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The First Nations 102: Understanding a Culture

Updated on October 8, 2014
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The Modern Tribe

Many in urban centers and in regular civilization rarely have a chance to connect and learn from aboriginal people. Some still hold misconceptions of cowboys and indians shooting it out with bows and arrows and what we have seen on excerpts of the news and in western cinema. In fact, most aboriginals live in urban centers now in Canada, but still live and practice their original beliefs and spirituality with ceremony and celebrations. Many still have meaningful connections to elders and reserves where relations still live.

The Indigenous are an honorable and reserved people who do wish to be understood, but do not always know if western culture has the desire or patience to understand? They often communicate through stories, the arts, dance, ceremony and celebration. In many ways, their spirituality and mannerisms are like Buddhists and their philosophies have similarities. In fast moving times, aboriginal people struggle to keep their beliefs and practices alive and teach through oral tradition to children and adults alike.

First Nations people believe that humans are part of the natural environment and all creatures and living things are equal and deserve our respect. They express a great amount of gratitude for the simplicity in life and the beauty and sustenance that is derived from nature. They understand that we are all connected. To survive for so many thousands of years in the natural environment, they had to learn how to live symbiotically with nature and passed this knowledge down through generations. They are part of our communities but are also artisans, dancers, story tellers, teachers, activists, environmentalists and spiritual leaders. They do have messages to share....

The Story of Turtle Island

Turtle Island is North America

The land of North America was called 'Turtle Island' by the First Nation peoples long before European explorers set foot upon it. The sacred turtle is part of an indigenous creation story about a turtle who sacrificed himself to create this new land. It was a second chance for people, and thus indigenous people hold the sacred Great Turtle with reverence. The indigenous peoples understand their passage through this land to be in harmony with the earth and it is considered a living organism to them. Turtle Island was host for networks of indigenous tribes who lived peacefully in nature, intermarried and engaged in trade. There is also great respect for living in harmony with animals/spirits, Each distinct First Nation possessed self-government and recognized the sovereignty of the other nations. They do have a great deal in common with respect for Mother Nature and the guidance of Elders, Grand Fathers, Grand Mothers, and the Great Spirit of the Creator/God.

Map of Aboriginal Settlements Before Colonization

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The Medicine Wheel

If you pay attention, there is always great symbolism and anecdotal meanings in the teachings of first peoples. For instance, the circle is a sacred symbol that resonates meaning. it represents the cycle and patterns of life similar to the migration patterns of animals, the whirls of wind, similar to the shape of our sun and moon and the renewal of the seasons. This shape resonates throughout our natural environment. You have heard the saying, "We have come full circle." From ritual, to dance to ceremony and even talking and sharing circles, this symbol is a foundation for aboriginal beliefs and in more complex form is named the Medicine Wheel.

There are four cardinal points on the medicine wheel that represent the four directions each with a different color and meaning. The four directions also mean the four aspects of life- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. They also represent the four stages of life: childhood, youth, maturity and elder.

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The Metis

The Metis are aboriginal people of mixed heritage who are predominantly French and First Nations. Although there are Metis with Scottish and English mixed with First Nations heritage as well. They were a new race of people created by the marriages of the French to First Nations people during times of early settlement and still stand strong as a nation today in Canada.

The Metis can be found predominantly across the prairie provinces and have a particularly strong nation in the province of Manitoba. Manitoba was the central focus during the mid 1800s rebellions with the First Nations to preserve land and ways of life in western Canada. Louis Riel was the very first aboriginal Metis M.L.A (Member of Legislative Assembly) that held an official government position who lead the rebellions that began in Manitoba.

Today, the Metis are also a proud nation of people who celebrate their heritage with stories, music, drumming, cultural foods, jigging, arts and crafts. They are often intermediaries in the community also defending a more natural way of life. Many work on cultural activities, on boards, volunteer organizations and to defend the First Nations.

Annually, there are festivals held across Canada to celebrate Metis and First Nations heritage and the public are welcome to learn and participate. In Quebec, there is Festival de Bonhomme and in Winnipeg, there is Festival de Voyageur. The largest Metis Festival takes place annually at the Historical Site in Batoche, Saskatchewan in the late spring and is named Batoche Days. The rebellions ended in 1885 at Batoche and thus the festival is a resonating celebration through the years to celebrate Metis culture.

Ceremony and Celebrations

There are several auspicious ways First Nations people practice their beliefs and celebrate their heritage. Some ways are through prayer, song, drumming, smudging as well as Sweat Lodge Ceremonies, Pow Wows, Round Dances and festivals.

What is Smudging? (2 mins)

What is the Sweat Lodge Ceremony? (10 mins)

Did You Know?

  • The beautiful beaded and elaborately decorated outfits the First Nations wear are called 'Regalia'.
  • The word 'Canada' is actually an Iroquois word that means 'village'.
  • The First Nations have developed a complex system of medicines for health and treatment made from natural herbs, roots and plants found in nature.
  • The Mohawk Nation invented hockey and it was later adapted by Europeans into the sport we know today.
  • Maple sap was commonly used as a traditional 'energy' drink.
  • Traditionally, a Pow Wow was an auspicious gathering of First Nations leaders
  • First Nations invented the first 'snack foods' like jerky, corn on the cob and popcorn.
  • First Nations were the first to develop sign languages for talking between tribes and with new settlers
  • Traditional and 'natural' tobacco has been used for thousands of years in prayer, ceremony and to treat various ailments of the mind and body.

What is a Metis Festival? (3 Mins)

What is a Pow Wow? (4 mins)

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How to learn and get involved...

For more information on the First Nations and Metis gatherings and special events, please feel free to call your local Native Friendship Center in Canada. Friendship Centers are places to learn and connect with aboriginal culture. Everyone is always welcome!

To find your local, please attend the National Association of Friendship Centers at: www.nafc.ca or call:

Tel: 613-563-4844
Toll Free: (877) 563-4844
Fax: 613-594-3428

About the Author

Claudine Fleury is a person of Metis Heritage who studied Arts and Cultural Management and Communications at MacEwan University. She is a former political aide, public servant and is currently a market researcher as well as a lobbyist and public advocate who resides in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

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    • Claudine Fleury profile imageAUTHOR

      Claudine Fleury 

      2 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thank-you for reading and your comments. I enjoy writing and sharing about First Nations culture!

    • Alexis Cogwell profile image

      Ashley Cogdill 

      2 years ago from Indiana/Chicagoland

      Very interesting. I love reading about our Native People. :)

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Learned a lot. Thx. I live right next to a reservation here in Washington. So it's interesting to hear about the Canadian First nations. Shared.

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