The spirituality of a people cannot be described on its own. It’s part of what makes up their culture—something that defi nes who they are. Spirituality is not simply worship of a higher being or holding certain ceremonies. The spirituality of a people cannot be described on its own. It’s part of what makes up their culture—something that defines who they are.
Spirituality is not simply worship of a higher being or holding certain ceremonies. The spirituality of a people is wrapped up in their language and their songs, in their stories and dances, in how they live and interact with each other, and who or what they honor.
Mi’kmaw Spiritual Beliefs
The spirituality of the Mi’kmaq is very old. It dates back thousands of years and has a deep connection to the land. Like much of Mi’kmaw culture, the beliefs and practices about spirituality are passed from one generation to the next by the stories and teachings of the Elders. The Mi’kmaq believe that a great spirit called Kisu’lk (“the Creator”) made the universe and everyone and everything in it.
They believe that all things—plants, animals, people, and Mother Earth herself—all have the Creator’s spirit in them and must be respected. And because everything on Earth is connected, no part should be exploited or abused. Each part must work in harmony with the rest. This does not mean that people cannot cut down trees, or hunt for food, but it does mean that the proper respect must be shown to the Creator for making these resources available to them in the first place.
How the Mi’kmaq Show their Spirituality
Like other cultures, the Mi’kmaq practice their spirituality through rituals (special things they do) and ceremonies (special events they hold) that acknowledge and give thanks to a higher power. They pray and give thanks on a daily basis for all creation—for fi sh, for food, for children, for Elders, for all the Creator has given them. Like Western culture, the Mi’kmaq pay respect to the dead through certain rituals and ceremonies. The Mi’kmaq believe that death is a part of the cycle of life and that the souls of the dead go to a Spirit World where they are happy. There is no concept of Hell in traditional Mi’kmaw beliefs. The spirituality of a people is wrapped up in their language and their songs, in their stories and dances, in how they live and interact with each other, and who or what they honor.
Because they believe all things are part of nature and must be respected, the Mi’kmaq give thanks when they use part of nature for their own needs. For example, when they cut down a tree, or dig up plant roots for medicine, or kill an animal for food, there are certain rituals they must follow to pay the proper respect—to give thanks for things they disturb for their own use. Some animals, like moose, give their lives so the Mi’kmaq may have food. They show respect to the moose by treating the remains with respect. The bones of the moose should never be burned or given to household pets, they should be used to make something or buried.
The Spirit World
Traditional Mi’kmaw spirituality includes the belief that there is a Spirit World as well as a physical world. The Creator teaches that people can gain knowledge and wisdom from both worlds. The Mi’kmaq believe there are spirits and people among us who can bridge these two worlds. Here are a few examples:
- Kinap: a male spirit with special powers that he uses to help the Mi’kmaq
- Puowin (male) or Puowini’skw (female): a sorcerer or witch spirit who has powers which are used against the Mi’kmaq
- Keskimsit: a person born with special power, gifts or strengths
- Nikanijijitekewimu: a person who can predict the future
- Wiklatmu’j: a spiritual being who lives in the woods. He takes the human form of a man the size of a small child
- Mi’kmuesu: a spiritual being who can take human form, and can appear and disappear at will. He can give supernatural powers to humans
- Skite’kmuj: a ghost or spirit of someone who died Skitekmujewawti—Milky Way; a path to the Spirit World
Sacred Symbols, Customs and Values
The Mi’kmaq expressed their spirituality through many symbols, customs and traditions. The following examples are just some of these ways:
It is one of the Creator’s teachings that important knowledge can be learned from dreams. All dreams need to be looked at to fi nd those which contain a message from the Spirit World. While the skill to interpret dreams is disappearing from today’s world, there are still some Elders who are able to carry out this practice.
For centuries, Native people have believed that the drum and the human heart share a similar purpose. This purpose is to provide life through its beat. This connection promotes a oneness between humanity and nature. It reinforces the unique relationship between humans and nature and it promotes love and respect for all living things. It is the belief of the Mi’kmaq that the drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
The Eagle Feather
The eagle is the only creature that is said to have touched the face of the Great Spirit. Because of this, the eagle is highly respected and honored. It represents the way through which Native people can feel the Great Spirit’s presence among them. Those who own or carry a feather or
claw of an eagle are also highly respected. The eagle feather is also very important in any talking or healing circle. It is used as a powerful symbol in many cultural activities and ceremonies. To be presented with an eagle feather is the highest honor a Mi’kmaw can receive. Such an honor is only given to someone who has contributed unselfi shly to the betterment of his or her community.
Respect for Elders
In Mi’kmaw culture, all things must learn their place in the world through interaction with it, and through guidance from the Elders. Elders are people who are recognized by the community to have attained knowledge and wisdom through age and experience. Elders are the keepers of the sacred lessons of tribal and global harmony for all living things within the environment.
The Creator gave the Mi’kmaq their language to help them share knowledge and to survive. For this reason, they see their language as holy. The sacred knowledge within the Mi’kmaw language provides wisdom and understanding. It focuses on the processes of gaining knowledge, on the action or verbs, and not on the nouns or collecting material goods.
Death and Mourning
The Mi’kmaq believe that a dying person should not be alone. All family members are encouraged to be with the dying person during their final hours. A candle is lit in the room to signify the light which was given at birth, and to help the person fi nd the path to the Spirit World. Each family member must seek peace with the dying person so he or she can go to the Spirit World completely at peace. When the time of death is close, the Elders will tell everyone not to cry until the person has passed to the Spirit World. They believe that the person will have an easier passage if tears are not shed. After the person has died, everyone is encouraged to cry freely, because once the tears are gone, people will have an easier time coping with the death.
