Chapter 3
The Story of Canadian
Aboriginal Spirituality
Aboriginal Peoples in Canada Today
• Canadian Aboriginal peoples have a long, rich, and varied history and are
• Over 1 million people in Canada are Aboriginal, and the population is
growing quickly.
– 8 out of 10 Aboriginal people live in Ontario and the Western
– 54% live in urban centres
– 10% of Winnipeg’s population is Aboriginal
• The term “Aboriginal peoples” is broad and includes First Nations, Métis,
and Inuit.
• First Nations peoples include many groups.
• There are differences between the names used by the peoples
themselves and those used by others.
• There may be variations in spellings because spoken terms were written
down in many forms.
The History of Aboriginal Spirituality
• Aboriginal peoples in Canada live in diverse environments, and have a great
variety of rituals, symbols, and practices.
Their spirituality is deeply connected to physical environment, including
animals and plants, and life is seen as interconnected.
Until recently, most Aboriginal cultures have been oral, relying on memory
and memory keepers.
Their history has been passed down orally and through archaeological
Despite diversity, Aboriginal peoples share a lot the same worldviews of
indigenous peoples everywhere in the world.
They show a deep sense that all that exists—trees, animals, humans, the
earth—is alive.
European Contact and Aboriginal Spiritual Traditions
• Contact between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples had a range of impacts.
• Aboriginal peoples helped early Europeans by teaching them survival skills.
• Many Europeans considered their own ways “civilized” and Aboriginal ways
Aboriginal peoples were expected to give up their ways.
Reserves were created and land was set aside for specific First Nations
peoples to use.
In 1857, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed to assimilate Aboriginal
peoples into European culture.
In 1876, the Indian Act allowed the federal government to set up residential
schools for Aboriginal children, which were run by Anglican, United,
Presbyterian, and Catholic churches.
In 1885, the potlatch ceremony was banned.
In 1895, all Aboriginal ceremonies, dances, and festivals were banned.
Recent History
• Many banned Aboriginal ceremonies continued in private, and the ban was
officially lifted in 1951.
• The territory of Nunavut, created in 1999, was the largest land claim
settlement in Canada’s history.
• Aboriginal spirituality has become recognized as an official religion; the eagle
feather can now be used in the provincial justice system instead of a Bible.
• Residential schools were closed after the public became aware of the cultural,
physical, and sexual abuse that occurred there:
– the federal government and the churches involved have apologized to
Aboriginal peoples
– a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is documenting the legacy of
residential schools
Aboriginal Peoples in Canada Today
• Many Aboriginal people are trying to address the negative impacts of contact.
• They are reviving Aboriginal spiritual traditions and practices within an
increasingly secular society, and integrating Aboriginal spiritual heritage with
• Many Aboriginal Canadians who are Christian are struggling with the question
of whether they can be true to both religions.
• Traditional spiritual practices of Aboriginal peoples have a strong relationship to
the physical environment and an underlying belief that all life is
• Some rituals are done daily, others mark special events in a person’s life or
seasonal or community events.
The Sacred in Daily Life and Environment
• Traditional Aboriginal spirituality believes that everything is filled with spirit
• Being attentive to the physical environment helps people to see the power in
the environment.
• Prayer is important:
– God is the Creator; praying recognizes God’s greatness and expresses
thanks for the Creator’s gifts
– Prayers come in a variety of sung and spoken forms, usually
spontaneously from the heart; some involve offering a gift or sacrifice
– Prayer is done before and after actions such as waking, sleeping, hunting,
planting, and harvesting
• In earlier times, time was set aside for praying, fasting, and making sacrifices to
charm evil spirits that played havoc with the hunt or caused sudden storms.
• This is a holy act that is a part of many rituals.
• Sacred herbs are burned in a shell or earthen bowl, and the smoke is brushed
over the participants.
• It is used to purify people and places, such as before a wedding or powwow.
Sacred Pipe Ceremony
• This is one of the most powerful and sacred spiritual rituals.
• The pipe symbolizes unity and harmony of the world.
– The bowl of the pipe represents truth, and the stem represents the way
we are to live in harmony and balance with all of creation.
• Smoking the pipe stresses the unity of everything.
The Sweat Lodge
• Sweat lodge ceremonies purify the body, mind, spirit, and heart and restore
right relationships with self, others, and the Creator.
The sweat lodge is a sacred space.
It is a closed structure with a pit where heated rocks are placed.
The sweat leader pours water on the hot rocks to create steam.
