Indigenous spirituality alive and thriving in and around Montréal

Daniel J. Rowe

Mohawk Trail Longhouse faith keeper Ka’nahsóhon Kevin Deer from Kahnawà:ke said understanding Indigenous spirituality starts with understanding the first peoples of the region.

“I always take a snapping turtle,” said Deer. “This represents Turtle Island (North America); it also represents our creation story. When we sing the highest song of gratitude, which we call the great feather dance, it’s to honour the Great Spirit. All of our teachings are contained in here.”

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Creation stories

Tiohtá:ke (the Kanien’kéha word for Montréal) and the surrounding region includes a wide array of spiritual and religious sites. The region’s Indigenous peoples - the Anishinaabe, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), Innu and others - continue to follow their traditional teachings.

“In our creation story, we refer to the earth as our mother because she is,” said Deer. “We’re all children of this one earth and we have a responsibility to love her and to be in communion with the natural world as much as possible.”

The ceremony calendar

The Haudenosaunee ceremony calendar starts with the mid-winter ceremony after the winter solstice and continues through to the harvest ceremony in the fall. The Kanien’kehá:ka are one of six nations in the Haudenosaunee confederacy (sometimes referred to by the European name Iroquois). The other five are the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora and Seneca.

Each ceremony has a unique character, but with some similar threads running through them.

“Our original instruction is that we dance,” said Deer. “We sing all of these sacred songs, dances, speeches, rituals, so that all of the things of the sacred cycle of life will continue to do their roles, duties and responsibilities, and, as a result, we humans can have life.”

The pow wow circuit

Pow wows are ideal places for authentic Indigenous music and dance. Kahnawá:ke’s Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow Wow is the largest pow wow in the area, and is on July 13 and 14 this year.

The Kanehsatake Annual Pow Wow is in August, and Akwesasne PowWow is from September 7 to 9.

Pow wows double as places to pick up authentic beadworks, regalia, and other arts and crafts, and sample Indigenous cuisine.

All Indigenous nations are invited to dance or sing at pow wows, and, though each nation is unique, there are unifying elements in ceremony.

“The drum is the so-called universal tool because the drum takes us back to the first heartbeat that we all hear, and all of the drums are round because they talk of the interconnectedness and the web of life,” said Deer.

Visiting cultural and spiritual sites

Visits to Kahnawà:ke’s spiritual longhouses must be prearranged, and they are not open to the general public.

The Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (or KOR, as it’s called in the community) hosts a small but informative gallery and museum, and guided tours are easily arranged.

The Droulers-Tsiionhiakwatha Archaeological Site Interpretation Center in Saint-Anicet (around an hour west of Montréal) includes a replica of a traditional longhouse used as living quarters, and Kanien’kehá:ka village visitors can enter and explore with a guided tour.

Archaeology sites continue to be uncovered throughout Québec, including one at the Parc national des Îles-de-Boucherville that also includes a replica of traditional Indigenous living quarters.

The First Nations Garden in the Montreal Botanical Garden is a contemporary garden inspired by Indigenous cultures, and ties into Deer’s basic message about exploring his nation’s spirituality.

“Just be in communion, which essentially means be one with the natural world because our mother, as much as people try to subjugate her, shows us pure unconditional love all of the time because we’re still using all of the stuff we need in our life every day: clean water, animals, plants, birds,” said Deer.

Daniel J. Rowe

Daniel J. Rowe, journalist

Daniel J. Rowe is a West Coast transplant that wound up in Montréal via Japan and became an award-winning journalist and photographer working out of the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Kahnawà:ke. He’s an admitted culture addict, sports fanatic in the worst way and food and drink snob, though he’ll eat a hot dog and enjoy it on those nights that hot dogs are all that’s needed. The best view in life for him is on a bicycle at high speeds, and he will point it out if you use the adjective everyday incorrectly.

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