The sacred pipe is often called the “peace pipe.” Often used during sweat lodge ceremonies, the pipe is broken into two pieces, symbolizing a man and a woman. When the pieces of the pipe are joined—to symbolize unity—it becomes a sacred part of the ceremony.
Common to most northen Native peoples, the sweat lodge is a place of spiritual communication and cleansing. The lodge is made of young willow saplings placed in a pattern, with the door always facing toward the east. The sweat lodge has room for four to 12 people. They sit in a circle around a central dugout where preheated rocks create heat and steam for the ceremony. The ceremony is very humbling. It is a time for refl ection and prayer. It teaches respect, patience, endurance and free speech.
Sweet grass is a sacred herb associated with love. A sweet-grass ceremony (Pekitne’mank) is a cleansing and purifi cation process. Also referred to as “smudging,” the ceremony is often used to open prayer circles, gatherings and higher ceremonies. When sweet grass is burned, participants fan the smoke over themselves and the areas around them. The smoke gets rid of evil spirits and invites positive energies to enter. Some believe that burning sweet grass carries the prayers to the Great Spirit in its smoke.
Sage is also a sacred herb used in smudging ceremonies. It drives out the bad spirits and feelings, and cleanses the area for prayer.
The talking circle is a gathering of people sitting in a circle. The leader of the talking circle holds a sacred symbol such as an eagle feather, a pipe, or sweet grass to symbolize his or her leadership. As long as the speaker is holding the symbol, he/she has the sole right to speak to the members
of the circle on any subject. When the leader is finished speaking, the sacred symbol is passed to the next person who then can speak directly to the members of the circle. The circle is a form of societal healing or cleansing. Participants are able to speak openly on matters that otherwise would be private. The talking circle is completely confi dential and all participants honor its sacred nature.
The Mi’kmaq lived their spirituality. Mi’kmaw spiritual teachings were passed on orally from generation to generation. Early settlers thought the Mi’kmaq were believers of superstition; they did not understand that the Mi’kmaq were a people of great spirituality and faith. This is why the early settlers tried to convert the Mi’kmaq to more “organized” religious practices. They gave very little credit to the respectful, humble and very complex spirituality of
The Introduction of Christianity The Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia had the first known contact with European explorers in 1497 when John Cabot arrived. Soon after, fi shing ships from Europe were a regular sight in Mi’kma’ki. Organized fur trade began in the 1500s. Settlers and Christian missionaries moved here during the 1600s and 1700s. The Europeans did not understand the ways of the Mi’kmaq and they were inaccurately portrayed as barbarians and savages. For example, the Mi’kmaw belief that animals and trees had a spirit was seen as a sin to Roman Catholics. The Mi’kmaw concept that the land was shared by all and owned by none, was seen as backward to the Europeans.
Bowing to the pressure of the missionaries, the Mi’kmaq began to convert to Christianity. On June 24, 1610 at Port Royal, Grand Chief Membertou was the fi rst Mi’kmaw to be baptized a Roman Catholic. Mi’kmaq began to follow the Grand Chief’s example, adopting many of the practices of Catholicism. In the absence of the Missionary Priests, many Mi’kmaw people, especially members of the Grand Council, assumed the role of teachers as well as religious and prayer leaders. While the Mi’kmaq accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church, they did not give up their own beliefs.
In fact, they found that many of the Catholic teachings went well with their traditional teachings. They also continued to practice their own Mi’kmaw spirituality. Unfortunately when the Shubenacadie Residential School opened in 1930, Mi’kmaw youth were forced to give up both the Mi’kmaw language and spiritual beliefs in favour of the Catholic religion. Convinced by religious leaders that Mi’kmaw spirituality was evil, more and more Mi’kmaq gradually converted to Catholicism.
In 1628, St. Anne, who had the respected status of grandmother, was adopted as the Patron Saint of the Mi’kmaw people. She is honored each year on the feast of St. Anne on July 26, which is celebrated in Mi’kmaw communities throughout the region. The largest celebration is the St. Anne Mission held in Chapel Island. Many Mi’kmaq retreat to this small island in Cape Breton for several days to honor St. Anne through prayer feasting, and celebration. As well, many Mi’kmaw communities work hard all year to raise funds to support seniors’ retreats to St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec.
Throughout history, there have been many challenges and much confusion about Mi’kmaw spirituality. Today it is estimated that 90 percent of Mi’kmaq are Roman Catholic. Most communities have their own Catholic churches. However during the past few decades, the Mi’kmaq have also been showing increasing respect for their traditional beliefs and practices. Today Mi’kmaq are finding their own balance between organized religion and traditional ways to guide their lives.
Bernie Francis reads the supplement to Apli'kmuj, a student handbook - In Mi'kmaq.
Bernie Francis Reads the Passion of Christ - Recorded in 1982. In Mi'kmaq.
John M. Stevens talks about the Little People - Wiklatamuj. In Mi'kmaq.
Eleanor Johnson interviews Mrs. Jeanette Denny of Eskasoni - Recorded November 11, 1986. In Mi'kmaq.
Patrick Johnson interviews Thomas Stevens regarding Mi'kmaq cures - No date available. In English.
Don Dublois interviews Chief Ben Christmas - Recorded September 26, 1961 at Membertou, Nova Scotia. In Mi'kmaq.
C.W. Francis sings hymns - Recorded in Truro, Nova Scotia 1974. In Mi'kmaq