Participants sing, pray, talk, or meditate as they sit.
Life-Cycle Rituals
Birth and Naming Rituals
• Most Aboriginal people go to great lengths to give the right name to each
• The name-giver (child’s grandparent or an elder) fasts, meditates, prays, or
dreams, and the name is revealed by the Spirit.
• The name is given to the child in a ceremony with family, relatives, and
• This name can change as the person matures.
• Young people go on a vision quest—an intense, solitary spiritual experience
for those seeking direction in life.
• They must undertake the vision quest to be accepted as adults in the
• Some Aboriginal peoples consider long, uncut hair, to be sacred.
• Hair is sometimes braided; the three strands signify body, mind, and spirit.
• Cut hair can be a sign of mourning.
• Death rituals vary among Aboriginal peoples.
• In some traditions, a Death Feast is held for the spirit of the person who died.
• Ojibwa celebrate the Feast of Death each autumn to remember all who died
the previous year.
– Each family who has lost someone holds a feast for the entire village.
– Food is placed in an open area outside.
– A place is set for the deceased, whose spirit remains with the family.
In Cree tradition, the body undergoes physical transformation, but the spirit
remains unchanged and ascends into another realm to join its ancestors.
Cree believe spirits have the power to reveal themselves and communicate
with humans in dreams or visions.
The wake is a ceremony for returning the body to Mother Earth.
The round dance is a ceremony to commune with spirits who have passed to
the spirit world and is an important part of the Cree grief and healing process.
The round dance lets family and friends allow the spirit of the deceased to fly
free and dance with the other spirits in the northern lights.
Seasonal and Community Rituals
Harvest Feast
• Aboriginal peoples celebrate the harvest from the field and forest.
• It recognizes the spirits that acted on their behalf to give them food.
• It renews the earth with prayers, chants, and dances.
• It was adopted by non-Aboriginal peoples as Thanksgiving.
The Powwow
• It is a dance of renewal for restoration of right relationships and healing of all
A community celebration of singing and dancing
It takes place in a circle, which is blessed by a spiritual leader so the space
within the circle is holy.
Dancers and singers enter the circle from the east, where the sun rises, and
move clockwise in same direction as the sun.
Drumbeat is symbolic of the solemn rhythm of creation, heartbeat of Mother
Earth, and rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb.
Sun Dance
• Celebrated by peoples of the Prairies in June or July, during the full moon
• Tradition says it began when a warrior’s vision quest showed him a new way
to pray to the Great Spirit.
• Its purpose is renewal of dedication to the Great Spirit.
• Four days before the ceremony, dancers purify themselves, and they fast
during the four days of the sun dance.
• Final stage of the rite involves piercing the body and tearing away from the
piercing to symbolize a renewal of the quest for the spirit
Giveaways and the Potlatch
• This festival celebrates a special event such as a birth or wedding, or
commemorates a death.
– Involves giving gifts of blankets, beadwork, or crafts to family, friends,
or visitors
– Involves ceremonial dancing and singing
• The potlatch increases the host’s standing in the community and highlights
the host’s generosity, wealth, and power.
Central Beliefs and Morality
• Aboriginal peoples believe the world around them is always changing from
within and these forces work independently from one another.
The universe is a complex assembly of powers or spirits—small and great,
beneficial and dangerous.
Humans do not control these forces but, to live, they must ally themselves to
these powers to keep harmony between the different forces.
Aboriginal peoples believe all power comes from a common origin, so the
same energy inhabits all things.
– Siouan peoples call this energy Wakan; Wakan Tanka or Wakonda is the
Great Spirit
– Haudenosaune (Iroquois) call it Orenda and believe it can attach itself
to an object or animal
– Algonkian-speaking peoples call it Manitou: “Great Mystery,” “the Great
Mysterious One,” or the “Great Spirit”
Some things have a greater quantity of this spirit or energy; other things have
Learning the power of each thing is central to Aboriginal life.
The Great Spirit
• The Great Spirit inhabits all things—rocks, land, water, plants, animals, and
• Most Aboriginal peoples believe the spirit is fluid, and that it is there at
specific moments.
– For example, it is there when an eagle flies, but not when it is asleep.
• It is often addressed as the Creator, who appears to be a highest God who is
• This Spirit reveals itself in many ways in nature; these are “the spirits.”
– In vision quests, they encounter these powers when they find their
spirit helpers.
– Like angels in Christianity, spirits become guardians of the person’s
spirit life.
The Trickster
• This figure plays an important role in creation, but is not the Creator.
