Prince Edward Island has been the home of the M’ikmaq for millennia, perhaps since time began. A creation legend says that Glooscap, the creator, had finished painting the world and he dipped his brush in a mix of all the colours and created Epekwitk* (Something laying in the water) – his favourite island. He is said to have been a giant with great power and when he slept the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia was his bed and Prince Edward Island was his pillow.
The history of the Mi’kmaq in the Atlantic region, both pre-contact and after, is a fascinating and complex one. With my limited knowledge I wouldn’t even dare to summarize it but to say that it rich for discovery and fortunately there is a movement to encourage that discovery. The M’ikmaq Confederacy of PEI and Parks Canada have formed a partnership with a goal to actively involved the Island First Nation “in the management of the Prince Edward Island National Park and National Historic Sites; and the presentation of Mi’kmaq history and culture – at Parks Canada sites and beyond.” We had the good fortune to come across one of the presentations as we left the parking lot for the hiking trails at Greenwich (Puku’samkek) on our hike to the Dunes at the beginning of September.
Junior Peter-Paul, a Mi’kmaq Elder and Heritage Interpreter, and his colleague Michael Sark, a future knowledge carrier, are building a traditional wigwam in a carefully chosen location. The skills and techniques have been passed to them by Elder Todd Labrador, well-known and acknowledged master birch bark builder from Nova Scotia.
As with any home the location was carefully chosen, respecting traditional and practical logic: the entrance faces east and the rays of the morning sun; a mature white spruce and two mature red maples provide protection from the heat, wind and rain; and there is a view of the water.
This is the third wigwam that Peter-Paul has build; he built his first with his grandfather at the age of 13. For Sark it is his second. He, along with other young people, helped Elders Methilda Knockwood-Snache and Peter-Paul build one at the Port-La-Joye-Fort-Amherst National Historic Site in 2017. They were under the guidance of Labrador, who learned the craft from his father and grandfather.
The structure is given its integrity by seven rings of saplings (maple, cherry or birch) bound by spruce roots. The roots are harvested and dried for future use; they become supple again when soaked in water or steamed. As well as giving strength to the wigwam the rings are meant as a reminder to those livng there of the Sacred Teachings: Love, Respect, Courage, Truth, Humility, Wisdom, and Honesty.
Once it has been harvested the birch bark is dried for future use and has almost a leathery look. Warm water or steaming over a fire warms the sap that has been retained – even after several months – and renders it pliable and flexible to be cut and shaped.
Melissa, Peter-Paul’s daughter, is a well-known M’ikmaq artist, who has revived the art of quill work here on the Island. She uses birch bark in her work and made this Tweet during the birch bark harvest in 2019.
Though there was much that was fascinating about the encampment one thing that caught my eye were the wooden nails that are used throughout – including on the birch bark canoe. Peter-Paul mentioned that they were “fired” to harden the wood – unfortunately I didn’t ask for an explanation of the process and hoped to on our recent visit however Park Services closed just before the threat of Hurricane Teddy.
The birch bark canoe on display is the work of Todd Labrador, Junior Peter-Paul and others. In the spring of 2018 Labrador and a group of future knowledge carriers had harvested the birch bark in Kejimkujik National Park, along with the spruce roots, cedar needed and that summer constructed four canoes. In September that same year Labrador and Peter-Paul spent six weeks constructing the canoe in what was a year of canoe building across the Maritimes.
As well as historic photos from the Confederacy Archives Peter-Paul had articles of regalia on display. I’ve repeated the photo of his breastplate that was hanging above the entrance to the wigwam. Peter-Paul admitted that he had just put it there that day – he wasn’t sure if it was traditional but felt it gave the wigwam a decorative touch. The tunic with the beautiful bead work was a gift from the community in Nova Scotia. Notice that the tunic is hanging from a wooden nail!
With the closing of Park Services in mid-September the various artifacts have been removed but the wigwam and smoke pit remain in the clearing and I am assuming will do so through the winter. Hopefully come the spring Peter-Paul and Sark will be back to share more of the culture of their rich Mi’kmaq heritage.
As a side bar we have watched the Mi’kmaq Urban Indigenous Centre being built from our den window and I believe Peter-Paul and Sark will be crafting another wigwam for the cultural element of the new building.
The word for October 1st is:
*Wigwam /ˈwiɡˌwäm/: [noun]
A dome-shaped or conical hut or tent made by fastening mats, skins, or bark over a framework of poles (as used formerly by some North American Native peoples).
Early 17th century: from Ojibwa wigwaum, Algonquian wikiwam ‘their house’.
Míkmawísimk is one of the Algonquian languages.
*European sailors, traders, and settlers gave us the transliteration Abegweit with was then rather poetically translated “Cradled on the Waves”.