Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Albert Einstein should have learned Mi'kmaq

Published in the Chronicle Herald during October 2014's Mi'kmaq History Month:

By Jon Tattrie

If Albert Einstein had been Mi’kmaq, he might not have found space-time so hard to warp his mind around. In fact, if we all spoke Mi’kmaq, all of Einstein’s ideas would be more readily grasped.

“Einstein told us everything is in constant flux; everything is moving all the time. It’s difficult to conceptualize that your house is moving, or your carpet is moving,” says Dr Bernie Francis, a respected linguist and professor at the Cape Breton University.

While noun-based English struggles to express Einstein’s ideas, verb-based Mi’kmaq makes it clearer. Colour is a verb, for example. “We don’t say the car is red. We say the car is redding,” he explains. “We’re saying it’s in the process of being red.”

It’s not seen as a permanent condition, but a changing condition that you see at a certain point in time. It’s in constant motion. “[Mi’kmaq] sees the world as a video camera, as opposed to English, which sees the world as a still camera that takes pictures of reality frame by frame,” the Membertou man explains. “That’s the difference. Our language substantiates Einstein’s theory. In the sub-atomic world, nothing is stationary.”

Insights like these, and his deep contributions to saving the language from extinction and to improving Mi’kmaq access to justice, played a big role in the decision of his peers to give Francis the Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr. Elder Achievement Award this year.

“He’s been doing his work for a long time. It’s nice to see that he’s being recognized,” Tim Bernard says. “Bernie will be the first to tell you that’s a great part of being an elder: you never acknowledge yourself as an elder. It’s your peers and others that give you that recognition.”

“What it means to me is whenever there’s a feast, I get to eat first,” Francis says with an explosive laugh. “Elders eat first.”

He downplays his own achievements, focusing instead on the elders who helped him achieve those things. “It’s given to me by my own people, who know me,” he says. “It’s quite an honour.”

He came to study the language almost accidentally. In the 1970s, he worked for the John Howard Society helping parolees. He realized that language and cultural barriers put a lot of Mi’kmaq people behind bars. “It was at that time that I noticed that our own people were being treated like a bunch of cattle,” he says.

Francis improved the situation by spreading the word that everyone should plead not guilty, and then find legal help. He helped develop a program that assist the accused in finding justice. “Before long I was probably the most hated person in the court system,” he says with a little laugh.

He left that post in the mid-1970s and spent the next several years working with Dr. Peter Christmas, director of the Mi’kmaq Association of Cultural Studies, and Professor Doug Smith to create an orthography that allowed Mi’kmaq to be written down.

By 1980, the Smith-Francis Orthography was complete and went into active use. Much of his work was poured into The Language of This Land, Mi’kma’ki, a book he co-authored with Trudy Sable.


Today, Francis helps to develop Pjila’si Mi’kma’ki, a digital atlas and website that will document the 13,000 year history of Mi’kma’ki. It’s important cultural work, but also important legally for establishing land claims. Francis hopes it will literally and figuratively put Mi’kmaq culture back on the map.

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