-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

-Purification 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

Sacred Writings

-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

Cultural Impact


-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.


  1. “University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins poses July 23, 2008 in the cave outside Paisley, Ore., where excavations unearthed a coprolite,fossilized feces, that contained human DNA and was radiocarbon dated to 14,300 years ago, 1,000 years before the Clovis culture once thought to be the first people in North America.”

    © 2010 The Associated Press,

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