The film excerpts under this theme consider the role of women, ways of thinking about hunting and fishing, forestry management, the technique of building an igloo, the importance of spirituality, and the preservation and transmission of ancestral values.
by Stephen Augustine
Indigenous knowledge is a term used to describe information gathered by the original peoples who have inhabited a determined geographic area over a long period. Aboriginal peoples in Canada, also referred to as Indigenous peoples, comprise the Inuit, the First Nations and the Métis. The collective knowledge they have accumulated about the land and seas—including on the characteristics and behaviours of birds, plants, animals and fish—is called Indigenous knowledge. Activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, fowling, and gathering in order to prepare food, medicines, and make shelter, clothing, tools of survival and modes of travel on the water, ice, snow and land require a solid empirical knowledge. Among societies that had no formal writing system to record knowledge, one of the more reliable ways to protect and store knowledge was to share it collectively and regularly through storytelling, songs and spiritual ceremonies. Large gatherings of Indigenous groups, like the mawiomis among the Mi’kmaq in the East, the longhouses among the Great Lakes peoples, the powwows in the Plains and the potlatches on the Northwest Coast, have served this purpose. The cyclical nature of these gatherings ensured that this system of knowledge was passed down generation after generation.
The Elders in Indigenous societies kept knowledge alive by applying their belief systems every day. Their way of living in harmony with the land demonstrated to the young the basic principles and values needed to survive. The Elders were the wisdom keepers. Indigenous societies held their Elders in much respect because, without them, knowledge would be lost. Some had the responsibility to keep the medicines and ceremonies and they were referred to as shamans, medicine people or spirit keepers. It required a lot of patience in observing animals, plants, the weather, tides, stars and wind to be able to predict conditions suitable for hunting or fishing, planting and gathering. Women were responsible for preparing food, medicines, clothing, shelter and tools needed for a comfortable life. Young people had tasks of gathering roots, bark, clams and carrying their share of burden when changing location. Through this process young people acquired knowledge and learned to adapt it to new situations.
There are five major geo-cultural areas in Canada: the Arctic, sub-Arctic, Great Lakes, Plains and the Northwest Coast.
In the Arctic, the Inuit and the Dene have shown that survival is possible in extreme weather conditions. Their knowledge and skills are derived from their geography: they built shelters of snow or ice (igloos) or of whale bones; they got their food through ice fishing, spearing arctic char and seals, hunting polar bears and caribou, and harpooning whales; they built kayaks or umiaks (flat-bottomed boats); and they made tools from stone, bone, leather, sinew, and sometimes drift wood. Many still know these skills today.
In the Sub-arctic, Indigenous cultures have survived by hunting, fishing and gathering food from the land and waterways, according to seasons. They built canoes, toboggans, sleds and snowshoes to travel, and the river systems served as their main roads, winter or summer. Usually, Indigenous peoples settled in larger coastal villages for the summer after the spring melt, and in smaller groups inland after the fall freeze. They knew not to travel through treacherous water and relied on their sled dogs to forewarn them of danger. Elders—the knowledge and wisdom keepers— showed how to build canoes, wigwams, containers from birch bark, cedar, and spruce roots. Sleds, toboggans and snowshoes were made from moose and caribou hides, ash or birch.
In the Great Lakes area, Indigenous peoples cultivated corn, beans and squash, which enabled them to live in larger groups, in the longhouses built from trees covered by elm bark. Dugout and sometimes elm bark canoes were used along the waterways. For winter, they had to gather and preserve the food they had grown and supplement it with hunting. Baskets and many other containers were made to store food in the longhouses.
In the Prairies, Indigenous peoples relied mostly on the buffalo for survival. The buffalo was everything: food, medicine, and tools, and the hides were used for clothes, blankets and tepees. Even canoes were made from buffalo skins. Snowshoes and sleds were also needed during winter. During summer, Indigenous peoples travelled with the help of dogs and travois (a frame pulled by dogs to transport teepees and other possessions). Later, when horses arrived, most of the Plains peoples relied on them for buffalo hunting or for moving their villages from one location to another.
The Northwest Coast was another distinct geography requiring Indigenous peoples to develop survival techniques adapted to local resources, environments and conditions. Some groups depended on the resources from the ocean and estuaries, while others in the interior hunted, fished in rivers and gathered food. The large cedar and redwood trees provided material for large houses, for carving totems and dugout ocean canoes, making boxes, tools, blankets and clothing. People hunted whales, seal, eulachon, salmon and gathered shellfish. Ceremonies were made to honour neighbouring chiefs bestowing them with gifts at potlatches.
In all the geo-cultural areas, each Indigenous group developed their languages from their intimate interaction with the land, all living entities and their patterns of survival. The Inuit people have many words to describe the snow while people of the coastal areas have many words to describe sea conditions. The ability to recognize and specify weather patterns played a major role in hunting and fishing.
A Pow-wow at the 2006 Winter Festival Regina Campus, First Nations University of Canada
Credit: Tina Pelletier, photographer
Courtesy of First Nations University of Canada
Indigenous peoples have been developing ways of knowing through observing, living and traveling the land and waterways in North America for thousands of years. The peoples who lived here, long before the Vikings landed about 1000 AD, had a deep understanding and a sacred connection (through ceremonies) to the land, water and all living entities, and thus were able to develop their cultures. Their successful survival strategies are the result of careful long-term observation and negotiation with their environment, made up of very different ecologies. Besides oral tradition, archaeological sites in Nova Scotia and the Yukon Territories attest that the Indigenous peoples have been there for over 11,000 years.
Stephen Augustine, Hereditary Chief, Mi’Kmaq Grand Council
Stephen Augustine, is a Curator of Ethnology for Eastern Maritimes, in the Ethnology Services Division of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau/Ottawa. His Master’s degree thesis in Canadian Studies from Carleton University focused on traditional knowledge and ways of learning. He also holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. Recently, he has been accredited as an expert witness in various court cases involving Aboriginal access to resources in the Maritimes and is recognized for his knowledge of oral history, ethno-history and of the treaties in the region. As a hereditary chief on the Mi’Kmaq Grand Council and through Elders’ training from an early age, Stephen J. Augustine has acquired a thorough knowledge of traditional practices, his language and the history of his people.