© Lunenburg County Historical Society 2012
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Fort Point Mi’kmaq Village
By Ellen Hunt/Daniel Paul & Fort Point Museum Staff
The Mi’kmaq, a semi-nomadic People, resided in costal villages during the warmer months and resided in inland villages during the colder months. The birch bark used for covering the wigwams was transported from site to site, but the pole frames were left at each site for when the People returned for another season.
Beds were made from spruce boughs and reeds and grass woven together to form mats. Within the Wigwam, everyone had an assigned place to sit. For example, honored guests were ushered to the back center of the structure and were immediately offered food upon their entrance.
Women were responsible for doing a fair share of the work needed for the people to survive and flourish. Their tasks included raising and caring for children, cooking, preparing meat and fish and preserving it, moving possessions from site to site and constructing wigwams. Men did the hunting and fishing, made canoes and weapons, fought to protect the community from enemies, did jobs that required hard labour - altogether chores were divided between the sexes in a manner that kept the community functioning smoothly.
When game was killed, it was left in the place it fell, and women came to that spot to clean the carcass. The animal’s bones were put to rest in its natural habitat, so its spirit could rest in peace. The exception was moose bones which were boiled to extract all the marrow, which was made into a delicacy called moose butter.
During mealtimes Elders ate first, then children, and men and women last. The entire village shared equally all the food harvested, no one was left hungry. The People had very healthy diets, when Europeans first arrived there were many Mi’kmaq who had passed their hundredth birthday.
Spruce root was a very important item in building wigwams and canoes - it was used to tie the birch bark panels in place. The reason it was so useful is that it becomes a flexible thick and sturdy after being soaked in water and dried. Threads from it were used to sew clothing, etc, with a bone needle. The root was also widely used, due to its high vitamin C content; as a medicine and spruce gum was used as an antibiotic and a glue to fasten cuts together (like stitches). It was even later used to make spruce beer, after interaction with the apple cider-drinking Acadians.
Wigwams were the primary dwelling of the Mi’kmaq people and Teepees were commonly used by the Native peoples of Western Canada. Most Wigwams were made with a wooden frame and were covered in birchbark. They could be shaped like cones, domes or rectangles. Wigwam entrances always faced east, in the direction of the rising sun. In contrast, teepees were shaped like cones and were covered in buffalo hide or other types of fur.
A circle stone fireplace in the centre of the wigwam kept the dwelling warm and cozy for the people who lived in it. The fire was rarely used for cooking - it would only have been used for cooking when the weather was so bad it prevented the use of the village’s outdoor communal cooking fire. Coals from the main fire were carried in a clamshell from site to site. To allow the smoke from the fire to escape, the top of the Wigwam had an opening.
2) Fish Drying Rack
Fish were laid or hung to dry on racks above a very smoky fire. The fish rack pieces were tied together by spruce root. Meat, was also, on occasion, cured in the same manner, but it was most often prepared by cutting it into strips, speared with a stick, and roasted directly over the fire.
Eels were an important food source; however, the skins from them were used to make excellent bandages to wrap around injuries such as a broken arm.
3) Outside Communal Cooking Fire
Two poles with prongs hold a wooden rod over the fire. This rod was commonly used to hang kettles. Kettles were made of a hardwood – likely oak or maple- and were made by scooping out and burning out the centre of a four foot log. Stones were heated by the fire and put in the kettle to boil water, where foods such as clams and mussels were steamed. The kettle was not placed directly over the fire.
4) Sweat lodge
The Sweat lodge Ceremony was an important function in Mi’kmaq culture. The lodge represents the womb of Mother Earth. Prayers to the Creator are said within it by either an individual or any number of people together. It was also used by individuals to examine and understand visions he/she may have had.
Four to six feet from the sweat lodge, a fire keeper keeps a fire burning, the logs are burned in the shape of a wigwam, which is thought to represent a woman’s skirt, and therefore, fertility and birth.
A path is formed from the fire to the sweat lodge that no one but the conductor can cross. This conductor is normally a much esteemed person within the culture, and they are also responsible for praying and singing while the participant is in the lodge. This path represents the umbilical cord, and is made of rocks.
Smudging is done before entering the sweat lodge, involving the use of sage, sweet grass, cedar and tobacco. These plants, however, are not brought into the sweat lodge. To enter the sweat lodge, one must crawl on all fours through the entrance. While on his/her knees, the participant calls out “All my relations” before entering. The door is closed behind them.
Traditionally, the sweat lodge is eight feet wide by four feet tall and is covered in spruce boughs. Inside, the occupants sit on the ground. In the centre there is a hole in the ground (capable of holding 28 heated stones in total), within which the conductor places seven stones at one time. The stones are heated in a kettle above the fire tended by the fire keeper. With a cedar branch the conductor flicks water onto the heated stones which creates a large amount of steam. The conductor closes the entry way, for the length of one “round” of the sweat, normally, twenty minutes. (although the time spent in the sweat lodge is dependant upon the user – long time users may sweat for a round longer than 20 minutes, newer users might sweat for less). After the round, the user exits “reborn,” representative of one’s birth as an infant.
Once the user has exited the sweat lodge, they are usually doused in cold water. The ritual is repeated until a total of four rounds are completed. With each new round, a new set of seven stones is placed within the sweat lodge. The stones used in the ceremony are said to be grandfather stones, as they are old, and are often granite because they do not spilt in the heat. The meaning behind the number of stones is that seven is representative of healing in the Mi’kmaq culture. The symbolism that surrounds the number four (four different sessions) is because it represents the four seas, the four seasons, the four races of the world and the four directions. These numbers are used repeatedly in Mi’kmaq culture, for instance, four is also used in the Medicine Circles.
Jewelry is not allowed to be worn in the sweat lodge, as metal heats up so much that it would burn the skin. Today, female sweat lodge users often wear a skirt and t-shirt, with bra unhooked if it has metal hooks. Men typically wear shorts for a sweat. Individuals may go for a sweat nude if it is preferred. Sometimes, the participant will use a towel to hide their face in, when they find it difficult to breath.
Women who are menstruating do not use the sweat lodge, as it is believed that they are already being purified and cleansed, naturally. It is also believed that they hold more power outside the lodge than inside it at this time.