Like other First Nations, the Mi’kmaq people have a long and rich history that includes unique cultural, social, political and spiritual traditions. However, with centuries old European contact and the subsequent domination of European policies and culture, many of these traditions have been eroded and lost.
In Newfoundland and Labrador this has been most acutely felt by the Mi’kmaq. Exclusion from recognition as status Indians through the province’s Terms of Union with Canada in 1949 and the perpetuation of myths in history books and popular culture have served to obscure the very real culture and traditions of the Mi’kmaq Nation.
Many of the new members of the Qalipu Band will have grown up in a vacuum of information and knowledge of their heritage. Qalipu is reaching out to these individuals and providing them with information and experiences that will assist them in the discovery process.
The Culture and Heritage division is responsible for preserving and promoting the culture, language, and traditions of the Mi’kmaq people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It will identify Band members who have a commitment to preserving and promoting culture and heritage and designate cultural ambassadors. It is also responsible for ensuring cultural documentation and promoting the involvement of youth and Elders in cultural activities within the Band.
Our people have a long and rich history of cultural, social, political and spiritual traditions. However, after centuries of European contact and the subsequent domination of European policies and culture, many of our Mi’kmaw traditions have been eroded, if not completely lost.
Prior to European contact, it is thought that Mi’kmaq people were great travelers, hunters and traders. Exposure to other native groups and then with the Europeans was extensive. While the adoption of new materials and ways may have obscured what might be considered purely Mi’kmaq, it is also indicative of other relevant Mi’kmaq characteristics, namely curiousity, innovation, a willingness to adapt and the determination to survive.
Today, we are committed, not only, to the preservation of any traditional ways that remain available to us, but also to re-educating ourselves and learning about ways that we have lost, such as our language, Mi’kmaw craft, sacred rites, and spiritual practices. We are also enthusiastically embracing the challenges in developing yet new rituals and ceremonies that will reflect more honestly, our contemporary membership, and our own spiritual and cultural ways.
About The Caribou/Qalipu
The caribou were a staple of the Mi’kmaq people and were essential to their survival in Newfoundland. They were used for food, tools, clothing, wigwam covering and floor blankets, caribou-skin canoes, moccasins, snowshoes, caribou-hide packsacks. Mi’kmaq used looms to make caribou hair wool, which was used in straps for the packsacks. So the Mi’kmaq used the caribou for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation.
The caribou were always available for the use of the Mi’kmaq, who knew their migratory paths and followed the caribou through the seasons. Using a name that is linked to wandering and migration makes sense for a landless band, because the native people lived a lifestyle similar to the caribou. They were not tied down to surveyed and fenced-in land, and they travelled the length and breadth of Newfoundland in their wanderings.
The caribou, even in early times, were considered noble and dignified. Their uses are woven into the lifestyle and history of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq.
Traditionally, Mi’kmaw spirituality was holistic. Our Ancestors believed that all living things—plants, animals and humans—had a spirit and everything was interdependent on each other. Central to this belief, was the sun, which they understood to be the Creator (or God) and the giver of all—life, food and shelter, and the caribou. In the past, the Mi’kmaq called their spiritual leaders ‘puoin’ who used medicinal plants and guardian spirits in their role as healers of the sick. Our ancestors taught us to honour the gifts given each day and before taking the life of an animal for sustenance. We continue to practice their underlying credo to honour and respect everything and everyone.
Early Mi’kmaw spirituality was intertwined in all aspects of their lives—in their language and songs, their stories and dances, how they lived and interacted with each other.
Because of our belief that all things are part of nature and require respect, we Mi’kmaq give thanks when using an aspect of nature for our own needs. If a tree is cut down, or a plant uprooted, or an animal killed for food, a corresponding ritual is followed as a means of paying the proper respect. Animals, such as the moose, give their lives so we Mi’kmaq may have food. We show respect to the moose by treating the remains with respect, never burning or giving them to household pets. These remains must be used to make something or buried.
As residents of the eastern seaboard, we Mi’kmaq are also members of the five Wabanaki nations who are called People of the Dawn Land or People of the Rising Sun. The four other member nations are the Maliseet [Malecite], Passamaquody, Penobscot and Abenaki. All these nations revere the rising sun.
We recognize the sun as the giver of all things needed for our survival— for the light and heat of the sun itself; for the fish and the animals that we use, including all parts of the caribou; for the plants and the animals we eat and that we use for medicines; for the trees we strip of bark for shelter, and burn for cooking and warmth. The sun, symbol of the Creator, is central to Mi’kmaw life and therefore plays a major role in Mi’kmaw worship. Our Ancestors worshipped the sun for itself and for all the benefits and beauty it provides. We recognize the Sun’s importance and understand that it is the daily duty of each Mi’kmaq person to give gratitude to the power that generates all beings.
