Mi’gmeway Politics: Mi’gmaq Political Traditions

Summary of Alfred Metallic and Robin Cavanaugh’s “Mi’gmeway Politics: Mi’gmaq Political Traditions”
Prepared for Mi’gmawei Mawiomi


This is a summary of a report on Mi’gmaq political traditions, done by Alfred Metallic and Robin Cavanaugh. The report mainly focuses on traditional knowledge, and how Mi’gmaq people governed themselves traditionally.
Looking at Mi’gmaq history we can learn not only about our relationship within the Mi’gmaq nation, but we can also examine relationships with other nations.
In order to examine the Mi’gmaq way of life we have to look at our base ideas, beliefs and political principles.
Many people believe that Mi’gmaq people should return to their traditional cultural values. As part of this belief, it is thought Mi’gmaq political organizations should be built around traditional values.
This can be a challenging task. There is a huge impact from the relationship between Mi’gmaq people and the colonial government. A lot of the historical information is from the colonizer’s viewpoint. The colonial documents have to be considered, but oral knowledge has to be examined and respected as well.
Mi’gmaq Worldview:
In the traditional Mi’gmaq worldview, the people’s relationship with the world is built around spiritual law.
The behaviour of animals in nature, and the seasons themselves were studied. The natural dynamics were noted so that a lifestyle that worked with nature could be created. The balance and harmony found in the natural world was important, and needed to be maintained.
It is important to note that this relationship with the land is distinct from the colonizer’s view that land was to be owned, occupied, and used for a specific purpose.
The colonizers wanted to claim the land of the aboriginal people in Canada. As such they needed to justify removing aboriginal people from their land, and asserting ownership.
European political theorists attempted to justify stealing the land from Mi’gmaq people by claiming that Mi’gmaq people live in a state of “original nature”. This statement of “original nature” is saying that Mi’gmaq people had not developed into a civilized society with property rights, laws and government.
With this claim of “original nature” the colonizer’s felt they could justify their presence in North America by claiming that they needed to civilize the Aboriginal people, and cultivate the land.
In descriptions about Mi’gmaq people at the time it is shown that Europeans thought Mi’gmaq people wandered from place to place. The European descriptions suggest that Mi’gmaq people had no sense of property, and that they had no sense of place or order.
They could not or maybe would not, recognize the distinct political system and worldview the Mi’gmaq people had, and thought it was inferior to their own world view, and system of governance.
The Mi’gmaq knowledge systems are based on the idea that the world is alive. As such the Mi’gmaq political traditions are based on a sacred relationship with mother earth and the rest of creation.
Mi’gmaq teachings often refer to the creation story, and the members of the first family, namely the sun, the moon, Kluskap, Grandmother, Martin, Nephew, and Mother. This first family is responsible for a large amount of teachings for the Mi’gmaq people to follow the proper path.
In the creation story the sun is created first. After this we see a description of the birth of Kluskap. He is formed from the dry earth, a bolt of lightning strikes this dry earth and turns it green. This green earth gives life to the animals, who then give life to Kluskap.
Then the Creator sends Nukumi, the grandmother to guide and teach Kluskap. Grandmother was created from stone and gifted with knowledge. Her first lesson was to tell Kluskap to ask his brothers and sisters (the animals) for permission to hunt them in order to survive.
The next family member was Kluskap’s nephew, Netawansum. Netawansum brought Kluskap gifts and teachings of the underwater realm.
Next was Kluskap’s Mother, Nikanakanimqusiwsq. She brought teachings about the cycles of life, and she also brought love and color to the world. She shared with Kluskap teaching of the earth, and knowledge on how to maintain peace and harmony in the world.
The teachings of the first family guided the Mi’gmaq people. Generations of Mi’gmaq people learned how to live in harmony with the world around them. They learned to respect the natural world, and to hunt and fish with respect for the animals. They learned to gather natural medicine, and the proper ceremonies.
Knowledge was passed on through generations through customs, ceremonies, stories, songs, lessons, and experience.
Spirituality was not a separate part of the Mi’gmaq worldview, but rather it was the central part of the Mi’gmaq worldview on which everything else was built and maintained. Spirtuality was the foundation for Mi’gmaq teachings, and their relationship with the rest of creation.
It was believed that all life is composed of the body, the soul, and guardian spirits, which help lead individuals on their proper path.
Mi’gmaq people contrary to the belief of the colonizers had a complex and organized culture that was based on spirituality and a connection to the land. This is shown not only in our own traditional knowledge but also in historical literature that was meant to show Mi’gmaq culture as unorganized and superstitious.
