Before colonization, Mi’kmaq territory included all of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. The Mi’kmaq practiced a religion based on Mother Nature, and deeply tied to the land. Mythology also played an important part in spiritual life. According to Orkin (2009), the Mi’kmaq people live in conical birch bark wigwams. The birch bark was also used to make canoes in which to travel the water ways. The Mi’kmaq was also at home on the sea, traveling in ocean going versions of their light canoes.
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Mi’kmaq in Historical Perspective
For centuries, the Mi’kmaq lived along the shore line in summer, fishing, gathering shell fish, and hunting seals and whales. In the winter, most moved inland setting up settlements in sheltered forested areas. Moose, bear, caribou, and smaller game provided food and clothing, supplemented by wild berries.
In addition, plants and herbs were used for teas and medical purposes. They respected their environment and only killed, took, or used what they needed. When the Europeans first settled in Nova Scotia, the natural resources were virtually untouched. They befriended the first French settlers, acting as guides, teaching them to live off the land and showing them how to make fish weirs and eel traps, how to ice-fish, which wild berries were safe to eat, and how to prepare them, how to cure and prevent scurvy, and more.
The Mi’kmaq began to convert to Christianity in 1610, and their way of life underwent other major changes as they abandoned many traditional customs and focused on gathering furs and hides for trade purposes. The French gave these people weapons, and both French and English passed on diseases such as small pox which killed many.
Distrustful and fearful, the English and New Englanders saw the Mi’kmaq not as allies but hostile savages, and decided that forceful subjugation and assimilation would be the best course of action. In 1749, Governor Cornwallis put a bounty on the head of every Mi’kmaq whether man, woman, or child.
The amount of the bounty was increased the following year. Although a proclamation by King George III in 1763 promised protection for the Mi’kmaq and their hunting grounds, they suffered a similar fate to that of Native Americans across the continent. Often caught between the French and English/British power struggle for North America, they were robbed off their land, persecuted, forced to live with virtually no rights, and herded on to reserves.
For decades, the federal government actively suppressed Mi’kmaq traditions. For example, in 1885, religious ceremonies were prohibited. In 1927, Canadian government legislation forbade aboriginals in Canada from forming political organizations, as well as practicing their traditional culture and language.
In the 19th century, the Mi’kmaq were confined to about 60 locations, both on and off reserve, dotted about the province. In the 1940s, the Canadians implemented a centralization policy, which mandated that they be moved against their will to just two reserves. Young Mi’kmaq children were taken away from their families and taught the white man’s ways in order to integrate them into mainstream society and rapidly lose the culture and heritage of their ancient way of life.
Mi’kmaq in Cultural Perspective
According to Harvey (2000), Mi’kmaq is the most easterly extension of Algonquian speaking people in North America. The primary historical identify in Newfoundland, as a hunting and trapping people, contrasts with that of Newfoundland’s white Europe people in shore and offshore commercial fisheries.
In this century, the decline of the fur trade, industrialization, and non native competition have reduced Mi’kmaq dependency upon the land, and they have encountered occupations like forestry, construction, mining, and even commercial fishing.
By way of historical context, it is believed that in the early sixteenth century the French appeared from nowhere (Morrison, 2002). They traded with the Mi’kmaq people and raised large crosses on prominent seashores sites. However, they departed as first as they had appeared.
With the coming of the French, epidemic illnesses overwhelmed the Mi’kmaq people to the extent that some of them began to dream of a person who could offer help via across he revealed to them. This intervention helped the Mi’kmaq to counter the illnesses that beset them. The Mi’kmaq also began to use the healing cross to affirm and extend relationships between their geographically dispersed social groups.
These Mi’kmaq placed a special value on the dream person’s gift of the cross, and their descendants remembered this religious history in the second half of the seventeenth century. Although some historians have noted these facts variously, they have not explained them. Understanding these facts in Algonquian terms is possible, however, when one focuses the Algonquian religious sociality upon them. Such a focus demonstrates the value of integrating religious studies with the interdisciplinary work of ethno history.
The Mi’kmaq and the French reasoned about the cross in distinct and yet complimentary ways. French explorers and fishermen used crosses for pragmatic, political, and religious purposes. Practically, the large coastal crosses the French erected served as navigational devices. They were used as traffic signs leading French ships through the Gulf of St. Lawrence and toward the dangerous mouth of the St. Lawrence River.
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The crosses were also more than just signs. The French consciously erected crosses as a political symbol of God given power. In this sense, the cross embodied the religious legitimacy of French civilization, and the right or even the responsibility of the French to colonize. In addition, the cross expressed for the French, the world emergence of Christian civilization and a French national certainty about their religious and political place in the developing new order.
Finally, in its most basic sense, the cross projected cosmic religious meaning operating in the world such as the divine human incarnation of Jesus Christ, a hierophant that shattered the categorical distinction between divinity and humanity, and a self sacrifice that offered salvation of an otherwise sinful world.
