A Review of Daniel Paul’s “We Were Not the Savages”

After working for seven years in the United States, Daniel Paul wanted to brighten his economic prospects. He sought an opportunity to further his education back in Canada. Instead of offering help or encouragement, the Shubinacadie Indian Agent explained that manual labor is all a Mi’kmaq is good for. Undoubtedly, that Canadian Official never expected the young Mi’kmaq would eventually be inducted into the Order of Canada and Order of Nova Scotia and receive many other honors, included an Honorary Doctor of Letters and Law Degree. Despite the odds, Paul would eventually use the Indian Agent’s words and many other racist acts to build a comprehensive Indigenous history. “We Were Not the Savages” exposes a hidden chain of centuries-old racism in Mi’kma’ki.  This review will begin with a few key summaries of the book’s theoretical framework and main ideas. Next, based on an analysis of several reviews, I will address a main critique of the book. Finally, I will explore how to use historical research as a tool for social justice in order to carry on the work of this book.

In the first edition of “We Were Not the Savages,” Paul focuses on racist behaviors British and Canadians freely acknowledge. Their records, however, rarely reveal any awareness of wrongdoing. One Anglo-Canadian historian proudly relates the “accomplishment” of British volunteers, who hunted down Mi’kmaw women and children for money in Digby County. Paul asks, “How can they argue with the documents and findings of their own?” By grounding his interpretations in their words and attitudes of the oppressors themselves, he broadens his plea for justice beyond an Indigenous audience.

The book uses an alternative framework for gauging civilized behavior. Western society commonly judges civilizations on European literacy and weapons technology. Paul, by contrast, evaluates a civilization’s response to its Peoples’ needs. Prior to Mi’kmaw subjugation, he explains that “poverty among the People was virtually unknown.” At confederation, the British-Canadian government enacted their responsibility to protect Mi’kmaw lands by offering the “Agent of Indian Affairs in the province of Nova Scotia…an allowance of ten percent on all moneys collected” for selling Mi’kmaw lands. The book traces the evolution of Britain and Canada’s disastrous response to Mi’kmaw needs.

Paul questions underlying assumptions of Canadian authorities. For instance, the White Paper policy to revoke Indian status was promoted as a cure-all to Indigenous issues by white politicians. According to Paul, however, “[it] would have assured…Britain and Canada’s 254-year-old goal of extinction of First Nations.” He also draws support for his conclusions from Mi’kmaw oral history. While the government implies it received permission from the Shubinacadie Band to replace their tradition leadership with Indian Act elections, Paul states, “I don’t recall a plebiscite ever being called…neither does any other Band Member.” Paul guides his readers beyond political propaganda to unearth the harsh realities Mi’kmaq face.  

Michael Mullin, a Euro-American history professor from an Evangelical Christian college, offered a scathing review of the first edition of “We Were Not the Savages”. His critique centers on Paul’s “enthusiasm” and “polemic attacks,” which get “in the way of Historical accuracy.” Mullin, however, does not provide any definitively inaccurate statements from the book as evidence. For instance, Mullin dismisses Paul’s claim that Europeans were “held in human bondage” for its inaccuracy. Yet the impoverishing effects of Feudalism and Capitalism alone make Paul’s claim arguable. According to Claudio Katz, a professor of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires, with the rise of Capitalism, the “peasantry put an end to the [Feudal] lords’ capacity to reproduce themselves as lords; but peasant class struggle proved quite inadequate to raise the peasantry to a position of dominance.” As capitalism grew in the 16th and 17th Centuries, a vast amount of Europeans stayed in a state similar to serfdom, which Karl Marx defined as “bondage in the truest sense,” because landlords began to expropriate their labor.

