Reconnecting with the spirit: Matthew Mukash on Indigenous spirituality

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As a child, I wanted to learn the traditional spiritual teachings of my Mi’kmaq ancestors. No one in my family was a particularly traditional or spiritual but I found a book in my aunt’s library called Mi’kmaq Hieroglyphics.

I was excited to discover the stories, traditions and spiritual practices of my people, but when I started to read I was disappointed. The book only referenced Mi’kmaq stories and motifs through their correlation with Christianity.

When I asked my mom why, she told me that the Mi’kmaq had been converted to Christianity through the process of colonization. And strangely, though I’d never known the ceremonies, the stories or the traditions, it felt like something had been taken from me.   

The story of lost Indigenous culture isn’t new or unique. It’s a process that’s happened across the continent since the dawn of European contact. For a significant portion of the 20th century, practicing Indigenous ceremonies in Canada was even illegal.

But the reclamation of culture, ceremony and spiritual practices is the story that must now take centre stage, says Cree Elder Matthew Mukash, a former Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees.

“We have to go back to the period before the ‘living tissue’ of our cultures were broken by external forces,” said Mukash. “Our ancestors understood the world around them and beyond. Their knowledge was so complex and not only covered all aspects of being human – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – but the interconnectedness of all creation.”  

Mukash, in addition to a successful professional and academic career, is a keeper of Indigenous knowledge. He practices a number of Indigenous ceremonies, including the sweat lodge, shaking tent and the sun dance.

The division of spirituality into either Christian or traditional needs to stop, Mukash believes, because this mentality can divide families and communities. He feels the best way to accomplish this is to recognize the allegorical nature of all spiritual belief.

“I’m among those who the read the Bible as a metaphor that takes you deeper into the meaning of life, its challenges. Our own Eeyou legends are not interpreted in a literal, or historical, sense. Take the legend of Chickapash,” said Mukash.

“Chickapash climbed a tree that brought him to a new land in the skies. He later brought his family there. On the way up, one of his family members would fall from time to time and he would catch them and put them back on the tree. In a metaphoric sense, the tree is the Tree of Knowledge or Tree of Life on which we are to climb in this lifetime. It’s our life’s journey along which we are to gain knowledge and wisdom. When we fall by the wayside on this journey, the Elders, who have the knowledge and wisdom, will put us back on track every time,” Mukash recounted, noting that this explanation had merely scratched the surface of the true meaning regarding the story.


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The Legend of Waawiitwaanuu

Mukash has observed a resurgence of curiosity in Eeyou youth about their traditional identity. “Our young people today are asking me questions like: Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Why are we in a situation where we’re in today? Just to name a few,” said Mukash. “Mastering the ways of your ancestors helps in personal development by taking an integrated approach to understanding life, its meaning and purpose.”

I remember feeling the same confusion after my unsuccessful attempt to discover the ancient ways of my people. The next time I found myself in Listuguj, the community where my mom was raised, I asked some Elders if the ancestral Mi’kmaq spiritual ceremonies were still practiced. The answer I got was “maybe,” but I’d have to go deep into the woods and find a medicine person who would teach me.  

“All human beings have the gift and ability to adapt,” said Mukash. “We were once a nomadic people, belonging to a hunting and gathering culture. Today we find that we have the capacity to be scientists, doctors or lawyers. Going back to the ways of our ancestors does not mean going back to using bows and arrows, and wearing animal-skin garments. It means using our ancestral knowledge and wisdom to become a balanced human being, so we can help ourselves, families, communities, nations and beyond more effectively.”  

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(Illustrations of Cree legends by Brian Webb)

I went pretty deep into those woods but never found a medicine person. In hindsight, maybe they were teasing me. Or maybe that was the point: the forest was meant to be medicine and teacher in and of itself.
“The spirituality of our ancestors is ‘Indigenous knowledge’ that developed from the beginning of time to the present,” said Mukash. “It’s one that sees the Earth and all creation as living beings, that everything is interconnected through one spirit. Every individual creation is sacred – be it tree, rock, water, air or animal, and has its own intelligence and story to tell or teaching to share. Going back to the roots is where many answers will be found to address today’s challenges.”

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