Like other First Nations, the Mi’kmaq 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’kmaw Nation.
Due to the subsequent domination of European policies and culture, many members of Qalipu First Nation (QFN) have lost and/or never been introduced to their ancestral heritage and culture. QFN and Qalipu Cultural Foundation provides members information and experiences that will guide them in the rediscovery of their inherited Mi’kmaw customs and traditions.
Culture, Tourism, and Community Development Department (Experience Qalipu) of QFN and the Qalipu Cultural Foundation (QCF) are responsible for preserving and promoting the culture, language, and traditions of the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Our people have a long and rich history of cultural, social, political and spiritual traditions. Prior to European contact, it is thought that Mi’kmaq 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 curiosity, 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 and were essential to their survival in Ktaqmkuk [OOK-DA-HUM-GOOK] / 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.
Mi’kmaw people believe that all life is created by one all-powerful entity, the Creator. Mi’kmaw spirituality is a philosophy and a way of life that is encompassed in our beliefs, which dictate our actions in our lives on Mother Earth and life in the Spirit World.
Traditionally, Mi’kmaw spirituality is holistic. Our ancestors believe that all things — plants, animals and humans — has a spirit and everything is interdependent of each other. Our ancestors taught us to honor the gifts given each day, and before taking the life of an animal for sustenance. We continue to practice their underlying credo to honor and respect everything and everyone.
Early Mi’kmaw spirituality was intertwined in all aspects of our lives — in our language and songs, our stories and dances, how we 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 by trying to use every part of the animal so nothing is wasted.
Offerings and Prayers/Teachings
Our Mi’kmaw spirituality is holistic and integrated into all aspects of life. It is important for us to offer prayers to honor 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. It is honor, respect, wisdom and love that motivates and guides us.
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 and the next seven generations depend on us and we need to look after them.
As a newly formed band, the Qalipu First Nation Band, is working to 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 and elders.
We continue to learn from our elders, from scholars and others who have spent lifetimes piecing together information from our ancestral past so that we can foster our Mi’kmaw way of living.
The Sunrise Ceremony
Each morning we give 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). It is considered that this time of day is 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 Mother Earth. The heartbeat of life and of 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 the drum in ceremonies to bring in the spirits of ancestors.
The big drum was a gift from the women to the men a very long time ago, so that men could experience a resonant connection to the Earth Mother that naturally occurs with women.
The drum, as the central element in most ceremonies, sits in a place of honor, its drumbeats calling to the spirits and ancestors for their intangible participation in the ritual.
Each drum has its own very unique voice and vibration. Each animal from which the drum is made has its own unique medicine: its spirit is part of the drum.
The drum is a constant reminder of our responsibility towards the preservation and health of Mother Earth.
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 blades of grass 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 only one of the many 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. 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, arms, legs, and body, while others have the person smudging waft the smoke over them with a feather so their back is also smudged. Sometimes it is carried out with a smudging bowl full of sacred medicines that may include sweetgrass, sage, cedar, birch fungus and/or tobacco or just one of the medicines.
Tobacco and Tobacco Ties
Tobacco is the most important sacred medicine for our people. While it can be smoked in pipes, it is used primarily for offerings. The ancestors also smoked the dried inner bark of the red willow, which is still smoked today and used in some pipe at pipe ceremony. Unlike today’s tobacco, these earlier sources were free from chemicals and all natural.
Offering tobacco in the form of a tobacco tie is a custom that is shared by many indigenous people. Tobacco is offered for many reasons and in many different contexts.
It is appropriate when asking for assistance from an elder, knowledge keeper or person to offer tobacco. When the person accepts the tobacco, they are agreeing to help in some way. Offering tobacco is a respectful way of asking for assistance and not as a symbol of gratitude after help is provided.
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.
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.
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.