Offerings and Prayers/Teachings
The heart of our belief system is the sun (the Creator) that has given us all things. It is honour, respect, wisdom and love that motivate and guide us.
Our Mi’kmaw religion remains holistic and integrated into all aspects of life. It is important, then, for us to offer prayers to honour the sun, the Creator, the plants and creatures, the spirit world, our ancestors, our elders, our community and each other. These prayers reflect our deep respect for all these beings.
Now in the 21st century, we need to take stock and remind ourselves of our responsibility for current and pressing events and situations such as the environment, both locally and globally. Our children depend on us and we need to look after them. To become wise mentors to the next generations, we must also look after ourselves.
As a newly formed band, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band, is working to create teachings and new ceremonial ways that integrate the core values of our ancestral Mi’kmaw spirituality into our modern world. We wish to maintain the integrity of the teachings of our Ancestors while making it relevant to our lives today.
We continue to learn from our Elders, from scholars and others who have spent lifetimes piecing together information from our ancestral past, and from the ways of other Aboriginal groups so that we can develop, better, our own ways of teaching.
The Sunrise Ceremony
The sun is the Creator. Each morning the ancient Mi’kmaq gave thanks to the rising sun for the beginning of each day (and again each evening to the setting sun for the bounty given that day). They considered this time of day as perfect for communicating with the Creator, the spirit world, and the ancestors. Today we try to preserve this practice at sunrise on special occasions through a series of prayers, chants, drumming and smudging. We give thanks to all aspects of life our spirits, our minds, our bodies and to the world in which we live. We take the opportunity to remind ourselves to always to respect each other and to protect the environment.
Ornamentation/decoration were thought to bring spiritual protection, status and power to the wearer. Women ground minerals, shells, and charcoal, mixing each with fish roe or egg yolk to make paint in traditional colours: red, white, black, and yellow. Pictures of animals, birds, people, spirit-helpers, and geometric patterns were painted onto robes and pouches. Porcupine quills, shells, bone, and feathers might also be added. On special occasions, faces and hair, and often legs, arms, and chests, were painted. Everyone painted their own designs. Men sometimes wore headdresses of bird wings or stiff moose hair dyed red. Decorated knife sheaths, pouches, and pipes completed the ceremonial dress. With the introduction of trade goods, clothing items and paraphernalia were decorated with beaded designs.
Today we enjoy the availability of many types of cloth, ribbons, feathers, beads and other decorative items to create regalia for special events such as Powwows and Aboriginal Day.
Symbols of our Ancestors included the Eight Pointed Star (sun), Rainbow Fans representing the Northern Lights and double curved motifs.
The drum is the heartbeat of the Creator, the heartbeat of life and our people, we live the first nine months of our life in the womb of our mother listening to her heartbeat which sets the pattern of our existence; we play these drum in ceremonies to bring in the spirit of the Creator. The drumstick used to beat the drum is sometimes referred to as the arm of the Creator who is breathing life into the ceremonies. The drum, as the central element in all ceremonies, sits in a place of honour, its drumbeats calling to the spirits and ancestors for their intangible participation in the ritual.
Variations in the tone of the drum are created through the strength of the strike with the drum beater against the head or where on the drum it is struck. Tone and volume can be controlled by alternating the striking point from near the drum’s centre to closer to the edge, by placing a hand on the skin to completely stop the resonance between beats or by lightly touching the hide, to create various and subtle changes.
The soft drum stick delivers a softer and lower thud while a hard beater yields a higher and more ringing tone with greater resonance.
Sweetgrass and Smudging
Sweetgrass has been used for centuries by the Mi’kmaq. It is a sacred plant of our People, and used in our peace and healing rituals.
The leaves are dried and often made into braids (each strand represents a living thing). At the beginning of each ceremony, the sacred smoke from a smoldering braid is used to purify and protect our People from any negative energies (smudging). The smoke is also believed to travel between this world and the spirit world, carrying our prayers to the Creator and our thoughts and wishes to our People who have gone before us. Sweetgrass is one of the medicines that may be used in a smudging ceremony
Smudging is the act of wafting sacred smoke over oneself for purification. Everyone is welcome to participate in our ceremonies and are invited to join the circle. Smudging is the first part of our sacred ceremony but it is entirely voluntary. If you choose not to be smudged, politely say “nugumah” to the elder when you are approached. Smudging is a very personal act and most people develop their own way of doing it. Some bring the sacred smoke towards their own head, throat, arms, trunk and legs, others have the elder waft the smoke over them with a feather so their back is also smudged. Most of our smudging is done with a smoldering braid of sweetgrass. Sometimes it is carried out with a smudging bowl full of sacred fragrant herbs that may include sweetgrass, sage, cedar, birch fungus and/or tobacco.
