North American Native peoples, in general, believe that their place in the land is one specifically set aside for them. In the Maritime region it was Glooscap (GLOOS-kahb), a relative of all Maliseet and Mi'kmaq, who made the land ready for the peoples that came to live there. He then shot arrows into birch (or ash) trees, splitting the bark open, and men and women emerged to assume their rightful place among the forests and waterways, the animals and plants, and the multitude of other beings they found there.
Native peoples' relationship with the land is a spiritual one. Spiritual beliefs provide answers to their questions about their place in the world: Where in the land do we as a people belong? What are the boundaries of our place in space and time?
What lies beyond the limits of ordinary human perception (using the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell?) What happens after this life is ended? How are people connected with the other beings who live in this world? What standards and values define a "good" life?
A Native peoples' sense of themselves as a distinct group or nation is bound up with the place that is their home. The names peoples have for themselves as a nation or people frequently refer to this place.
The Maliseet are Wolastoqiyik (w'-lahs-t'-GWEE-eeg), "the people of the beautiful river" after their homeland along the St. John. The Passamaquoddies are known as Pestomuhkatiyik (bes-t'-moo-KAH-dee-eeg), "the people of the pollock-spearing place," Passamaquoddy Bay.
Among themselves, the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq go by names that are best translated as "the people" or simply "Indians"- Maliseet skicinuwok (skee-JEE-noo-w'g), derived from a root meaning "of the surface [of the earth]," and Mi'kmaq lnu'g ('L-noog) or nnu'g ('N-noog) derived from a root meaning "ordinary".
Spirituality and the Peoples' Sense of Place
To understand Maliseet and Mi'kmaq spirituality, it is important to learn about Glooscap and to consider his heroic activities. Glooscap is a powerful person who once lived in the Maritime region but who now lives in a faraway place.
His power was enormous, but he occasionally met his match, though he was mighty enough to overcome the evil power-users he faced. Perhaps most significant, Glooscap is a relative of all Wabanaki peoples.
Because of this, he has always been warm and generous toward them. Glooscap is the one who defeated powerful forces of chaos and brought order to the world, making it a fit place for people to live. The people's kinship with him confirms their sacred belief, originating in the time beyond human memory, that the Land of the Dawn- the Maritime region- was given specifically to them.
Glooscap's transformations, which brought order to the world, reveal a great deal about how the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq understood their relationship to the world they ordinarily perceived and to the spiritual "invisible" world they also knew to exist.
The accounts of his deeds also help explain why this sacred sense of a place within the natural world remains strong today.
People's rituals reveal their religious beliefs. Rituals express beliefs directly, as a religious service does, or symbolize them, as baptism does.
Prayer is a type of ritual based upon the belief that divine beings are responsive to people. Other familiar examples of rituals are weddings and funerals, saying grace before meals, making a procession or pilgrimage and singing hymns.
A familiar Mi'kmaq and Maliseet ritual today is "smudging", burning sweetgrass and passing the smoke over the body to cleanse the mind and spirit.
Rituals may be simple or elaborate, private or collective. There are rituals on most religions associated with times of transition (birth, adulthood, marriage, death) with seasonal events (the solstices, planting and harvesting) and with unforeseen crises (such as illness, drought, starvation).
Some rituals are used for seeking help from divine or spiritual beings. Others are meant for using this help- to cure a sick person or to obtain favorable conditions for hunting and planting.
In the past, the Mi'kmaq, after killing a bear, treated its carcass with elaborate ceremony, which included cutting a special door for it to enter the house. They did not risk offending the bear, which they believed to have extraordinary powers.
Hunting, though it is not considered a sacred activity by most hunters today, has always been sacred for the Mi'kmaq.
In modern times, as the casket is lowered into the grave at Maliseet and Passamaquoddy funerals, an elder sings a Native-language hymn with words so old that many of them are no longer in general use. This example shows how powerful and stable the forms of a ritual may be.