Mullin discredits Paul’s “[belief that] his book is necessary since most books on Micmac-European relations have not taken the Micmac perspective.” According to Mullin, Paul did not draw enough from previous Mi’kmaw histories (all written by Europeans) “to win converts” to this belief. Maori Scholar, Linda Smith, claims that Indigenous perspectives are often dismissed as “naïve, contradictory, and illogical” by Western intellectuals, who “reinscribe their power to define the world” through delegitimizing Indigenous approaches. She reminds historians, “[cultural values and behaviors] are ‘factors’ to be built in to research explicitly…to be declared openly.” The aspects of the book, which Mullin denigrates as overly-enthusiastic, stem from Paul’s cultural experience and understanding as a Mi’kmaq. Paul’s overriding critique of British actions in Mi’kma’ki during the past few centuries is not only valuable for its factual basis. The book gives voice to a marginalized historical perspective.

“We Were Not the Savages” exemplifies how to use critical race theory to dispel myths and widen the possibility of approaching historical truth in Mi’kma’ki. To carry on this vital work, historians must make their cultural encapsulations known. They must critically examine both Indigenous and Eurocentric sources to retrieve Indigenous Peoples from historical obscurity and inconsequence. Indigenizing history is a necessary first-step towards the goals of building understanding among Europeans and improving the current circumstances of Indigenous Peoples.



Katz, Claudio. “Karl Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.” In Theory &

Society 22, no. 3 (June 1993): 363-389

Marx, Karl. Capital 3. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1894.

Mullin, Michael. “We Were Not the Savages: A Micmac Perspective on the Collision of

European and Aboriginal Civilization by Daniel N. Paul.” In American Indian Quarterly 19, no. 4 (Autumn, 1995): 588-590

Paul, Daniel. We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between

European and Native American Civilizations: New Twenty-First-Century Edition. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2000.

Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin:

University of Otago Press, 1999.


Mi’kmaw Language

Language of this land image

 The Language of This Land, Mi’kma’ki by Bernie Francis and Trudy Sable “is an exploration of Mi’kmaw world view as expressed in language, legends, song and dance.”

Language Description

The Mi’kmaw language is a verb-oriented language. Words have no gender attached to them, but there is a broad distinction between animate and inanimate. Different dialects of the Mi’kmaw language are found in Cape Breton, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec, and on the Nova Scotia mainland. It is spoken by about 7,500 people, but its use is currently in decline.

How can you support Mi’kmaw language revitalization?

Curtis Michael from Indian Brook teaches the Mi’kmaw language at the community high school. He sells Language Cards (3 volumes).

The Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Center publishes teaching materials aimed, in part, at increasing the use of the Mi’kmaw language in schools across Nova Scotia. They are currently seeking financial support for these and other projects. Find out more.

Or pass the language on in your own family. Here are some Language learning resources:

“Joe’s Canoe”– A piece by my Great Grand Aunt, Elsie Basque

“Mabel! Mabel! Come and see what Joe has brought. Look at what he has made!”

days(Frank (AKA Colonel) and Mabel Day)
What Joe had brought was a fifteen-foot canoe. And Mabel was Colonel Frank Day’s wife. We were at their summer cottage in Lake Annis.

Canoe making had been Papa’s way of earning an extra dollar during the summer months … and … I was usually there to Joe 193_2help out.

Papa strived to make the finished product as much a masterpiece as possible. He wanted something symmetrical that Joe 193_1would glide easily through the waters. Over the years, he had worked to improve his pattern until now he felt that he had reached his goal. Colonel Day’s exuberant calls to Mabel confirmed Papa’s convictions. He had finally made a perfect canoe. He would use this mold, this pattern for the rest of his life.

Papa made his canoes from cedar and ash. Cedar, a lightweight wood was used for planking, and ash made up the ribs, gunwales and seats.

Joe 1912

The only property that Papa owned was the small plot of land around our house. Before he could build a canoe, he would go tramping through the woods, looking for a cedar tree that was tall, straight and hopefully without knots. At the same time he would be keeping Joe 19__an eye out for an ash tree. That, too, haHectanooga 193_6d to be a certain size and shape. Once found, Papa would then go to the property owner and ask him to sell the cedar and ash trees. Papa was always told he could have both. Never was any money exchanged.

