je'sn penwa

Photo: Elder Edna May Benoit, District/Traditional Chief Misel Joe and Local Chief Jasen S. Benwah

Traditional Leadership and the Saqamaw

Pjila’si (welcome). Leadership issues in the first nation community can sometimes been problematic and often controversial. Like all western politicians, sometimes our leaders can be self-serving, opportunistic, materialistic, and have hidden agendas. We cannot paint all of them with the same brush as a barrel of apples cannot be judged by one rotten apple. The problem lies without the fabric of our society. We need to look at our traditional ways and we should be raising our children based on respect, traditional knowledge and wisdom.

In the past chieftaincy was inherited. The reason for this is that the first born son was educated and trained and eventually be qualified, otherwise another relative would rise to the task. Things are different now and any man or woman can possess the qualities of a good chief. What were required by our ancestors still today are qualities we seek in a modern day leader. These characteristics include the ability to lead by example and inspire confidence, to be intelligent, insightful and knowledgeable, to be dignified, respectful and at the same time humble, be concerned for everyone’s wellbeing, to be generous and courageous, and as well as being a capable hunter.

The first Europeans to visit our lands failed to appreciate the Chief’s influence over his people. The Chief encouraged his community’s custom of sharing everything. Sharing food with nearby communities was common practice. Gifts of food and clothing were given during official visits. Mi’kmaq leaders did not tax the community in any fashion.

Young men would look up to the Chief and aspire to be as skilled. Often orphaned boys apprenticed under the chief. These youth would exchange education, food and lodging by serving the chief in various ways in times of war, hunting and respect. This helped the chief provide for the poor, elders, orphans and the disabled. In this way the chief ruled with a "great heart" (meski'k wkamlamun).

Despite his modesty, the chief was given respect and attention. When he spoke and gave opinions the people listened. His wishes were followed. When feasting the chief and elders were seated in a place on honour and feed first.

There were and are three main types of chiefs in Mi’kmaq society. These were the local chief, the district chief and the grand chief. In my particular situation I am local chief, Misel Joe is the District Chief, and the Grand Chief is Ben Sylliboy.

Historically, the local chief looked after the affairs associated with the local community and presided over the Council of Elders which governed.

The original seven Mi’kmaq districts each had a district chief. Often he would have several wives to maintain a large family and extend his sphere of influence. The district council would meet once or twice per year usually in spring and/or autumn to resolve outstanding issues relating to peace and war. All decisions in the council were by unanimous vote. Only those who had experienced the kill of a moose could vote.

In dealing with larger issues affecting the entire Mi’kmaq nation, the grand council made up of all the chiefs and their families would meet. The Grand Chief was a district chief chosen by the Grand Council.

Today, the modern chief needs not be a great hunter but still must possess desirable traits such as to be selfless and totally accountable, be honest and fair, be caring and dedicated, be humble and yet Honourable, be a people person, and be comfortable and knowledgeable.

Article compiled and submitted by Jasen S. Benwah

December 10, 2006



Copyright © 2006 Jasen Sylvester Benwah