Reclaiming Culture

On the land, community and classroom in Sipekne’katik

July 2, 2024

A cultural reclamation is underway in the Mi’kmaw community of Sipekne’katik in what we now call Nova Scotia. The First Nation is situated just eight kilometres from the site of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. The Indian day schools operated on the reserve from 1894 to1996. During centralization in the 1940s, the federal government forcibly relocated many Mi’kmaq from around Nova Scotia to two reserves, one of which was Sipekne’katik.

Together, these colonial policies tried to strip Mi’kmaq of connection to land, language, culture and identity. But the Mi’kmaq are still here, still strong.

Student journalists in the Reporting in Mi’kma’ki course – a collaboration between the University of King’s College and Nova Scotia Community College – headed to Sipekne’katik to learn more.

They met community members who shared their time and expertise to pass on teachings, from ribbon skirts to medicines to culture and language in the classroom.

‘I Hope It Continues’:
Mi’kmaw Elder shares importance of teachings

By Paige Dillman and Ainslie Nicholl-Penman

Tall pillars disguised as birch trees welcome Mi’kmaw students into the front entrance of L’nu Sipuk Kina’muokuom (LSK) School in Sipekne’katik First Nation. Vibrant paintings of colourful moose and soaring eagles adorn the hallway walls.

By 10:00 a.m., Mary Lou Bernard’s class is full of students sorting through containers of beads.

The room is lined with handmade baskets, student art, and Mi’kmaw games, like Waltes.

A Waltes board for an ancient Mi’kmaw dice game in Mary Lou Bernard’s classroom at L’nu Sipuk Kina'muokuom (LSK) School.

Bernard has taught as the Elder-in-Residence at LSK for 16 years. Her culture, language, and crafts class allows the students to learn more about their Mi’kmaw identity.

“You have to know who you are,” says Bernard, “If you lose that, you lose yourself.”

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In this class, Bernard introduced the artistry of beading into her lessons – a centuries-old Mi’kmaw tradition.


“It helps them do fine work,” says Bernard, “and also to appreciate what goes into making stuff. “You did that with your own hands, you know. You should be happy about that.”


Her classroom carries an eager-to-learn energy, a feeling she says has stuck with her since she was little.

Dalania Paul and Gorga Lynn working on their dream catchers. (Photo Credit: Ainslie Nicholl-Penman)

Bernard grew up in Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick and says she always knew she wanted to work with children.


“I was in Prince Edward Island one time and (was) asked to help (at) the preschool. And oh, they were so cute,” she says. “When I came to Shubie, I got this opportunity to go back to school and get my Grade 12.”


In 1973, Bernard moved to Sipekne’katik, often called Shubenacadie or Shubie for short, to complete high school and was accepted to a teacher’s college after graduating.


“That’s where it all began,” she says.


Bernard says learning is a lifelong process, “and I’m trying to share (everything) as I go along.”

Mary Lou Bernard’s classroom at LSK. (Photo Credit: Ainslie Nicholl-Penman)

After 46 years of teaching, Bernard says helping Mi’kmaw youth finish a project motivates her to keep going.


“It’s seeing a student catch onto something that they didn’t realize before,” she says. “It’s like they almost light up.”


Bernard leans over to help Peyton Levi with his medicine pouch as he struggles to thread the lace.


“He’s impatient and wants to get it done fast,” she chuckles, “but when he did get it done, he was glad that it was his.”

Mary Lou Bernard helping LSK student Peyton Levi with his medicine pouch. (Photo Credit: Ainslie Nicholl-Penman)

Though she didn’t get to it in this class, she typically ends the school day with a language lesson.


Bernard says she is one of the only fluent Mi’kmaw Elders who teaches at the school and wants the Mi’kmaw youth to continue learning and never lose that drive inside them.


“How can you prove you’re Mi’kmaw if you can’t speak your language?” she says.


Bernard says her time at LSK has helped her see the importance of learning and keeping Mi’kmaw traditions alive.


“It’s working out good,” she says with a smile on her face. “I hope it continues.”

A gift from Mother Earth: Mi’kmaw Elder shares alternatives to modern medicines

By Natalie Mariah

For Mi’kmaw Elder Joe Francis, the start of spring, or siwk in Mi’kmaw, brings new life to Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia.


He calls it one of the most important seasons because many plants are collected and processed for future medicinal and ceremonial use at this time.


“I learned from my grandparents and my mother and father,” says Francis. “Every year we would go, go for a walk in the woods and get medicines.”


Now, many call Francis the Medicine Man.

Spring flourishes on the historic Mi’kmawey Debert Interpretive Trail. (Photo Credit: Natalie Mariah)

Francis shares a story about how he healed a young man who was suffering from a bronchitis attack while on a hunting trip in the mountains. Francis used juniper berries that he found near their campsite.

