Mi'kmaq Feasting

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5.3 Feasting The themes that arose in all the discussions around feasting were the themes of community and sharing. The importance of celebrating and commemorating events together is why Mi’kmaq people feast as often as they do and most of their feasts are potlucks. The community draws on their resources and shares them, and in doing so shares in the occasion for the event. In order to learn about the event for a feast I started interviews and the focus group with the question “What is a feast?” There are some specific occasions for feasts, such as powwows, “when friends come from a far” (A, December 2010) or seasonal celebrations called mawi’omi, “which is more close-knit, community gathering” (A, December 2010) but it was agreed upon between all the participants that most community gatherings include feasts. Most feasts did not have foods that were specific to certain kinds of feast, although the caterer said that for: …powwows, we try to gear the powwow feasts around like traditional foods. Like if someone has moose meat that would be great, we try to have fish, salmon, eels around the time when eel is available, deer meat when it’s available. For the most part, it’s um, whatever is ready and available…if we’re lucky and it’s around fiddlehead time we have fiddleheads (A, December 2010) The focus group claimed that they feasted a lot in Paq’tnkek, probably more than other tribes. They based this perception that the connection between feasts and community is very 47 strong, and that Paq’tnkek is a close knit community. This was echoed by one of the adults I interviewed, who emphasized that “feasts are community oriented” (A, December 2010). During one feast I attended, someone made a point of telling me that Paq’tnkek was known for their eels, and their salites. The Salite mortuary ritual is perhaps the most powerful example of how feasting works in Mi’kmaq culture to draw on community resources and really bring a community together for support. A salite: … its like, you would give up your prize possession, and you would try to win it back you know by bidding on it. Yah so once all the family comes home to pay their respects they would um, then they’d have the funeral depending on what day, you know, some wouldn’t bury on Friday, some wouldn’t bury on Sunday, so that Catholic religion did seep in… So that would happen after the funeral, you’d have the wake, then the funeral, then the feast. So that’s when we would have the auction, the Salite. And it’s to keep the minds occupied, and its fun and it’s a meal you’re cooking for people, family friends and that and then during the meal they have the auction, the salite… So yes, you’d give up whatever possessions and the money that’s gathered helps with the additional cost (J, December 2010). The salite creates solidarity, celebrates a life and redistributes resources after the loss of a community member and is one of the gatherings that bring communities together. Other reasons for feasting include honouring elders and women, celebrating holidays, seasons and successes and commemorating historical moments or those who have passed on. By gathering to honour, celebrate and commemorate, Mi’kmaq people share the events that are important to them, in culturally aligned ways which makes these occasions’ powerful places for revitalizing culture and developing group solidarity and group identity. The feasts I went to were community events. The town gym is where all the feasts I attended in Paq’tnkek were held. The first feast I was at in Paq’tnkek was a powwow, a dance competition. It was before the project was fully conceived, but I remember the Grand Entry, there were numerous flags, many I had never seen before, but I now recognize two of them as the Mi’kmaq flag and the Mohawk flag. Women were being honoured at that powwow, and the 48 women and girls came in carrying a large banner, and did a lap of the gym while the youth stood for the elders. I remember thinking how different it was—the entrance, the colours, the designs on the regalia, it was very different from what I have seen out west. I was present at feasts after Sisters-in-Spirit events, which advocates for Native Women and works to prevent family violence. The first gathering I attended was after an awareness march demanding action on the issue of missing Native Women and the second of their events that I attended was a feast on Valentine’s Day intended to kick-off Family Violence week. For Valentines Day, the gym was gorgeously decorated with table linens and seat covers, candlelight and candy hearts. The feast began with several speeches introducing the organization and commending the Paq’tnkek community for being so supportive of Sister’s in Spirit programs. They had a commemoration ceremony where ribbons with tobacco were tied on to a little tree in honour of women, victims and survivors of family violence, on behalf of organizations, such as the band council and in celebration of working against this issue. The meal was buffet style, with youth bringing soup to the tables of elders and guests. On this occasion I attended as part of a class, and so was sitting with a group of guests. In line we were also invited to the front, just behind elders. Like the Valentine’s Day feast, the craft event was catered, and because it focused on knowledge transmission, a conscious effort was made to provide customary foods. There were soups, moose, eel, lusnigan, salads, turkey and potatoes. The feast came after presentations on dream catcher making, leatherwork, painting and quill work and a presentation by a band councillor on doing beading and making his regalia for powwows. There were about 20 youth between the ages of ten and twenty at the event. I sat with the younger kids and the young band councillor at the feast, and the young man made fun of the kids who were eating hot dogs instead 49 of eel and moose, which were available. The overwhelming response from the young kids when being teased about not trying eel was “YUCK!” I asked the girl I was sitting with why she did not like eels, and she told me that she did not eat fish at all, that her favourite foods were spaghetti and pizza and that was all she really liked to eat. When I asked