Defining our culture

Our columnist reflects on the meaning of ‘culture’…

The one thing that unites all aboriginal people, while at the same time keeps us unique from one another is our culture. It’s those aspects of everyday life that contribute to our identity as indigenous inhabitants of this land. The thing about the term culture though, in my opinion, is that you can’t get any more specific than that. Really, culture is just one of those things you know, something you were born and raised with, it can’t simply be taught or read about. It’s such a wide spanning idea that when you ask about it, you will most likely get a number of different responses from people who are of the same aboriginal group.

For instance, if you were to ask an Inuk from northern Labrador what they defined as their culture, they may answer with the stories of Nuliajuk, and someone else may mention their unique drumming groups. An Innu would probably describe the respect they had for the animals, and how they had to practice this respect if they wanted a successful hunt. Someone else might mention their ceremonies, including those in the sweat lodge. If you were to ask someone from the Southern Labrador Unit-Metis/NunatuKavut nation, they might talk about their wonderful canoes, or their distinctive hunting patterns. If you asked an L’nuk (Mi’kmaq), they would probably mention our cultural celebrations (Pow-wows) and others might describe our descriptive, colorful language.

Really, culture is just one of those things you know…it can’t simply be taught or read about.

As you can see, all the above-mentioned answers are all different and do not fall under one definitive… well… thing. But they are all considered aspects of our culture. So what is culture, and where did it come from? I’d like to look at some aspects of our culture and their roots in our history.


There are nearly 300 indigenous languages in North America, many of which have disappeared or are at risk of extinction. Of these three hundred, about sixty-five are located in Canada. Many people don’t realize the diverse languages spoken here prior to colonization. It’s amazing to think that on this land (Turtle Island) nearly three hundred languages were developed and evolved among its inhabitants.

The language of my people, Lnui’simk, is among the seventeen eastern subgroups of the Algonquian languages. It is a language that is deeply rooted in description and action. We have no words for objects, but for the description of that object. For example, a word some use to describe the lynx is apuksikn. In our language, it doesn’t mean lynx, rather it describes one’s movement like a shadow, which describes how mysterious the lynx is. The thing about having a descriptive language is that it’s possible that more than one word can describe the same thing. This can occur easily when our people are separated and are introduced to new objects and ideas. Take simple table sugar, for example. Here in Newfoundland, when we were introduced to it, we named it nako’kina, because of its grainy texture. In other areas, people named it sismoqn due to its sweet taste. However, if you have a firm grip on the knowledge, you would probably know they both referred to the same thing. Language is a huge aspect of one’s culture. Fortunately Lnui’simk is taught in our schools on reserves and there are language classes for those off reserve to keep it alive.
(Don’t forget to check out my Mi’kmaq Words of the Day on Youtube!)


Aboriginal people are known for their colorful and rich celebrations. We have many in my culture, including pow-wows, sweat lodge ceremonies, feasts and fasts. These celebrations have made my community popular in the tourism world, and although they vary slightly, these celebrations are seen amongst most First Nations across North America. As widely known as they are, these things were not always embraced by some of my community members. In the late 1980’s, our community underwent a cultural revitalization, where we invited Mi’kmaq from other communities on the mainland to come and teach us about the culture we had lost over the years. With this came the drumming, dancing, sweat lodge and canoe building.

So, what is culture? Well, really, it’s whatever you believe has shaped you into the person you are today.

In July of 1995, our community leaders decided to hold a pow wow, the first of its kind in Miawpukek. Many people liked the idea, but there were a few who did not entirely accept it, as it was not a part of their lives growing up. This is understandable; it’s hard to adopt something into your culture which you had never experienced before. However, sometimes we fail to realize that just because something isn’t there doesn’t mean it never existed. When our people came here, they faced the elements with only traditional tools and shelter. Our lives became less fixated on cultural celebration and more on survival. This, combined with colonial and religious influence caused many of these celebrations to fade. Once, a traditional chief of Miawpukek said in regards to the sweat lodge, “it’s something we did once, but not anymore”. This demonstrated that we weren’t just picking up new celebrations, but reviving ones that have been lost.

Many explorers, including James Howley have documented ‘archaic’ ceremonies by our people here in Newfoundland during the 1800’s. We also have traditional musical instruments and songs such as the jikmaqn and Kojua, respectively, which are inherently Mi’kmaq. Ever since their introduction, more and more people from our community became appreciative of these celebrations and the lessons they teach. People are seeing that although they were not exposed to these things all their life, their children are and in doing this it is giving us more reason to be proud to be First Nations people.


Mi’kmaq are firm believers that in order to move forward, you must first acknowledge and appreciate your past and where you come from. Our history, much like all aboriginal history is filled with amazing feats, alliances, clashes, mythology, celebrations and so much more. How our history unfolded shaped the people we are today.

Chieftainship was a very important part of our history: there were community, district and then grand leaders to oversee any issues that occurred in Mi’kma’ki. Our history involves all our stories, both mythical (stories of Glooscap and Wikala’tamuj) and factual (the canoe trip to Newfoundland). Our history also involves struggle – the struggle to be recognized and the struggle to bring back the sense of identity that was lost over the years. So much goes into one’s history that I could not possibly touch on all the aspects of it here.

So, what is culture? Well, really, it’s whatever you believe has shaped you into the person you are today. I was raised around the Mi’kmaq language, pow-wow’s, sweat lodge ceremonies and a family interested in our history. I couldn’t possibly tell you what makes up my cultural identity due to so many factors acting together in synergy to make me who I am – a proud First Nations person.

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