TENASS, JOHN P., Micmac (Mi’kmaw) chief; b. 12 Sept. 1849 near Richibucto, N.B., son of Peter Tenass and Mary Glinn (Green) of the Richibucto tribe; m. first 1869 Ann Ward (d. 20 Feb. 1915) of the Red Bank band, and they had at least three sons and four daughters; m. secondly 1915 Christine Jones, widow of Lemuel Peter-Paul; d. 24 Dec. 1928 at Red Bank, N.B.
The parents of John P. Tenass were living in the Richibucto area at the time of his birth but they were in Northumberland County in 1855, when their son Francis was baptized. In the census of 1871 John’s father, along with his second wife and the younger children of his first marriage, were enumerated in Burnt Church. In 1881 they were at the Eel Ground Indian Reserve on the Northwest Miramichi River, east of Red Bank. Meanwhile, John had married and settled at Red Bank, a place that has been occupied by aboriginals for some 2,500 years.
The Red Bank band was a recognized entity from at least the 1760s, when land in the vicinity of the band’s encampments was granted to British immigrants. Hardships befell the native population as a consequence of colonization, but a large reserve was erected at Red Bank and for many years the residents had a significant measure of control over their own affairs. In 1836, however, a rogue named Barnaby Julian became chief. By squandering the band’s resources and defying provincial officials, he succeeded in making Red Bank a pariah. In the mid 1840s the officials ceased dealing with him or other representatives and chose instead to regard the residents of Red Bank and Eel Ground as members of a single tribe under the chief of Eel Ground. After confederation the Eel Ground Indians were recognized as a band by the government of Canada but requests from Red Bank for similar recognition were rebuffed for nearly 30 years. During this period disputes arose concerning the once reserved lands on which non-Indians had been living under spurious leases issued by Julian. When the government arranged to sell these lands in the early 1890s without the approval of the band, they raised a clamour that could not be ignored. After much squabbling, the Department of Indian Affairs conceded in 1896 that the Red Bank Indians constituted a distinct band and were entitled to elect their own chief. The victor in the first contest, on 24 Aug. 1896, was John P. Tenass. Dedicated to moving forward rather than brooding over the past, he received all but two of the votes cast.
Unlike several of the elected chiefs at Eel Ground, who had become entangled in internecine disputes [see Thomas Barnaby*], Tenass established harmonious relations with almost everyone with whom he was associated, on and off his reserve. His concerns were practical, revolving around timber rights, the acquisition of farm implements, and the establishment of a day school. He first requested a school in 1897, but the district Indian superintendent, William Doherty Carter, opposed the idea on the grounds that there were only a dozen children of school age at Red Bank. When a second election was held, in June 1902, while Tenass was away on a “surveying expedition,” he won again. Except for a few years following the election of 1905, which he lost by one vote, he served as chief until 1920; he was then succeeded by his son Mitchell. His dream of establishing a school was realized partially in 1914, when classes were begun, and fully in 1917, when a one-room school was erected.
An important cultural figure at Red Bank, Tenass was concerned that traditional wisdom and craftsmanship be handed down to succeeding generations. When the young American anthropologist Wilson Dallam Wallis began his study of Micmac culture in 1911, he used him as an informant, and his name appears in connection with several of the folk tales and traditions recorded in The Micmac Indians of eastern Canada. Tenass died in Red Bank in 1928 and was buried there in the cemetery of St Thomas Roman Catholic Church.
Tenass’s daughter Mary Jane and her husband, John Augustine, were the parents of Joseph Michael Augustine, who in the 1970s called the attention of the archaeological community to the significance of the ancient sites at Red Bank. His initiative led to his being granted New Brunswick’s distinguished Award for Heritage, and the designation of both the Oxbow site and the Augustine burial mound as national historic sites.
The principal facts contained in this sketch are reported and documented in the author’s book The Julian tribe (Fredericton, 1984). P. [M.] Allen, Metepenagiag, New Brunswick’s oldest village ([rev. ed.], Fredericton, 1994) was also consulted. John P. Tenass, W. D. Wallis’s main host and guide at Red Bank, appears as an informant in W. D. Wallis and Ruth Sawtell Wallis, The Micmac Indians of eastern Canada (Minneapolis, Minn., 1955), 408–9, 475, 479.