The two tribes that I decided to examine more deeply are the Chinook of the Pacific Northwest and the Mi’kmaq of New England and the Canadian Maritimes. Both Native American tribes have similar beliefs about protective spirits and having reciprocity with them. However, they do have differences in how they apply these beliefs to their societies.
The Chinook, who live along the Columbia River, were well-known for their expert navigation. “Chinook” became the trading language of the Pacific Northwest since this tribe facilitated trade between various peoples. The Chinook were also noted for binding the heads of their babies to slope upwards to indicate a sign of high status.
The Chinook of today have two rituals that they do annually. The First Salmon Ceremony and the Potlatch Feast binds the Chinook into a web of obligations to create a cohesive community. These ceremonies also cements the Chinook to the Spirits of the Land (which includes animals). Woven together through reciprocity, humans, Spirits, and the Land form an unbreakable whole.
The First Salmon Ceremony returns the bones of the first salmon caught back to the Columbia River. Before the Return, salmon berries are fed to the martyred Salmon. Since this Salmon chose to sacrifice itself for the Chinook, they want to show this fish their gratitude and respect. The ceremony also ensures the return of other salmon and a good catch. Meanwhile, the Salmon Spirit goes to live as a human in a home under the sea. The First Salmon Ceremony highlights this cycle of reciprocation between humans and the Spirits.
The Potlach Feast, which includes the dancing of representative animals and the giving of gifts, reaffirms the sacred relationship of the people, the animals, and the Great Spirit. The animals allow the humans to thrive since the Great Spirit gives everyone what they need. The Potlatch Ceremony enables the people to thank both.
During the Potlach Feast, the host gives away his wealth. The more he gives away, the more honor and status he receives. The Chinook held Potlaches for births, marriages, and funerals. This ceremony redistributes wealth within the community and builds stronger social ties. People who received the gifts would then hold Potlaches, and thus the cycle of giving continues.
The Mi’kmaq of New England and the Canadian Maritimes are not as well-known as the Chinook. They are one of the Wabanaki tribes of the region, which also includes the Abenaki, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and the Penobscot. These Native Americans lived by fishing, hunting, and fur trading.
Like the Chinook, the Mi’kmaq live in a web of reciprocity where the spirits help the humans to thrive, and the humans thank the Spirits. To the Mi’kmaq, the world has many kinds of existence – humans, stars, animals, thunder, with each is mindful of the others. For the Mi’kmaq, they and the protective spirits of the land (plants, animals) are equals. When a Mi’kmaq takes something, they will leave an offering of tobacco.
In Mi’kmaq stories and teachings, power – its use and misuse – is often depicted and discussed. This differs from the Chinook who employed the Potlatch Ceremony to curb the misuse of power. In their stories, the Mi’kmaq feature Glooscap, their culture hero, who teaches the proper ways of living and conduct.
Glooscap (which means “good”) and his twin brother, Malsm (“weak”) were sent to earth by the Beings of the Sky World. The two brothers were supposed to make the earth habitable for humans by changing the landscape, killing monsters, and creating animals. While Glooscap did this, Malsm made the mountains taller and the rivers crooked. He also created bad things to harm people such as the vicious badger. Eventually Glooscap had to kill Malsm when his brother plotted his murder. According to the Mi’kmaq, these stories explain how good and weakness came to be on the earth. The Mi’kmaq have a sense that even the worst person can become good, which is why Glooscap was reluctant to kill his brother until Malsm forced his hand.
The Mi’kmaq say that when the Whites came, Glooscap left the region. He got into his stone canoe and sailed off. Meanwhile his devoted the friend, the Loon cries for his return. The Mi’kmaq believe when they need help, they will find Glooscap, who will return.
The Chinook and the Mi’kmaq both see themselves as part of a sacred web of reciprocity between humans and the spirits of the natural world. The Mi’kmaq leave offerings when they take something from nature, while the Chinook hold the First Salmon Ceremony. However, they approach the problem of proper behavior in their communities differently. The Mi’kmaq differ from the Chinook in that they have Glooscap, a Culture Hero, who teaches them about the uses and abuses of power. The Chinook hold Potlatch Ceremonies to redistribute wealth and therefore power.
Franklin, Harold, “Mi’kmaq.” http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/micmac-mikmaq/
Mi’kmaw Culture, http://www.muiniskw.org/pgCulture0.htm
Native American Indian Facts: Chinook Indian Facts, http://www.native-american-indian-facts.com/Northwest-Coast-American-Indian-Facts/Chinook-Indians-Facts.shtml
O’Neil, Shannon, “Weapons, Beliefs, and Traditions of the Chinook Indian.” http://classroom.synonym.com/weapons-beliefs-traditions-chinook-indian-7134.html, 2017.