Mi’kmaw Language, Spirituality & Medicine – Mi’kmaw – Tlo’ti



Language – Tli’suti

It has been said that one of the most important cultural aspects to the identity of any people is their language, and as such, so it is for the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaw language stems from the Algonquian linguistic family and is related to other Algonquian languages such as Cree, Delaware, and Ojibway.

With the exception of hieroglyphics, the Mi’kmaw language is of an oral tradition – a spoken language that remains so today. It is a very intricate language often compared in complexity to Latin. The Mi’kmaw language is verb based. The development of the language does not revolve around the object, as in English, but rather, centres on the action being discussed.

In 1974, Bernie Francis, a Mi’kmaw linguist, along with Mr. Doug Smith, researched and developed a new orthography which was based on the phonemic principle. They developed this system by carefully studying the already written language of Father Pacifique and the dictionary of Silas T. Rand, who worked with the Mi’kmaw people in the 1800s. This new orthography, completed in 1980 and known as the Francis/ Smith system, was accepted and is presently used throughout Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, parts of Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.

Mi’kmaw Spirituality – Ktlamsitasuti

When the early Europeans first encountered the Mi’kmaq they grossly misinterpreted their spiritual beliefs and practices and assumed that because there was no physical evidence of European religious structures, this somehow meant that the Mi’kmaw possessed no form of religion or spiritual ideology. Further, the Europeans perceived the religious practices of the Mi’kmaw people as mere superstitions. when in fact these practices were pursued out of spiritual beliefs based on respect for both the living and the deceased.

Mi’kmaw people, in common with most Aboriginal nations, believed that all life was created by one, all-powerful Being, the ultimate Creator, known as Kji-Niskam (Great Spirit). Mi’kmaw spirituality is a philosophy and a way of life that is encompassed in their beliefs, which dictate their actions in their lives on Mother Earth and life in the Spirit World. Respect is the basic element of Mi’kmaw spirituality and the belief that all living things on earth have a spirit (including humans and animals) make important to show reverence for life. Every aspectic of life and death is wholistic and connected, one to the other. This is why when Mi’kmaw people pray it is done in a circle, and when they dance it is in a circle to honour the Creator.

To communicate with his people, the Great Spirit, Kji-Niskam, created Mi’kmaw mediators who existed in the community and who possessed extraordinary powers – of foreseeing events, interpreting dreams, and of having the ability to communicate with the environment around them. These individuals were known as puoinaq and had the ability to interced in the spirit world. Some traditional items which were significant to these puoinaq in their ability to heal and communicate with the spirit world included sweet grass, drums, rattles, etc.

Europeans viewed the Mi’kmaq as having no religious beliefs, and many of the newcomers set out to enlighten the Mi’kmaq on their own perception of religion by converting all Mi’kmaq to the Christian faith. As a sign of good faith and as a symbol of the Mi’kmaw alliance to the French, Grand Chief Membertou and 21 members of his family were baptized in 1610. In 1628 the Mi’kmaq adopted St. Anne as their patron saint, but continued to hold Mawio’mi at their traditional gathering places as a celebration of such. Mawio’mi, or gathering, is a time of joy, reflection, remembrance, goodwill, sharing, and an opportunity to connect with the Great Spirit. Each year, the Mi’kmaq gather at two main areas in Nova Scotia – Chapel Island and Merigomish – to Honour St. Anne, the grandmother of the Mi’kmaq. This is where the old and new, the living and the deceased, rejuvenate and reaffirm their strengths and abilities.

Herbal Medicine – L’nui-npisun

The Mi’kmaq had their own powers of healing, the source of which was found in the surrounding environment. Herbal medicines were readily available and it took only the wise use of them to bring out their healing powers and remedial properties. These remedies came in many forms including poultices and drinks, though they were also consumed in their natural form. Many were cures, while others were preventive medicines. Still others, if improperly, could be poisonous. Some of these medicines are said to cure illness and diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis, rheumatism, and the common cold. Knowing where to find these plants is another skill of the Mi’kmaq, for their natural habitat may include swamps, bogs, barrens, forests, or fields.

Sweet Grass Welim’qewe’l Msiku is used for its purification properties and is of great ceremonial and spiritual value.

Ground Juniper (Kinikwejitewaqsi): The tree is good for kidney ailments, especially bladder infections. The twigs are cut off at the ends and then boiled to make a good tonic. It is said that this can lower the sugar level. People with diabetes should take it with caution.

White Spruce Tree (Kawtk): The branches and bark of the tree are good for making a tonic. Boil, then drink at least two cups a day for colds, tuberculosis, and laryngitis. The sap or gum from the inner bark of the tree can be used to treat sores in the mouth. the bark is taken off the tree, then the inner sap or gum is scraped off. This solution is boiled in water for about five minutes. If the solution is to be used for infants and children it would be appropriate to dip a cloth into the solution and apply the medicine in the mouth of the child.

Alder (Tupsi): The alder tree is a good medicine for rheumatism, stomach and kidney ailments, fever, neuralgia, and headaches. The inner bark is shaved off. These shavings are then soaked in water with a dash of peppermint, then applied directly to the person’s head. A towel is wrapped around the head to keep the shavings in place. The towel and shavings should be replaced every day. this is a good way to get rid of migraine headaches.

Cherry Tree (Maskwesmnaqsi): The cherry bark was used mainly for colds and the flu. It made the person sweat out the sickness they had. Boil the bark for about an hour and drink two cups a day.

Flagroot (Kikwesu’sk): Preventative medicine. Good for colds, flu, stomach complaints, and colic in babies. Can also be used as a cough medicine when mixed with sarsaparilla. The part of the plant most commonly used is the root.

Golden Thread (Wisowtaqjijl): This medicine was steeped. It was used for blood purification, for stomach ulcers, diarrhea, colds, influenza, and diabetes. The medicine can also be used to treat external sores such as chapped lips, and minor cuts and abrasions. Caroline Gould of Waycobah uses the medicine to treat external wounds that have a hard time healing. She uses the plants in combination with sheep fat, boiling the Golden Threads with the fat until the fat turns a brownish colour. Once this cools it produces a salve. She says that rubbing the salve on the wound has very strong medicinal properties.

Caution: Certain plants should be taken only under proper supervision. Always consult a person who knows something about the plant before administering.


This excerpt from the Mi’kmaw Resource Guide 2007 was made possible through the collaboration of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, and the Native Council of Nova Scotia. The Fourth Edition – 2007 was made possible through the Tripartite Education Committee and was funded by the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Aboriginal Affairs, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, and Canadian Heritage and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Project Coordinators were Tim Bernard, of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, Rosalie Francis of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, and Spencer Wilmot of the Native Council of Nova Scotia. Contributors included Bernie Francis – Mi’kmaq translation, Kristie Gehue, Julie Martin, Clayton Paul – research, and Mary Martha Sylliboy, © Eastern Woodland Publishing. P.O. Box 1590, Truro, N.S. Canada, B2N 5V3, Telephone 902-895-2038.