Origins

-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

Beliefs

-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

Elders:

-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.

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Ray
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Um, archaeology does not suggest people first came to the America’s 35000 years ago. Try closer to 14,000 BP.

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