-Archaeological evidence suggests humans came to North America approximately 14,000 years ago, across the Bering land bridge
-Most First Nations creation stories suggest that people have simply always been here (e.g. The Haida people’s Raven story, Iroquois people’s turtle island story
-Many First Nations people practice Christianity – a reminder of the impact of missionaries between the 16th-20th century and the residential school system.
-Many people however, are returning to the religious practices of their ancestors.
-Remember that there are over 200 First Nations in Canada, and they do not necessarily share any cultural or spiritual practices or beliefs, though many are shared.
-Animism – many believe that everything in the world is alive and has a soul, live in close connection, and harmony with each other, and return after death as a spirits.
-Everything is seen as related to everything else
-In the afterlife, spirits return to the environment
-Aspects of the natural world (weather, plants, animals) are seen as having spiritual powers
-Some outsiders see First Nations Spirituality as polytheistic (sea or sky woman, grandfather, etc)
-Others say that it is monotheistic, as there is a focus on The Creator, or Great Spirit as a supreme god.
-The goal in First Nations spirituality is to please the spirits of nature, and to live one’s life in accordance with these laws and spirits of nature.
-Totems, or the idea of mythical ancestors (plant, animal, or mythical being e.g. thunderbird) is an example of the importance of this close relationship.
-Inuit hunting practices are another good example
Milestones and Symbols
-Many aboriginal people are actively learning the spiritual practices of their ancestors.
-Art, symbols and rituals are important aspects of this re-learning
-Many practices which were once regional, are now being practiced by First Nations people across the country (e.g. the sweat lodge, the dream catcher)
-A Pan-Indian identity is being created.
The Morning Dance (Wabeno)
-Performed in spring by the Ojibwa (southern Ontario)
-Participants fast and cleanse themselves beforehand
-An elder plays a drum and leads a dance in a clearing around a selected tree
-The dance lasts from dawn to noon
-As participants pass the tree, they touch it in thanks
-A feast is served at noon to close the ritual
The Sun Dance
-Practiced by the Great Plains Nations (Sioux, Plains Cree, Blackfoot, and others)
-Important summer festival, 8-16 days in length
-Banned by the Canadian gov’t in the 19th century because it was such a powerful symbol for native people
-Circle as an important symbol
-Focus in on worshipping the sun as a giver of warmth and life
-Participants dance for long periods around a central “tree of the universe”
-While dancing, some participants pierce their chests with hooks and tie themselves to strips of leather, thereby connecting themselves to the tree and the sun
-As they dance, they lean back and pull on the piercing, often until they rip out
-They suffer personal pain in order that the community does not have to (e.g. famine, disease, war)
-Dance and pain as a means to reach an altered state of consciousness in order to connect with god.
The Potlatch Ceremony
-Performed by the nations of the Northwest Coast (Haida, Salish, and others)
-Banned by the gov’t in 1884-1951, because it was seen as wasteful and did not jive with capitalist economic ideals
-Feasting, distributing wealth, sharing songs and dancing are all important parts of the Potlatch
-A host gives a feast to celebrate an important event
-The more wealth the host gives away, the more status, s/he is given, and the more his/her clan gains in recognition.
The Sweat Lodge
-Common among Great Plains nations
-Helps renew the soul and maintain focus in life
-Cleanses both the physical and spiritual body
-A dome is constructed of saplings and animal sins – dark and airtight
-Heated stones are placed in the center and water is sprinkled on the stones
The participants sit closely together around the central stones
-The participants will be sweating profusely
-Prayers, chants, songs, sharing a sacred pipe are lead by a Shaman (healer, spiritual leader)
-The sweat lodge is a symbol of the womb; participants are seen as being reborn into the world
The Shaking Tent
-Common in the sub-arctic and great lakes areas
-A small circular tent of birch bark or animal hide is created, with no roof (open to the sky)
-This allows spirits to enter the tent
-Participants and a Shaman sit in the tent.
-The Shaman will communicate with the spirits to discuss issues such as missing objects or people, predictions, solving problems, etc.
The Vision Quest
-Rite of passage or coming-of-age ceremony
-Common to many First Nations
-Seeker is first purified through confession and sweat lodge
-Seeker then is instructed by a shaman or elder to go alone into the woods for several days
-While there, the seeker prays, fasts and endures the elements alone, while awaiting a vision.
-A vision is a guardian spirit, e.g. an animal, object or ancestor.
The Smudging Ceremony
-Sage, tobacco and sweet grass are burned in a bowl so that a fragrant smoke is created
-Participants hold the bowl in one hand, and draw the smoke over their faces and bodies and inhale the smoke
-First Nations cultures are traditionally oral – traditions, songs and prayers are passed on though storytelling.
-Beads, wampum belts, or totems often serve as reminders for storytellers.
-In the early 20th century, people began writing the stories down
-e.g. Handsome Lake, an Iroquois prophet, received the “Good Message”, when he saw four heavenly messengers from the Creator, who warned of evil behaviour and told him to enforce a strict moral code.
The Good Message, which was written down in 1912
-Seen as wise, and full of knowledge and experience
-Keepers of tradition, storytellers, spiritual guides, counsellors, teachers
-How does this compare to mainstream western culture?
-Aboriginals and Europeans have a long and complicated history together
-Over the past few years however the Canadian Gov’t has been actively seeking reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations. Updating land treaties and the creation of Nunavut are examples of this.