For the French, these overlapping and sometimes conflicting meanings of the cross made the colonization of Acadia and New France a religious history. For the sixteenth century Mi’kmaq of the Miramichi River, the cross had pragmatic, political, and religious meanings as well. As with the French, it is difficult to distinguish between the religious character of Algonquian life and its social, economic, and political expressions.
The appearance of the French set the stage for the Mi’kmaqs’ appropriation of an alien symbol that also indicates religious holism of their sociality. The French struck the Mi’kmaq as a sudden revelation of a new intentionality now expressing itself in the world. While language differences kept the French and the Mi’kmaq from communicating verbally, the economic behavior of the newcomers spoke eloquently in a non verbal manner.
The new beings were not the bearers of gift, and so were not altruistic. The French were, however, interested in nothing else but exchange. In this give and take, the religious history of the Algonquian-French encounter began, particularly because the crosses the French erected soon came to play a religious role in the Mi’kmaq life.
The French also brought disease, and there is some evidence that the Mi’kmaq understood that line of transmission. The Mi’kmaq also had their approach of reasoning about disease. Because the new illnesses were devastating and, since the Mi’kmaq had no impersonal theory to explain them, they had to be understood in other ways. For the Mi’kmaq, widespread and unprecedented illness could only be understood relationally.
Either the diseases were caused by their own ethical irresponsibility against some offended human beings, or a new and terrifying anti social intentionality had entered the Mi’kmaq world. Studies indicate that the Mi’kmaq came to link disease both with alien malevolence and with the need to revitalize their religious relations with cosmic beings, just as later Algonquians reasoned. As had always been true, dreaming showed the Mi’kmaq that another being offered protection in return for a new relationship between himself and the people.
As a sign of that solidarity, the beings offered across to express his care and to extend his powerful purposefulness. The Mi’kmaq, in turn, created new religious expressions of sociality to give witness to the new identity the relationship created. It has been recorded that the Mi’kmaq countered disease with the cross, re-centered social identity upon the cross, and used the cross to express their confidence in their relations with other Mi’kmaq people.
Monseigneur Saint-Vallier, the bishop of Quebec, wrote another account of the Mi’kmaq’s oral tradition about the cross. Saint-Vallier adds compelling details about how the cross came to reverberate symbolically throughout Mi’kmaq life. In Saint-Vallier’s text, the Mi’kmaq testified that they had received not one cross, but three.
In this version, famine beset the Maramichi Mi’kmaq, and the people resorted to ritual means to seek an explanation from the various beings of their world. As noted by Le Clercq, however, the explanation came in a dream in which a being offered assistance.
One of the oldest of them saw in a dream a young man who, in assuring him of their approaching deliverance through the virtue of the Cross, showed him three of these, of which he declared that one should serve them in public calamities, the other in deliberations and councils, and the third in voyages and perils.
Thus, in this instance the cross dominates the three most important social domains of Mi’kmaq life before and after French contact. They include disease and other threatening events, domestic affairs, and diplomatic and military relations. Although Le Clercq and Saint-Vallier differ in their descriptions of the dream gift, they agree that the cross came to suffuse Miramichi Mi’kmaq life.
The cross had totemic significance in expressing the compelling relationship that gave these Mi’kmaq their protected identity. Le Clercq and Saint-Vallier agree that the Mi’kmaq painted the cross on their bodies and clothing and used it as a form of protection.
According to Griffiths (2005), the question of religion was a less thorny problem for Mi’kmaq and settlers in Acadia than it was either in New England or in New France, where there is no doubt that religion occupied center stage, and missionary activity among the Amerindians and religious observances among the settlers were constant issues of concern for the elites in this societies.
The Mi’kmaq neither burnt nor tortured those who came among them. There were no saints, by martyrdom or through the practice of heroic virtue, among the seventeenth century settlers in the colony. The indigenous religious beliefs of the Mi’kmaq reflected the importance to them of the environment in which they lived.
Such an orientation would not have been alien to the many Franciscans who worked among them, whose lives were governed by a discipline established by a man who talked to the birds and called the moon his sister, and the sun his brother. Furthermore, the Jesuit missionaries who did work among the Mi’kmaq seem to have been more closely connected to the colonists than they were in New France and much less likely to emphasize the necessity of cultural change for their converts.
It was noted in the late nineteenth century that the Mi’kmaq divided their lands into seven sub districts (Magocsi, 1999). Presently, the Mi’kmaq people exist in a setup with a defined structure organized around district heads. The district heads are in turn answerable to a higher chief with an established office.
Despite the fact that these positions are not very active politically, any choice of heads must be done in accordance to well stipulated procedures governing the community’s operations. Typically, new appointments were made in well organized celebrations and in full view of the public.
