Joe Augustine - Elder provided community with link to its past

Sunday, March 19th, 2017 11:33pm


By Cheryl Petten Archives


When Joe Augustine was young, he and his father would walk through the woods near their home community of Red Bank First Nation, ( Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation), located near the Miramichi River in central New Brunswick.

Their regular route would take them along a path beaten down over the years by caribou. Each time they walked the path, father and son would stop and rest next to a small mound next to the trail. They'd make a fire and have some tea or a bit of something to eat, and Augustine's father would tell him of the history of the place.

In times past, his father would say, Indians would celebrate here, building a fire in the centre of the mound and dancing around it. It was those Indians, his father said, who built the mound.

Years passed. Augustine, who had left school at the age of 15 to help his father in the woods—fishing, hunting and trapping—carried on the same traditional way of life as he grew older.

He would go away to Campbellton, now and again, to find work on the log drives, then return home and resume his life on the land.

It was during one of these stays in Campbellton that he met Mary Metallic. He was 21 and she was 16. They met again five years later and were married in 1936. The couple had eight children—four girls and four boys.

Augustine was one of those people who was always busy. In his spare time he'd make all manner of baskets, and he was also a gifted musician. He played the guitar, fiddle, flute and piano, but his favorite instrument was the accordion. He spoke the Mi'kmaq language fluently, and passed the language on to his children.

Augustine was known for his kindness, for his willingness to help others and for his great sense of humor. He was also an avid reader.

In 1972, he read an article in National Geographic magazine about the discovery of an ancient burial mound in Arizona, and remembered the mound he and his father would sit by to drink their tea in his childhood.

His curiosity piqued, the next day he went to the mound, shovel in hand, and began to dig. He came home, laid newspapers out on the kitchen table, took his finds out of his nap sack and placed them on the table for his family to see.

One of the items was a bundle wrapped up in birch bark. When he unwrapped it, he found a number of ancient artifacts, including copper beads and rings and a copper arrowhead.

His daughter Madeline suggested they take the items to the university in Fredericton to show them to someone there. They showed them to a professor at St. Thomas University, Paul Morrissey, who was starting up the university's Native Studies program. He in turn contacted Dr. Chris Turnbull, who had just been hired on as provincial archeologist.

Turnbull travelled to Red Bank to see Augustine's find and was impressed and excited by what he saw.

Augustine was very interested in learning more about the history of his people, in following up on the oral histories passed on to him by his father, and wanted to investigate the mound site further.

But the decision as to whether or not to proceed was left to the community of Red Bank. After lengthy negotiations, the band gave the go ahead.

Items found during excavation of the mound showed it was the site of a burial ground that had been used for ceremonies as far back as 2,500 years ago. Not only did it provide clues about the lives of the people who used the site throughout the years, but showed that the people of Red Bank had been a presence in the area for centuries.

Augustine is also credited with the discovery of another major archeological find in the area: the Oxbow site, a village site where the Metepenagiag people had lived since ancient times. Located where the Northwest and Little Southwest Miramichi rivers meet, the sand and silt deposited by the rivers over the years had served to separate artifacts from different times throughout history, making it easier for archeologists to date and sort the items found.

The layers of artifacts extend down about eight feet, providing evidence that Red Bank is New Brunswick's oldest occupied village. If not for Augustine, all of the artifacts and everything that has been learned from them, would likely have been lost forever.

In an attempt to bring more money into the community, Red Bank First Nation had begun selling off its abundant gravel reserves, and a nearby gravel pit would have soon expanded to take in the mound site.

Once Augustine's discovery highlighted the significance of the site, all gravel pit developments in the area were halted. Both the Augustine Mound, which Augustine's initial discovery became known as, and the Oxbow site have been designated as provincial and national historic sites.

While excavation of the sites was completed in the late 1970s, researchers continue to learn from what was found using procedures and technology that didn't exist when the sites were first explored.

While the information gained from the excavations has been a boon to the archeological community, for the community of Red Bank it has provided a link between present and past.

Before the discoveries, no one in the community knew much about their heritage, and most of what was known dated back only a century or so. Thanks to what has been learned from the Augustine Mound and the Oxbow site, people of the community now know they are part of a history that dates back at least 3,000 years. They now know how their ancestors dressed, what they ate, and that their people managed to survive for millennia.

In 1994, a film crew from Beaver Creek Pictures in Toronto came to Red Bank to tell the story of Joe Augustine, his discoveries and of the community and its long, rich heritage. The result, released in the spring of 1995, was “The Village of Thirty Centuries”.

Augustine never had a chance to see the film in its entirety. In December 1994, Augustine developed double pneumonia. He recovered from the illness, but it left his heart weakened and his condition began to deteriorate.

Augustine's family told the film's producer and director, Conrad Beaubien, of their father's failing health, and he worked quickly to put together a shorter version of the film for Augustine to see. The film was rushed to Augustine, who, surrounded by family, watched the 10-minute video of himself from his hospital bed.

He was pleased with the film, and that people around the world would now have a chance to hear his story and the story of Red Bank.

After watching the video for the fourth time, he told his family he was tired, closed his eyes and went to sleep. He died the next morning, Jan. 14, 1995 at the age of 83.

Some family members believe that, once he saw that there were others that could continue what he'd begun, he was ready to go, knowing that the work he needed to do was complete.