The writing of Europeans when examined with Mi’gmaq teachings shows that spirituality was integral to Mi’gmaq culture. Spirituality defined roles and responsibilities, and stressed the importance of communal life and respect. Respect for the land each other, the ancestors, and all creatures.
An essential part of maintain peace and harmony for the Mi’gmaq people was ceremony. Ceremony was used to not only teach the proper way but to also guide interactions not only within Mi’gmaq communities, but also the interactions outside of the communities.
Take for example the pipe ceremony. The pipe ceremony was practiced at the beginning and end of important events. The pipe ceremony was believed to put the participants in a good positive frame of mind.
The pipe ceremony also represented an invitation for all of creation to witness the event. It asked the spirit helpers and ancestors to participate and offer guidance.
Other ceremonies included gift giving, fasting and sunrise ceremonies. Many of these ceremonies taught that all things have a spirit, and all things are important. For instance ceremony was important when taking medicine (or other supplies) from Mother Earth.
In the Mi’gmaq worldview it is believed that each person is born with a unique gift. So people are believed to be born with the gift of “big heart”. This gift is important, because it is about teaching. So people born with this gift are taught important cultural elements so they can teach future generations. As well people with the gift of “big heart” often became the leaders of families and/or clans.
So as you can see spirituality was essential and connected with all roles and responsibilities in a Mi’gmaq community. Not only in the personal life of a person, but in the whole community as well. Spiritual ceremonies were not only a teaching tool, but were also connected to all important actions and decisions.
With Mi’gmaq communities there are many principles of justice. Principles related and drawn from such concepts as: honour, sharing, relationships, forgiveness, peace, and harmony. These ideas of justice are in many cases drawn from the teachings of the first family.
Mi’gmaq justice was based on a balanced spiritual approach. The goal was to establish and maintain healthy relationships and harmony within the community.
The justice system was family based. Matters of injustice were normally handled by the head of a family. As a member of a family group an individual had a responsibility to their family as well as their community and nation. Often internal problems between family or friends could be resolved quickly and quietly.
For more serious or broader issues Elders, and Chiefs were brought into the justice system. In a sense everybody participated in the justice system. The ideas were that everyone was connected so in harming other people, you in harm the community and yourself.
If someone was found stealing, and then it was found that the individual stole out of need. Then the extended family would be criticized for not taking care of this person. In this case the person who stole would not be punished. Crimes were rare, because everybody was supposed to be taken care of. As well an individual would not want to bring the shame of committing a crime onto themselves or their family.
The whole community was responsible for maintaining peace, and balance. As such both the offender and the offended had a roll in the justice process.
Extended family system:
Everyone is connected and community members relied on each other for survival. This extended past the community and into the realm of nature. It was considered important to take care of the animals and the medicine.
This relationship with all beings creates the extended family system and governs traditional Mi’gmaq relations. This is why it is important that Mi’gmaq respect each other, and nature as well. This respect is shown in many of the ceremonies.
This idea of an extended family also plays into relationships with non Mi’gmaq people. It was important to enter into sacred agreements with other people in order to become interconnected with them.
So in making treaties with other nations the Mi’gmaq people were in a sense adding to their extended family. In the creation of life everybody was considered brothers and sisters. Treaties help define and guide our relationships.
In the creation story the first treaty was with the animals on land. The second treaty was with the fish. So through these treaties the Mi’gmaq people could understand their relationship in the world. Furthermore the treaties gave Mi’gmaq people a responsibility to take care of the land and water.
By protecting the land and the water Mi’gmaq people were also protecting themselves. Protecting themselves because the connection between nature and people were so close.
Treaties, rituals, and agreements were recorded through the use of wampum belts and strings.
Young men who demonstrated the proper knowledge and skill would assume their responsibilities as “Putus” or “Samgoneese” and would be in charge of diplomacy and the handling of the wampum belts.
As with other important events the creation of a treaty involved ceremonies such as the smoking of the pipe.
Many elders and aboriginal scholars believe Mi’gmaq people should return to traditional teachings, values, and principles in Mi’gmaq political systems. Values such as honesty, kindness, sharing, and the importance of community. It is believed that systems of governance based on our traditional knowledge and a relationship within nature can create healthy, respectful relations for future generations. As Mi’gmaq we are part of a large family that can contribute our own ideas about peace and harmony. Politically and spiritually it is important that we foster a healthy relationship within and outside our communities.