decision to venture forth on his own quest, which entails uncovering the winter camp of the remaining Beothuk.
Chief Mi’sel Joe holds a handmade kitpu (eagle) talon neck piece made of seven kitpu talons, seven red stones, and seven pieces of silver strung on babiche, washed with red ochre powder. The sacred object is a key element in Suliewey.
The two Mi’kmaw authors craft a remarkable feat of fiction as Suliewey upholds and celebrates the rich tapestry of Mi’kmaq oral history and brings to the foreground the amicable and long rebutted connections between Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk of Newfoundland. The novel challenges and reclaims the prevailing settler narrative, dispelling the notion of enmity between the two communities. Instead, it paints a vivid portrait of the enduring kinship shared between the two Indigenous groups. Despite the author's dedicated attempts to find out what happened to Sylvester after he left Cormack in 1822 on the west coast of Newfoundland, they couldn’t uncover anything other than the stories that have been passed down. Due to this, Suliewey is fictionally told based upon oral stories and Chief Joe's experience of growing up on the land.
Imbued with the depth of oral traditions, the narrative portrays traditional ceremonies, the significance of sacred medicines, the eloquent use of Mi’kmaq language, and the profound wisdom of two-spirit perspectives. The authors say as readers delve into the story, they will be transported to the very heart of the land and will be intimately connected to the enduring relationships interwoven throughout the narrative.
Dispelling Colonial Myths About the Mi’kmaq and Beothuk
Although, some settler academics have long argued that the Beothuk are extinct, Mi’kmaq oral tradition rejects this claim. Indigenous spoken histories maintain that the Beothuk intermarried with other Indigenous nations along the mainland after being forced out of their coastal territories by settlers. Therefore, based on this perspective, Beothuk descendants live on in other Indigenous communities.
In Suliewey, the authors reinforce the Mi’kmaq position on this matter, “I guess in writing Suliewey we wanted to put some context around the breakthrough DNA studies that have been done recently by Dr. Steve Carr in Miawpukek First Nation, which shows direct genetic links between the Beothuk and contemporary Indigenous communities,” explained Sheila. The research from Dr. Carr demonstrates that Beothuk DNA is still alive, which provides context around how it's possible Beothuk DNA is present within the Miawpukek community.
Mui’n (bear) claw medicine pouch made by hand by Chief Mi’sel Joe using a fine deer hide pouch, which was gifted to him by an Elder. Chief Joe strung the pouch on woven sinew, to which he added seven bear claws separated by small pieces of qalipu (caribou) antler. The medicine pouch is shown hanging from a white maple tree. The sacred object is also a key element in Suliewey.
Sheila also argues that it’s imperative to have this information be public knowledge since it can help dispel the widely accepted colonial mercenary myth that Mi’kmaq are not Indigenous to Newfoundland and were brought over to the island by the French to kill off the Beothuk. This myth has been taught to schoolchildren in the province for decades, despite any historical evidence to prove it. “When you look at our place in this province, on this land we were the Beothuk killers, which is untrue, there's no history to validate that, only the books written by settler historians and academics—who don’t seem to want to back down from that idea,” asserted Sheila. She adds that Mi’kmaq attempting to fight against the mercenary myth has led to much “racism and discomfort in being an Indigenous person on the island.”
Furthermore, Sheila and Chief Joe specify that they have not experienced racism as a result of their books, but rather for being Indigenous. They’ve encountered “direct and unpleasant” bigotry at times as a repercussion of living in a colonized environment, which can often lend itself to structural racism—underscoring the need for much broader and continued conversations. Supported by the lived experiences of the authors, Indigenous oral history is customarily not accepted as valid information. With Suliewey, the objective is to get readers to understand and recognize the importance of oral history and why it can be more valid than a published colonial perspective.
Both My Indian and Suliewey have been written to help decolonize settler narratives and shed light on past and present prejudicial perceptions. My Indian is being taught in grade schools and studied in university classes. The publisher of the books, Breakwater Books Limited, has been working proactively to help integrate the books into classrooms and become part of social studies curriculum, which is why the books are deliberately written at the junior high school level. My Indian even comes with a free comprehensive study guide, containing multiple resources on how the book can be contextualized for students through the different themes, cultural teachings, and historical elements the book depicts.
A study guide for Suliewey is also expected to be released. Sheila says, although it's been a slow, steady process of trying to change people’s realm of thinking and offering a different context, “you do what you can do.” Both books will have an audio version available, and the authors recently learned My Indian will be translated into French, helping to further expand the universal outreach of the book.
Albeit, Suliewey hasn’t been officially released to the public yet, the two Mi’kmaw authors are already working on their third book, which they say will encapsulate a different focus and takes a departure from the life of Suliewey. Chief Joe says the third book will examine the implementation of the Indian Act, how it further failed and marginalized Indigenous people in Canada, along with John A. Macdonald’s architectural role behind it. The story will additionally delve into how colonization forcibly induced poverty on Indigenous communities, the present-day remnants of it and how Indigenous self-governance had to be demanded from government,
and still does in some instances.
Advice for Other Storytellers
In terms of advice for other storytellers, Chief Joe says being brave and your authentic self will go a long way when it comes to speaking truth to power and upholding the resilience of oral traditions. “I encourage all young people to start writing, we need a world with more writers, especially one with Indigenous people to tell stories that will otherwise never get heard,” he expressed. “It will always be the colonizer’s stories that are being told and retold repeatedly and that's the biggest mountain we have to climb—to get over the colonizer’s stories that have been told as the truth, as the only truth.”
To expand on that, Sheila said she has visions of an Indigenous storytelling circle where people can work together collaboratively, having the opportunity and space to support one another. Both Chief Joe and Sheila hope the books will inspire others to tell their own stories without any trepidation.
Suliewey will have its official book launch aboard Adventure Canada’s Newfoundland Circumnavigation expedition this October. You can find both My Indian and the soon-to-be released sequel, Suliewey, in stores and online at Breakwater Books Ltd., as well as Chapters, Indigo, and Amazon.
Chief Mi'sel Joe is the author of Muinji'j Becomes a Man and An Aboriginal Chief's Journey. Chief Joe is considered the spiritual chief of the Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland and Labrador and has been the district traditional chief of Miawpukek First Nation since 1983, appointed by the late Grand Chief Donald Marshall.
Sheila O'Neill is an author, drum carrier and member of Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. She is a founding member and past president of the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women's Network.
Taz has worked within
the broadcast journalism industry across Canada for about five years with
various news agencies, such as Global News, CTV News, and CityNews 680. Prior to that, she completed her
post-grad in Journalism at Humber College in Toronto.
She has an undergraduate degree in Law and Society with a minor
in Criminology and Contemporary Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University.
Taz is always looking to expand her experiences as a passionate adventurer,
multi-talented visual storyteller, and professional communicator.