In most cases these celebrations were planned with permission from the Grand Council which comprised the grand chief and selected district chiefs. In general, men were required to prove their abilities and earn the respect of the members in the society by displaying various acts of bravery including expertise in war and hunting.
Ability to skillfully hunt game animals, for example, automatically elevated a young man’s status to that of manhood in the society. On the other hand, women gained recognition by demonstrating prowess in medicine and child bearing activities. On the other extreme, war captives and slaves constituted the lowest social echelon (Hornborg, 2008).
Mi’kmaq in Culture and Religion
As noted by Harvey (2000), a number of traditional matters related to Mi’kmaq, were often left un-discussed and unquestioned, partly from fear created by church teachings that demonized and suppressed Mi’kmaq language, spiritual beliefs, and practices. St Croix, for example, strictly reinforced the use of English in schools. He had children strapped if they spoke Mi’kmaq and he banned its use in church, just as he ridiculed and objected to Mi’kmaq spiritual beliefs and religious rituals as superstition and hence, the devil’s work. It, therefore, seems fair to say that the Christian Church fractured Mi’kmaq ethnic identity and accelerated cultural deterioration.
All Eastern Woodland Algonquian peoples subscribed to a cycle of legend, and myth regarding tricksters and transformers which could be recounted only during the winter months, when formidable spiritual agencies were considered to be underground or asleep (McKegney, 2007).
Differences in this respect were slight. Some people decided to combine the responsibilities of swindlers as well as the transformers. The Mi’kmaq chose to award Gluscap, highly respected in their midst, with characteristics of a transformer. This of course left the potentials of the tricksters out of the equation.
To prove his worth, Gluscap made use of his incredible abilities to serve his people whenever they were in need. For example, he was faced with a tough challenge of ensuring that his people always received the resources they needed to survive.
Beliefs held by inhabitants and various myths about the community held by its people created an environment that was full of figure as well as symbols that represented what the people strongly held as true and reasonable. Ordinarily, people would go to the extent of trusting spirits to protect and guide them in daily undertakings and as a result, they approached with reverence and so much caution lest they get affected negatively by the same spirits (Feldt, 2012).
Various practices were carried out in the land for different purposes such as cleansing, healing, and anointing. Throughout the land, stories were told but only with the intention of seizing power. Among other things, the stories would enlighten people, mostly the young, on the subject of power.
They will be used to clarify issues such as the need for power and how power was generally acquired in the community. Birth was one of the avenue by which power was obtained. By being born in a family considered o be important, a child immediately acquired a respectable status in the society.
In addition, special meanings were given to certain objects. While some objects were connected with bad omen, others were associated with growth and progress. People were, therefore, forced to make carefully choices regarding the type of objects to keep as no one desired to end up with bad luck.
In some instances, any person who possessed an object deemed to bear bad omen was often looked down upon by the rest in the community. Dealing with such a person required extra caution. In some instances, children were categorized based on birth information, splitting up the society into different groups (Fuller, 2004).
Despite attempts to ignore the Mi’kmaq, the British could not help but notice that the extension of civilization had contributed to the physical declension of the native population. Throughout the process of colonization, dispossessed Mi’kmaq constituted a presence that could not be entirely avoided, and this appears to have encumbered many British with a threating sense of guilt (Reid, 1995).
In some cases, the British were able to creatively confront this sense of transgression by attributing what they perceived to be the immanent disappearance of aboriginal people’s to the Mi’kmaq themselves, or to the ultimate process of the extension of civilization of which the British were agents and not initiators. At this level the Mi’kmaq were regarded as a vestige of a community whose significance had waned in the working out of human progress.
The language employed to speak of them was laden with images of an eclipsed meaning, with words like remnant and remains pointing to their significance as lying firmly in the past.
There were times when the British were not so inclined to afford full responsibility for the demise of the native community to the Mi’kmaq themselves, but were also reluctant to attribute it to their own community, and at these moments they identified the ultimate causes of civilization and progress as though these had subjective existence apart from their imagination.
Feldt, L. (2012). Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religious Spatialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.
Fuller, D. (2004). Writing the Everyday: Women’s Textual Communities in Atlantic Canada. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s Press.
Griffiths, N. E. S. (2005). From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1755. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s Press.
Harvey, G. (2000). Indigenous Religions: A Companion. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Hornborg, A. (2008). Mi’Kmaq Landscapes: From Animism to Sacred Ecology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Magocsi, P. R. (1999). Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
McKegney, S. (2007). Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.
Morrison, K. M. (2002). The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian-French Religious Encounter. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Orkin, D. (2009). Nova Scotia: The Bradt Travel Guide. Guilford, Connecticut: Bradt Travel Guides.
Reid, J. (1995). Myth, Symbol and Colonial Encounter: British and Miʹkmaq in Acadia, 1700-1867. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.