“He slept, and then they [his father] got back here and he says, ‘Well, let’s go hunting.’ His father looked at him and goes, ‘What? You’re sick.’ [He says] ‘No I’m not, I’m all right.’”

Francis says juniper berries can be picked “right off the tree” and chewed or boiled into a tea to help clear up lung infections.
“Drink it twice a day. Once in the morning and once at night.”

He says to offer the remnants back to the earth.

“You put tobacco on it and you thank the spirits for helping you,” says Francis.

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Francis has lived on reserve in Sipekne’katik for most of his life. Over the last 40 years, he’s travelled around Turtle Island to gather knowledge about ceremonies and medicines.

Now, he wants to share his teachings with young people in his community. Francis says some youth are curious.

“I’ve had a couple of kids where it’s almost like they’re Velcro to me. I turn around, they’re there,” he says.

But Francis says he’s concerned that a lack of interest in learning about the ways of traditional medicine among younger generations will lead to a loss of knowledge.

“At first they’ll come along and they’ll say, can you teach me something? I’ll say yeah, I could teach you,” says Francis. “And they’ll probably last about an hour, maybe two hours, then their interest goes on to something else and they’re distracted.”

Elder Joe Francis identifies medicine picked by the Subenacadie river. (Photo Credit: Natalie Mariah)

Francis says protecting traditional medicine practices is important because nature provides options for people who do not want synthetic treatment.

“It’s up to the individual, which way they want to go. Whether they want to go with the pharmaceuticals or whether they want to go with nature,” says Francis. “That nature part, there’s no other additives in it. Just what you want.”

Francis says his door is always open.

“I help people, obviously,” says Francis. “If they need help, I help them.”

One stitch at a time: Reclaiming and sharing cultural knowledge through ribbon skirts

By Jessie Bruce

Three nights a week, Jill Paul teaches Mi’kmaw women to sew ribbon skirts in her community of Sipekne’katik.


Paul was inspired to start the class based on a need she saw in her own life. She struggled to provide regalia for her five children who dance in powwows.


“It’s really quite expensive to get regalia for all of them so I decided to teach myself how to sew,” says Paul.


She was determined to learn and spread the knowledge she gained to the rest of her community.

CAPTION: Jill Paul explains the next step in making her ribbon skirt to community member Courtney Knockwood. (Jessie Bruce)

With the help of Sipekne’katik’s Employment and Training Centre and donations, Paul opened the sewing room in November of 2022.


She invited Chief Michelle Glasgow to share her knowledge for the first class but when Glasgow was called away partway through, Paul stepped up to lead.


“So I was teaching and learning at the same time,” she says.


Desks with sewing machines form a circle around the room and cabinets on the wall are stocked with patterned fabric and a rainbow of ribbons which Paul says allows everyone to express themselves.

Jill Paul shows the various ribbon skirts she’s made. (Jessie Bruce)

Ribbon skirts are traditional garments worn by many First Nations women, girls and Two-Spirit people to symbolize strength and cultural connection.


“Nowadays people wear [a ribbon skirt for] more than just traditional and ceremonies. You can wear it knee length, middle of your leg and down to your ankles,” says Paul. “And the ones that are down to your ankles are for ceremonial and the other ones are just mainstream.”

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Paul has gained more confidence and ability since starting the class. She has shared her knowledge with more than 300 people in the last year and a half. She also makes ribbon skirts to raffle off so she can bring further resources into the sewing room.


Paul says she devotes so much time to keep this aspect of her culture alive for everyone in her community, including her family.


She’s gained more skills and has made more regalia for her children to dance in the powwows; including grass dancer regalia, a jingle dress, and two fancy shawl regalias.

Jill Paul’s children at a Sipekne’katik Mawio’mi. (Photo courtesy: Jill Paul)

Paul is hands-on with her teaching. She’s always nearby as people work on their skirts. When they’re ready to move on to the next step she gives further instruction in her gentle tone.


The quiet hum of sewing machines is punctuated by participants’ laughter and conversations.


Paul says she wants the sewing room to be a safe and enjoyable place for the community to collaborate and learn from each other.

Jill Paul watches as community member Courtney Knockwood threads a sewing machine. (Photo credit: Natalie Mariah)

Paul encourages anyone in her class to give her tips and tricks. She wants to expand the class beyond ribbon skirts.

“I am currently learning, myself, how to make vests so that way I can teach the men in my community how to make ribbon vests and then ribbon shirts,” she says, “and eventually I want to teach our community how to make full regalias.

“I just want to gain as much knowledge as I can. My goal is to keep sharing.”

She’s already making an impact in the community.

Paul says those who take the class are inspired to keep making ribbon skirts. Some have even started selling them to help provide for their families.

“It makes me feel good, it warms my heart,” says Paul, “because I get to show my people our old traditional clothing and I get to teach my children that as well and it’s all about keeping our culture alive.”