By Ishbel Munro
Being present and assisting in the birth of the traditional wi’kuom (wigwam) on unceded Mi’Kmaq territory, was a deep honour. Members from Apaji-wla’matulinej (Eastern Hub of Righting Relations) had been invited to support this work. In fact, it was brought about through our Advisory Committee member Catherine Martin, as her parting act as Nancy’s Chair at Mount St. Vincent University.
It was a two day labour and just like the journey of giving birth, it had moments of frustration, moments where some support people got out of harmony with each other, didn’t listen to the “being” being born. We had a grandmother huddle where we discussed what we saw happening and how could we bring back the harmony and working as one, so that the wi’kuom was welcomed into this world in a good way.
We had moments of deep joy and complete awe, when the poles were placed on the ends and the shape of the head emerged. At that moment elder, Lottie Mae Johnson remembered seeing this structure as a young child on Chapel Island. It is deeply moving how a teacher from another area can rekindle and bring back local traditional knowledge. It was an historic event.
Teaching that emerged, sometimes through pain and frustration were that the women are responsible for the home. The women have the say and are the ones who build the home with help from men. “We say where the sink will go,” explained Catherine Martin. It was, in fact, an Indigenous woman, Marilyn Francis who envisioned bringing back the traditional wi’kuom. She had contacted Tony Solomon, a well-known and respected teepee maker and teacher to create it for her. They did research and had many discussions. Tony often reminded us that he is Anishinabe. He did his best on the research but felt as the Mi’Kmaq used the wi’kuom and listened to her teachings, there would be adjustments and new understandings.
This was reflected in a comment by Sherry Pictou, who has just become the first permanent Indigenous Professor at Mount St. Vincent University, “ Thank-you to Cathy Martin and Tony Solomon for providing us with such incredible teachings and inspiring us to learn more about how our ancestral homes are our lifeways.”
It was an extremely hot and humid day to be working out in the sun. As we worked, some tension emerged as men who are used to just jumping in and doing, didn’t listen or argued with the women about how it should be done. Some women felt their voice was being denied and some moved a distance away. The grandmothers gathered everyone and spoke about the reasons this was important and how we needed to work as one, listen to each other and to the spirit of the wi’kuom. And the wonderful part was we all learned. At the evening reflection a man spoke emotionally about seeing what he was doing and learning to step back and let the women do it and then help where needed.
The next day, we did it all again! We wanted to make sure we would remember how to do it. Tony reminded us, “There are no mistakes. If something is not working, stop and listen. What is this telling us?” So we learned that the stakes need to be put in differently than a tee pee. She needed support along the middle first. We all learned to respect the time when we are putting on our grandmother’s dress. Just like when you are dressing or undressing your grandmother, you do not take pictures. Anyone who comes to the doorways is invited in. They do not stay standing in the door way as if they don’t belong in the circle. All our welcomed in and given a place to sit. Their voice is just as valuable as everyone else’s. In the western way of thought, the poles would be considered dead. The Indigenous way, they still contain spirit and can be our teachers.
While we worked or took breaks, we talked about the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations. People felt so good that Mount St. Vincent University was listening to Indigenous voices and working with Indigenous people to create this legacy. Catherine Martin said some people have teepees in Halifax and N.S., which is the name for an Indigenous western home, as far as she knows this is the first Mi’kmaq wigwam on a university campus. That a traditional wi’kuom will be used as a class room and teaching space for both Indigenous and non-indigenous people just felt so right!
And we talked of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP). People were saddened and upset to learn that at the Grand Pre 150 Celebration a non-native person has been contracted to provide 15 tee pees. The celebration is to honour the 400 year old friendship between the Indigenous people and Acadians. Having a German make the tee pees flies directly in the face of UNDRIP which Canada has signed. It is deeply insulting when there are Indigenous people who can and should be doing this work. So while we were uplifted by what we were doing, we knew there is still much to be done. And hopes were expressed that the wider community will learn to ask the advice of Indigenous women. The women would have brought up the future generations – saying “what will our children years from now learn looking at a structure created by a non-native. They will think this is our way and will not be able to find their way to the traditional teachings that come from our authentic ways of being and living.”
We ended by celebrating the birth day of the wi’kuom. Tony shared how to make a traditional Anishinabe corn soup. During the morning it was cared for by two women. It was brought into the centre of the wi’kuom. Serving in the Indigenous way, rather than the western way of doing things, young men quickly gave out bowls and filled them with steaming soup, followed by Labrador tea while songs were sung.
Reflections were shared and everyone was so thankful.
“I feel like I have come home.”