The cedar would be then chopped down and taken to the mill to be sawed into three-sixteenth inch planks, long, thin, lath-like strips. The ash would be brought home, stripped of its bark, sawed into the desired lengths to be shaped into what would become the ribs and gunwales of the canoe.

Papa worked with very crude tools; a shaving horse, a drawknife, a crooked knife, a hammer and a piece of railroad track rail. Sometimes a flat rock when we worked together.

The shaving horse was a homemade contraption that stood on four legs; usually made from tree parts. Two short legs in front and two longer in the rear. A piece of shaving horselog, about five feet long, half hewn, so that one side was flat was fastened to these legs. Two holes had been made through which a leather thong was drawn. A rock was tied to the end of the thong. A piece of ash would be placed on this hewn log, held into place by the leather thong and the weight of the rock. The ash would then be shaped as desired with a drawknife.

A drawknife had a ten-inch blade. Handles on both sides of the blade allowed one to shave the wood as the knife was drawn towards one self. When Papa sat at the end of the shaving horse with a drawknife, he could shape the ash as desired.


A crooked knife is used by all Mi’kmaq people, and has many diverse qualities. It is used to make baskets, (the splints, the hoops, the handles). It is used to make axe handles, hammer handles, etc. Any wood product produced by the Mi’kmaq, even canoes.

Papa made his. The blade was usually an old file, which would be placed in hot embers until it was redhot. Then it would be taken out and pounded into the shape desired. It would then be heated one more time and doused into a bucket of cold water. This to allow the blade to be tempered. The handle was made from bird’s eye maple. It would be oiled so that the eyes would show more prominently.


A hammer was the only modern, store-bought tool he used. The piece of rail found along the train tracks was most useful. The brass tacks used to hold the plank to the ribs had to be clinched on the inside of the canoe. The small piece of rail fit properly into one’s hand and it served the purpose well.

Hectanooga 193_1

By using a drawknife and crooked knife, Papa shaped the ash into ribs of various sizes. His health was such that sometimes it took several days to make the entire set. Soaking the ribs in water gave them the flexibility needed to allow him to bend them (over his knee) into the exact shape he desired. These would then be fastened to the mold or pattern, giving the canoe its skeletal shape.

Brass tacks were used to nail the planks to the ribs.

Joe 1911

When the planking was completed, the gunwales nailed into place, a mixture of varnish and plaster of Paris was brushed over the entire outside of the canoe and left to dry. The surface would then be smoothed with sandpaper.

Covering the canoe with canvas was always done on a sunny day. The canoe would be placed upside down on two sawhorses, with the loose canvas draped over the top. The heat from the sun’s rays gave the canvas more resiliency. Pliers would be used to get a firm grip on the canvas to be pulled as taut as possible and nailed to the gunwale. 

Hectanooga 193_3

After the canvas was fastened into place, the top gunwale would be attached, as would the two seats, the middle crossbar and the triangular pieces that fit exactly between the gunwales, fore and aft of the canoe.

The inside of the canoe was varnished. Inch wide pieces of ash covered the canvas seams fore and aft. The final chore would be to paint the canoe … green. Papa always chose green.

Hectanooga 193_4Joe 2013 1

Paddles were made from ash or poplar. These too would be varnished.

After all this work, the canoe and paddles sold for forty dollars. In the 1930’s, this was a large amount of money.

Colonel Day’s exuberant exclamations that day so long ago gave Papa a sense of great joy, which he talked about until the end of his days.

Joe 1939

From Wendy Rose (Hopi/Miwok)

“For every human being to feel connected, we must have the feeling of belonging. That is one of the values and benefits of a culture: it creates the feeling of belonging. If for some reason, while you were growing up, you did not develop the feeling of belonging, a search will be triggered and a restlessness will be present in your heart. You will have a hole inside you, something missing, until you find your place and your people.”