Historical Mi'kmaq Marriage customs

By J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Spotted Wolf

Column Seven

Pjila'si (welcome),

Assimilation and integration have contributed to the loss of many old traditions and customs and in this column, I will briefly discuss marriage. Today the Mi'kmaq are often Christians and observe the teachings and customs of the Church. W.E. Cormack, journeying across Newfoundland in 1822 wrote this about our people:

"They are Roman Catholics, but their religious ceremonies, of which they are observant, consist of a combination of the church and their own primitive ceremonies blended together, to suit their convenience and tastes".

The Jesuits observed many of the old traditions before conversion to Christianity began. Let's look that what they had to say, based on their observations made in the 1600's. It is known that all Mi'kmaq ceremonies almost always involved large a Tabagie (banquets or feasts). Reverent Baird, of the Jesuits in 1614, wrote:

"Contrary to our custom, in their marriages the father does not give a dower to his daughter to establish her with some one, but the lover gives beautiful and suitable presents to the father, so that he will allow him to marry his daughter. The presents will be in proportion to the rank of the father and beauty of the daughter; dogs, beavers, kettles, axes, etc. But they have a very rude way of making love; for the suitor, as soon as he shows a preference for a girl, does not dare look at her, nor speak to her, nor stay near her, unless accidentally; and then he must force himself not to look her in the face, nor to give any sign of his passion, otherwise he would be the laughingstock of all, and his sweetheart would blush for him. After a while, the father brings together the relatives, to talk over the match with them, whether the suitor is of proper age, whether he is a good and nimble hunter, his family, his reputation, his youthful adventures; and if he suits them, they will lengthen or shorten, or make stipulations as to the time and manner of his courtship as they may think best; and at the end of this time, for the nuptials there will be solemn Tabagie and feasts with speeches, songs and dances."

Wedding ceremonies among the Mi'kmaq were celebrated by the guests for four days - on the first day they danced the serpent dance, on the second they played football or tooad ik, on the third day they played lacrosse or madijik, and on the fourth day, Waltes. As we know our people were pure of heart and were usually mated for life. Father Baird also wrote:

"Few divorces occur among them, and (as I believe) little adultery". According to pre-Christian customs, a man can take more than one wife, but it was usually the Saqamaw who would do this to insure many descendants and future allies. They had much praise for Saqamaw Membertou because he was the first Mi'kmaq Christian chief and he took only one wife. The Jesuits were very successful in converting our people's beliefs as well as unknowingly (through their own ignorance and arrogance) infecting them with deadly diseases they brought with them to our shores. It took Chief Membertou who died within a year. These old customs and beliefs deserve must respect despite how alien it must have seemed to the Europeans then and their descendants today.

In conclusion, I say wemust respect those who continue to embrace Christianity, but we must also know our old beliefs and respect them. Some may wish to embrace them fully and I respect that. Christianity however will continue be the modern day religion of many of our people.

Traditional Mi'kmaq weddings will vary from region to region. Some aspects will be similar.