if she ever had eels at home, she thought about it, and then told me “I’ve only seen eels at feasts and they look gross.” The little girl’s unfamiliarity with eel was identified as decrease in the availability of eel in general described my participants. The caterer I interviewed, who cooked for this event said it was very hard to get eels for events, that she did not know how to get them or clean them, and she did not think there were many people who had this knowledge. This was the only event I encountered eel (it was baked), and like the girl I sat with, I did not enjoy them. I do not like fish in general though, which is probably because I never had fish growing up, again like the little girl. I did have moose though, but at the craft feast the moose was cubed and served in gravy, which was a way I had never eaten moose before and was very tasty with the lusnigan. I have attended several mawi’omi potlucks on campus during my time at StFX and the most recent one was very well received by the campus community and a large crowd participated. The focus was on “Embracing Life’s Journey” and was a celebration of life against the issue of youth suicide. Before the feast there were dances and two speakers. The dances were beautiful, and the origins of the jingle dress dance, a healing dance, was told to the audience. The Aboriginal Student Society, which hosted the event, taught round and two step dances to the community after eating. I even cooked for this event—I brought a blueberry dessert. This potluck had lots of food which served by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people who were at the event. There was lusnigan, fry-bread, buns, biscuits, moose stew, fried 50 rice, a couple of different salads, chilli, turkey, mashed potatoes and tons of desserts, from cookies to a whipped cream dessert, bread pudding, brownies and fruit. Some of these foods are Mi’kmaq and some are not considered customary foods, thought it is complicated. The food at potlucks depends on many things, such as available resources, not just what is in season, but what people can afford, as well as what people have in their cupboards and what they are comfortable cooking. This is why it is not uncommon to see pastas or hot dogs at feasts, they are quick, easy, and cheap and most people have them on hand. When I asked what Mi’kmaq foods were during the focus group one youth jokingly said Kraft Dinner, Mr. Noodles and bologna were Mi’kmaq foods, which resulted in a laugh, but then sparked a serious note: Youth 1:“that’s our contemporary diet” Youth 2:“our modern Mi’kmaq food, our “now” food” Me: “why?” Youth 1: “you wanna delve into that one-into why we eat Kraft Dinner and hot dogs? Me: “yeah, sure” Youth 3: It’s cheaper! Youth 1: its cause we’re poor, our traditional foods were taken from us Youth 4: I think we don’t knows how really, to harvest our own food… that’s probably why we eat KD and hotdogs, we are assimilated now (January 2011) The youth created a very clear separation between what “traditional” food is, and “modern Mi’kmaq food.” Modern Mi’kmaq food is seen as everyday food, and there is a real sense of loss in these words. One of youths identifies the loss of knowledge in how to go get these resources, but also the comment that the foods were taken from them--the sense that they would still have knowledge and traditional foods if historical circumstances had been different. I was struck by how well the youth connected their contemporary diet to issues such as social change and lifestyle change, which they understood as being connected to assimilation. It is also frustrating to see the perception that just because they eat Kraft Dinner, hot dogs or Mr. Noodles they have been assimilated. Being aware of the ways in which a different culture has forced Mi’kmaq 51 people to participate in a society that imposes certain legal, economic, time and resource constraints on their ability to access customary foods is far from being assimilated. Quite the opposite really, as there is clearly resistance against the idea of assimilation which can be heard in the frustrated way the youth engaged in this part of the conversation. With all of the participants a change from ‘how it used to be’ to ‘how it is now’ was discussed within a framework of time constraints and money. In the modern economy, people need jobs and you can not get time off to go hunting or fishing for your family. Hunting itself has become a restraint. As one participant described, there are now costs associated with acquiring customary food and structures that make it very difficult to access resources. The decrease in customary food, and subsequent increase in consuming “new Mi’kmaq food” is seen as adaptation to “urbanization and industrialization” (Youth 5, January 2011), “we go fishing at Sobeys…we grew lazy” (Youth 4, January 2011). One of the women I interviewed said that “I think technology ruined us” (A, December 2010). Quite straightforwardly, she discussed how boys do not hunt because they are playing Xbox or are on the computer, but said about hunting and fishing “even if I could, I don’t know that I would either…I don’t like the cold” (A, December 2010). Gerald Sider provides an interesting way to think about what Youth 5 said, rather than just adapting to social change, or as Youth 4 suggested, being assimilated. Sider argues that adopting values or lifestyles is not necessarily assimilation, but quiet and subversive ethnic confrontation (1994: 54). From Sider’s point of view, the Mi’kmaq are not assimilated, rather they are trying to “beat the colonizer at his own games” by being as successful in the dominant society, if not more successful. This confrontation is a part of the process of cultural revitalization which affirms and produces a distinct identity against the structures which imposed 52 53 social changes urbanization and industrialization. Additionally, feasts which include both customary and non-customary foods, where customary foods are understood to be better or more important demonstrates that Mi’kmaq people are consciously or subconsciously engaging with dominant society and asserting their culture and identity based on their own understandings. (Definitely all my own words)

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