At its time of first print in 1991, The Old Man Told Us: Excerpts from Micmac History 1500 - 1950, was just one of the few texts written specifically on the Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada, which incorporated both the colonial and Mi’kmaq “voice” side by side. The author, Ruth Holmes Whitehead is an ethnologist, historian, and research associate at the Nova Scotia Museum and has written many books on the Mi’kmaq. This text however, takes on a very different form than her other published works. Instead of penning the narrative, Whitehead arranges the historical documents and oral histories within the text, allowing them to weave their own narratives, which speak for themselves.
Whitehead’s main argument is that the Mi’kmaq have historically been homogenized as “Indians” or “Savages” and not as individual Nations with individual stories and histories. Whitehead further argues that what does exist is typically dominated by the colonial perspective. In her own words Whitehead’s stated goal of this text is to “counterbalance such works, by restoring to our collective memory – whether we are Micmac or not – a sense of the individual and specific.”
Dr. Peter Christmas, in the Forward to the text, accurately describes The Old Man Told Us as a “source book” and Whitehead in her introduction describes the book as a “historical jigsaw puzzle.” Indeed this text is very much like an anthology weaving together over five hundred years of oral histories, newspaper articles, census reports, court cases, personal letters and journal entries, to name a few of the types of sources found in The Old Man Told Us. The text also includes pictures of early images carved into rocks by the Mi’kmaq, illustrations mostly by missionaries depicting Mi’kmaq Peoples and culture, and beginning in the nineteenth century, photographs of Mi’kmaq Chiefs and other individuals.
As Whitehead was working out of Nova Scotia, an obvious bias is present in the book as much of the documentation, stories, and sources relate to Nova Scotia. However, it is clear she made an effort to include sources that highlight the Mi’kmaq in other Atlantic Provinces such as Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Given her geographic location, it would have probably been difficult to gain as much insight into the Mi’kmaq presence in the other provinces unless visiting them and speaking with the Mi’kmaq residing there. While Whitehead’s research is primarily based on primary sources and oral histories she has also included accounts recorded by the French or English as told to them by the Mi’kmaq or other individuals.
The text is divided chronologically into six parts; “In the beginning: Before 1500 A.D”.; “The sixteenth century: 1500 to 1599 A.D.”; “The seventeenth century: 1600 to 1699 A.D.”; “The eighteenth century: 1700 to 1799 A.D.”; “The nineteenth century: 1800 to 1899 A.D.”; and “The twentieth century: 1900 to 1960 A.D.” Within each section the documents are also...