Patricia Dunnett never dreamed of Heritage Interpreter job

Posted on September 16, 2007
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Patricia Dunnett with a Black Ash basket, birch canoe model and the first porcupine quill basket she ever made.

            A crucial milestone in the life of Patricia Dunnett, Heritage Interpreter at Metepenagiag Heritage Park, was when her good friend, Diana Witheral, coaxed her into taking a porcupine quill basket course she was teaching.

            The community was promoting a renaissance of traditional arts and crafts at the time.

            “Until then,” she laughs, “I’d never thought of porcupines as anything but road kill!”

            Patricia, the grand daughter of Joe “Joe Mike” Augustine, grew up with archeologists around the community and hearing the stories and seeing examples of the Mi’kmaq arts and crafts.

            “I was always into arts and crafts, growing up,” she says. “But I had never really thought of doing native arts and crafts, especially as a career.”

            After high school, she went to the New Brunswick Community College campus in Moncton to take business courses. Patricia married started her family and decided to come home, where she took her first craft course.

            She still has the very first porcupine quill basket she made. Quillwork is still her favorite craft. She explains that there are three types of quillwork: embroidery, wrapping and plaiting, which is like weaving.

            Later René Martin from Listuguj in Restigouche, Quebec, came to Metepenagiag to teach birch bark canoe making.

            By the time Patricia heard about it, the course was full.

            “I wanted in so bad!” she says. “I went and pleaded with him to just let me watch.”

            He did and Patricia went every other day for three months. She learned how to collect and prepare birch bark, cedar, spruce roots and spruce gum.

            In the final month, one student left and she got into one of the two teams of five. The two 22-foot canoes the teams built would twice play a part in later stages of her career.

            In another craft course she learned how to make Black Ash baskets. She demonstrates how a basket maker pounds the Ash with a hammer making it split into thin laths.

            “I got a good, strong right arm doing that!” she says, laughing. Almost everything she says is said with a laugh. She is obviously thrilled with what she does and full of admiration for the people who taught her along the way.

            She got her first chance to put her knowledge and skills to work with the public with a summer job in Metepenagiag.

            Her brother Noah, then working for the Province of New Brunswick, was looking for First Nation tourism product development and NB Tourism was promoting Day Adventures.

            Patricia spent the summer giving tourists guided tours and trips in the two birch bark canoes she had helped build in Martin’s course.

            “It was all safety first!” she says. “I had taken a canoeing course from Kevin Silliker, the best canoe instructor ever, at North & South Esk High School.

            “Every canoe was escorted for safety and we could take pictures of the tourists. We had people from Belgium, Russia and Germany and all over. They found us through the NB travel guide.

            “The funny thing was I expected most of the visitors to be experienced canoeists. We didn’t get one person who had ever been in a canoe before!

            “Visitors had lots of questions and I had some for them. I learned a lot that summer! When I didn’t know the answer , I would run to a phone and call Madeline!”

            Madeline is Patricia’s aunt, Joe Mike Augustine’s daughter, and CEO of the spectacular glass and stone Metepenagiag Heritage Park facility to open in early August.

            Patricia is now a person people come to for answers about Mi’kmaq arts and crafts.

            The canoe building course experience surfaced again for the Interpretation Centre. Patricia herself built the 10-foot birch bark canoe that is part of the exhibit portraying the ancient sturgeon hunt. Again she laughs and her eyes sparkle as she says that, so far, she is the only one of the 10 graduates who has built another canoe.

            Her job now is to use cultural research about the Augustine Mound and Oxbow National Historic Sites and prepare presentations to educate, entertain and stimulate interest among visitors.

            There will be programs aimed at the general public, families, children, seniors, people from different parts of the world and academics.

            “I never dreamed it could come to this!” she says with another huge smile.

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