Tobacco and Tobacco Ties
Tobacco is the most important sacred medicine for our People and is often carried in a small sacred bundle called a tie. Tobacco was used for cleansing or purification, and continues to serve the same purposes. While it can be smoked in pipes, it is used primarily for offerings. Early Mi’kmaw pipes were said to be made from twisted strips of birch bark which, once used, could be thrown away. The ancestors also smoked indigenous dried plant material such as “kinnikanik” the dried inner bark of the red willow or dried roots of the Michelmas daisy. Unlike today’s tobacco, these earlier sources were free from chemicals.
How to make a tobacco tie. Use a square of red 100% cotton with tying strips from the same material—cotton is preferred as it is natural and will break down easily; red is symbolic of the blood that runs through our veins. Place the cloth so that its corners face the four directions. Say a prayer to each of the four directions Place tobacco in the center of the material. First lift the corner that faces east. Continue to lift each of the other corners. Gather and tie with the material strip.
The Mi’kmaq called themselves L’nu’k, which means ‘the people.’
The word Mi’kmaq comes from a word from the Mi’kmaq language, nikmaq, meaning ‘my kin-friends’ or ‘allies.’
Our chosen band name is Qalipu (pronounced hal-lay-boo) which means ‘caribou’.
The Mi’kmaw language stems from the Algonquian linguistic family and is related to other Algonquian languages such as Cree, Delaware, and Ojibway. It is a non-gender-specific, verb-oriented language. The structure of the language does not revolve around the object, as in English, but rather, centres on the action being discussed.
With the exception of early glyphs, the Mi’kmaw language is an oral tradition—a spoken language that remains so today.
There are eleven consonants in Micmac: p. t, k, q, j, s, l, m, n, w, and y and six vowels: a, e, i, o, and u, along with their corresponding long sounds, and schwa, denoted by a barred i.
We are continuing to learn our language with the help of elders from here and in Nova Scotia.
Talking Circle. When we need to resolve conflicts and issues, we turn to the talking circle. The circle—the earthly representation of the sun’s clockwise journey through the sky—ensures that we sit as equals, each person speaking in turn until an issue is resolved. Concensus is very important and decisions are not made until everyone has had a say. We strongly believe in this democratic method.
Healing Circle. The healing circle is a talking circle with the intention of specifically addressing or healing an individual or individuals. Often lead by an elder or spiritual leader, the healing circle is more formal than the talking circle. As many individuals attempt to cope with a life imposed by others, healing circles have become an essential aspect of our culture.
Myths and stories were used in the past to teach children about their world—about Mi’kmaw life, history, customs, and manners. They continue to be a means of communication, instruction and entertainment.
Native Plants With Medicinal Properties
The Mi’kmaq had their own powers of healing by using plants that have medicinal properties. Some are still used today.
Alder Bush is used to treat anemia, induce vomiting, for internal bleeding, urinary problems, sprains, bruises, backaches, itches, flux, and to cure hemorrhoids. Teas are made to cure diarrhea and toothaches, and bark mixtures are applied topically for rashes, sore eyes, and swelling.
Balsam fir: This is a very important medicinal tree. The tree is rich in Vitamin C and is used as a preventative medicine against colds and influenza. Balsam sap has healing and antiseptic qualities when applied to cuts and sores. Boiling the bark and roots creates a red dye.
Bunchberry is bland tasting but can be used in sauces and puddings. Mild teas from the roots are used to treat colic in infants. It was also used to treat kidney ailments and was effective in treating certain stomach problems. The leaves were chewed and softened before being applied to wounds.
Cedar: The Mi’kmaq may have had several medicinal uses for cedar, such as making a poultice to treat swollen hands and feet. The purifying nature is likely to be evident to anyone who uses it.
Coltsfoot grows along roadsides, and on waste and stony ground. It blooms in early spring, before dandelions. Dried leaves are used as a remedy against coughs and colds.
Labrador Tea grows in the acidic margins of bogs and black spruce forests. The leaves are sometimes used to make a tea. Labrador Tea spreads through soil to pull in nutrients. The tea is a tonic and was used to treat a variety of kidney ailments.
Yarrow: As a warm tea of this plant induces perspiration, it was used to treat fevers and colds. Yarrow stalks were pounded into a pulp that was was considered a good treatment when applied to bruises, sprains and swellings.
Yellow Birch. The inner bark is known to be nourishing and is chewed (or drank as a tea) to gain a bit of extra energy. It is also used to relieve indigestion and stomach cramps. The Mi’kmaq also used the bark to treat rheumatism.
Fireweed contains large quantities of tannin, and teas from the root or leaf are used to treat diarrhea, mouth sores, hemorrhoids, skin lesions and sores. It is a means of measuring the season: the lower the buds on the spike, the nearer the summer’s end!
Partridgeberry: This plant is known as “squaw vine” because it was taken during the late stages of pregnancy to ease the strain of childbirth.