Gesgapegiag is an L’nu – Mi’gmaq community that is located in Gespe’gewa’gi (The Last Land), also known as the seventh district of Mi’gma’gi. Gespe’gewa’gi has been the traditional unceded lands and waters of the L’nu – Mi’gmaq Nation since time immemorial. Today, these traditional lands are now located within the Gaspé Peninsula, parts of mainland Québec and Maine, and northeastern New Brunswick. There are three L’nu – Mi’gmaq communities within Gespe’gewa’gi: Gespeg, Gesgapegiag and Listuguj. Currently, the total population of Gesgapegiag members is 1,542, with 712 of these living in the community and 830 who live outside the community.
According to our Elder, Pn’nal, many years ago, there lived a group of Mi’gmaq along the shores of the Bay of Chaleur, in the region of the seventh district of the Mi’gmaq Nation.
The Mi’gmaq were known as Gesgapegiawag, or “the wandering people,” a name which they gained after many years of nomadic life spent searching for land, as was foretold by the elders. Eventually, they came upon what would be their land, which had been a vision within a child’s dream. It was there that they established a community on the estuary of the Gesgapegiag River, where the river widens and turns to salt. Their leader, Wagatasg, chose this area for its richness and beauty. It is a place which the Spirit has set aside for its children.
To the east, the land of the eagle and the rising sun, there are the medicines of sweet grass, muskrat root, tobacco, and teas from various plants. There is also many creatures, such as shellfish, whales, and seals.
To the south, the land of the turtle and mid-day, there is the warm salty bay, which the Mi’gmaq have used for preserving foods for the winter months. The salt from the bay was also used as an antibiotic medicine. The south is the direction from where the salmon, bass, eel and other water species come. During the latter part of summer, other species can be seen, such as otters, geese, mallards, and the turtle.
To the west, the land of thunder and of the setting sun, there is much to be had. The swampland provides us with medicine plants, food and shelter. These healing plants include sweet-grass, cranberry, and alder. Some of the the food that the west provides are potatoes, corn, wheat, and other grains, as well as deer, elk and porcupine, which can also be used for clothing and crafts. Cedar, spruce, juniper and poplar were also abundant.
To the north, land of the bear, the Mi’gmaq had access to fur-bearing animals like caribou, beavers, and moose.
The Gesgapegiag River was the main regional provider for transportation, fishing and harvesting, for this is the place where maple trees provided maple sugar within the spring, where black ash gave materials needed for baskets and snowshoe frames, and where birch offered bark that could be used for canoes, dwellings and household items such as cookware. Birch wood strips were also used for building toboggans. Along the shores of the Gesgapegiag River, the Mi’gmaq harvested foods such as fiddleheads, mint, hazelnuts and bush cranberries. Considering the northerly location, the climate is exceptionally mild during the year. This is due to the influence of the bay’s warm southern breeze and the northern mountain range.
Wagatasg was a brave and wise Mi’gmaq leader of Gesgapegiag. Long before he was born, it had been prophesized by the elders that the day would come when a child would be born amongst the Mi’gmaq to teach and lead them.
It was said that there would be a sign on the day of the child’s birth: Mother Earth would close her eyes at noon and darkness would come over her for a brief period, as if it were night-time.
One mid-summer day within the seventh month, the wisdom of the elders was revealed. First, at mid-day, came a heavy silence, as if all life had lost its voice. When the Mi’gmaq looked up to the sky they could see Grandmother Moon move toward the front of Grandfather Sun and cast her shadow over Mother Earth.
Witnessing the event, the elders of the community summoned the warriors and ordered them to build a sacred fire that was fitting for The Great Spirit. The elders of great vision offered medicines to the fire. Once the offering was complete, the elders told the Mi’gmaq that the day had come. Today, in the seventh wigwam they would witness the prophecy come true.
High upon the tall pine tree, as if in harmony, the raven spoke and a great eagle circling high above added his voice. At this time, the Mi’gmaq heard the wail of a newborn child. As soon as it had begun, Grandmother Moon moved off to the west, allowing Grandfather Sun to again bless Mother Earth with his golden light. The Mi’gmaq rejoiced and feasted for seven days. Truly, the event that the elders had spoken of so long ago had come, just as they had predicted.
The seasons came and went and Wagatasg and the Mi’gmaq of Gesgapegiag enjoyed the bounty that Mother Earth provided for them. So, it went on for seven times in eleven years, but the Mi’gmaq knew that soon their brave warrior, Wagatasg, would leave on a great journey.
After the harvest, the Mi’gmaq prepared for the coming harsh months of winter. Wagatasg would sit by the fire and share stories, songs, laughter and joy. One evening, as they sat around the fire, the people sensed that something was not right with Wagatasg, he was quiet and his mind was drawn to the sky. Wagatasg stood up and summoned his people to the fire. He had mixed feelings about the message he was about to deliver to the Mi’gmaq. With his soft, trembling voice, he informed his beloved people that according to the prophecy, his time had come to go on to the great journey of the spirit world. Upon hearing this, the Mi’gmaq remembered what the elders had told years ago: they must prepare for the long journey. It was told that on the seventh day of the eleventh month, their leader and the Mi’gmaq must travel north to the mountain and wait for a sign. This was to be a call from someone from the Skite’krnuju-awti (Spirits’ Road or Milky Way). As they approached the summit, they saw a great glare of light high in the sky. It flickered and danced, and radiated toward them. The Mi’gmaq gathered close and made a circle around Wagatasg to help him with the journey.
Suddenly, a flash of light sliced through the night sky blinding everyone around Wagatasg. When their eyes recovered from the blinding flash, they realized that Wagatasg was no longer among them. He had gone to join the spirit of the night sky, where he resides among the spirits we now know as the Wagatasg (Northern Lights).
Today, north of Gesgapegiag, there is a mountain known as Besge’ameneg, meaning, ‘a cut-off’ or ‘a short way.’ If you look out your window toward the north, on the seventh day of the eleventh month, you will witness the dance of Wagatasg, one of the spirits of the sky, for Wagatasg is still watching over his people.
– Pn’nal Jerome