• Can be both mean and generous, is impulsive, a bungler, a joker or
buffoon, a troublemaker
• For example, Nanabush is the Ojibwa Trickster.
– He stole fire for humans, calmed dangerous winds, and invented
strategies for hunting.
– At times he has great power, somewhere between human and
Spiritual Teachers and Leaders
• Aboriginal peoples mainly pass down their spiritual knowledge orally.
• Certain men and women have greater spiritual power than others.
• A shaman or medicine person uses his or her powers for the benefit of the
– A shaman is a physical and spiritual healer who performs ceremonies
using knowledge of medicines and herbs.
– The shaman also remembers and tells the spiritual teachings of the
Spiritual Teachings
The Medicine Wheel
• The circle represents the continuous cycles of life and the connection among
all species.
• The cross points in the 4 directions.
• The powers of the four directions organize everything: the seasons, the races,
the elements of the universe, the stages of life, etc.
• Elders use the wheel as a tool for teaching younger generations about who
they are, where they come from, their place in the world, and how they are
related to each other and to everything else.
Time, Shelter, Drums, and More Circles
• The circular symbolism of the cosmos is everywhere.
– Time is circular—divided into four seasons
• Encampments are generally circular, meetings are held in a circle, traditional
shelters are circular
• Drums are sacred objects of different sizes, types, and purposes, and are used
in ceremonies.
– They represent the heartbeat of the nation and of Mother Earth.
– Heart and drum share the same purpose and responsibility—to provide
life through its beat.
• The circle is sacred:
– Dancing intended for the renewal of all creation is done in a circle.
– The sacred pipe is passed in a circular motion.
– Aboriginal peoples see the circle everywhere because they see the
powers of the universe operating as a circle.
These principles guide the lives of many Aboriginal peoples.
• Do not interfere:
– modelling behaviour and showing by example are valued
– ordering, giving advice, cajoling, or telling someone what to do is not
• Community is important:
– members are expected to do their jobs well for the community
• Everything is shared:
– one takes only what one needs from the environment to survive
– everyone is equal and not to be left out
Family Life
• Before European contact, Aboriginal families developed in response to their
– People of the Plains lived in small groupings in the winter, then joined in
a communal hunt in the spring.
– Women and men had distinctive roles.
– Women made, owned, and set up the teepees important to
communal hunts and gatherings.
• In southern Ontario, Iroquoians had five or six families living in each
longhouse in a village of a hundred longhouses.
– People hunted, fished, and grew food crops.
– Family life and spiritual traditions involved planting the crops.
• Children would learn from family members and elders through example and
through sacred teachings, and cultural practices such as the vision quest.
• Men married when they could provide for a family; women married when
they reached puberty.
Recent Changes
• Because more people live in cities, Aboriginal families are less connected to
the environment.
Some communities face challenges such as youth moving toward popular
culture and increased secularism.
The impact of residential schools includes the decline in the use of traditional
languages, loss of traditional skills, and pain and grieving over abuse and loss
of culture.
In some cases, loss of land and environmental degradation mean a traditional
life is no longer an option for young people.
Aboriginal people are reviving many traditional practices.
Many Aboriginal Canadians have a hard time finding meaning in the traditions
of elders; many have not had the chance to experience them.
The Seven Fires
• An Ojibwa narrative tells how seven prophets came to the Anishinabe.
• The prophets left the people with seven predictions about their future.
• The prophecies told of a time when the people would forget the way they had
received fire, then recover it again.
• In the story, Aboriginal peoples express their hope and confidence about the
return of Aboriginal traditions and the way the traditions could live alongside
non-Aboriginal traditions.
• The relationship between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans has had times of
co-operation, but also has a history of colonization and attempted
Now, many Aboriginal peoples in Canada are reviving Aboriginal spiritual
traditions, some doing so as Aboriginal Christians.
The Blessed Kateri is the patron of the Tekakwitha Conference, an annual
gathering of Aboriginal Catholics that started in 1939.
– The goal was to begin a discussion of how the Catholic Church could
better respond to traditional Aboriginal beliefs and practices.
– Half a million Aboriginal Catholics from 300 nations are members.
– The conference looks at ways Aboriginal Catholics can remain both
Aboriginal and Catholic.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Church’s relationship shifted to
Greater efforts have been made to respect Aboriginal traditions and have
brought some Aboriginal rituals into the Church.
Many Aboriginal Christians did not leave their cultures; Christianity made
sense to their cultures.
Christian and traditional Aboriginal ways can live side by side.

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