How Gordon Pictou found his place in the world.
There’s something captivating about a person with passion. Occasionally you meet someone for the first time, engage in polite conversation then are suddenly transported to a new world because of the fire in a stranger’s soul. Some things naturally lend themselves to such intensity. Fly-fishing, nature, and the sound of male laughter always arouse my spirit. Other people may be stimulated by a discussion of politics, a recently read book or a piece of music.
What do you remember most about your years of formal education? Did the subject of math or history inherently titillate you, or was it a passionate teacher who awakened your interest? Can you remember the sparkle in the eyes and the voice of the teacher? Methinks it is passion in the soul that triggers creativity, the development of new ideas or technologies, and unites people into communities. An artist doesn’t do things by rote—paintings or novels come out of an emotion and spirit that can’t be buried. Consider the breakthroughs in science—what is it that drives a researcher to investigate the brains of a cockroach as an antidote to bacteria harmful to humans? It’s gotta be passion that sparks the research, either passion about human health or about cockroaches!
I recently met a young man of passion: Gordon Pictou, senior interpreter and program director at the Glooscap Heritage Centre and Mi’kmaq Museum in Millbrook, NS. Gordon shared with me some details of his life and his job—he wanted to gloss over the former and expound on the latter, but I kept bringing him back to telling me about his background. I wanted to understand better how a young Mi’kmaq man found his niche.
Gordon made quick reference to his teen years—rebellious, rough high school days, some of them filled with drugs and booze. Ever heard that story before? His parents expected him to have a university education so he enrolled, not in one but in four universities. He wended his way back and forth across the country seeking a place to fit. First he thought that it was in philosophy, but he felt like a pretender—he didn’t have a solid idea of a path that he could or should follow.
Then it happened! When he was encouraged to register in a two-year certificate program at the Manitoba Centre for Environmental Management, started by Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The program consisted of 18 students with professors drawn from various Native, non-Native and Elder communities throughout North America.
Rules included no booze or drugs; one offense and you were out, and your band could be obligated to pay the full shot. Gordon measured up; the group provided support and he developed confidence. By the time the program was completed he knew more about where he came from—and where he was going. He knew more about the various First Nations rituals, what they mean and how they help Native people. And he was happy in his own skin.
Gordon didn’t expound on his environmental bent but I wonder how much it played a role in his healing. The son of a friend has talked about his reaction to his parents’ divorce when he was an early teen. For three or four years he was fuelled by drugs, caught up in a cycle of partying, insomnia and fighting. One day, accompanied by his dog, he left home to explore a flooded creek. It had been some time since he had been drug-free in the midst of trees, the earth, the sounds of the birds and fast-moving water. His love for the wild world blossomed again, and he felt some of the depression lift. He had something to be passionate about.
He is now in his 30s, still passionate about and engaged in the natural world, attributing his rehabilitation entirely to Mother Nature.
Time spent in the wild is time well spent. One learns much from being in a world where things are bigger and animals are smarter than we are. One of the best lessons learned is the acceptance that humans don’t dominate all worlds—we are one small part of an interdependent system. This is something that my friend’s son and Gordon Pictou learned, thankfully at an age young enough to build their capacity and teach others.
Gordon’s passion brought him back to Nova Scotia and into the teaching profession. He spent seven years teaching in various local high schools—he particularly enjoyed teaching Mi’kmaq history in social studies—then found his current niche at the Mi’kmaq Centre. Here he exercises his creativity and demonstrates his passion. The programs he creates are designed to improve communication between Mi’kmaq and non-Native people. Many are developed specifically for teachers who attend special workshops at the centre.
The Mi’kmaq culture is brought home by some hands-on activities—drumming, talking circles, the protocol of respecting elders. The goal of the Glooscap Heritage Centre is to foster greater cross-cultural understanding among all communities in Nova Scotia. Gordon would like to see a change from the old adages —“We aren’t responsible for what our ancestors did,” and “Why can’t we all be the same and get on with it?”—to a discussion of the First Nations economic and systemic issues. First Nations people are moving forward and want to do so collaboratively with their neighbours, he says.
Gordon isn’t alone in his pursuit—he has a staff of seven to help, and his wife is also a teacher. No doubt his three boys help keep him grounded as well. We are fortunate to have Gordon and others like him return to our shores after a period of fuelling their fires elsewhere—we all benefit from their experiences and passions.