When a white blanket covers Mother Earth and animals are hibernating in their dens, Mi’kmaq traditionally honour the restful sleep of winter with a midwinter gathering.

It’s a time of reflection, gratitude and renewal and these values were echoed in the teachings, feasts and ceremonies hosted by the Millbrook First Nation near Truro, N.S., on Sunday.

The Midwinter Mawio’mi Gathering took place at the Millbrook Culture and Heritage Centre and the Millbrook Community Hall to celebrate Mi’kmaw traditions with both ceremony and laughter. 

The event included a game tournament, feast, pipe ceremony, storytelling and a traditional dance competition, but the emphasis wasn’t on the competitive elements — it was on conserving authentic Mi’kmaw culture.

Organizer Michael R. Denny put the event together through his work at Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, an educational organization that focuses on language and cultural revitalization in Nova Scotia. 

Kina’matnewey serves 12 of the 13 Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia and supports schools curriculum throughout the province.

Muiwalu’kik skwijinu’k

“Muiwalu’kik skwijinu’k: you’re honouring the people, honouring the elders” said Denny.

Denny said elders have kept the culture alive by protecting and sharing their teachings and having the foresight to record it.

“We’re not reinventing anything. It’s always been there, it’s been sleeping and this is the younger generation bringing it back, waking it up,” Denny said.

People smiling around a board game
Youth and elders take part in a waltes game, one of the oldest traditional Mi’kmaw games. (Mackenzie Pardy)

The gathering began with a waltes tournament, a traditional Mi’kmaw game played with a hardwood bowl, six flat disc dice that are typically made of moose bones, and scoring sticks, some called old men and old women. 

Madeline “Sugar” Paulette is an elder from Eskasoni in Cape Breton who has a long-held passion for the game. 

“It’s one of our oldest traditional games … It’s over 5,000 years old,” said Paulette.

Paulette is filled with pride when she watches the youth now able to openly play the game that was once taken away. 

3 People sitting around a table playing a board game
Madeline “Sugar” Paulette, left, is seen here doing the counting and scoring for one of the waltes games. (Sis’moqon/CBC News)

European missionaries called waltes witchcraft because the bowls were also used in future-telling or divination ceremonies. 

The waltes games were outlawed due to a 1895 amendment to The Indian Act, banning all Indigenous ceremonies and cultural practices. 

“Waltes was underground for such a long time and now it’s out in the open and a lot of families have them now at their homes and they’re playing,” said Paulette.

“That’s a big, big step … We’ve been here and nobody noticed, but people are now noticing our games.”

Drawing of a Mi'kmaw God of Winter. He's depicted as a strong man wearing horns and furs, holding elemental weapons
Apuknajit is the Mi’kmaw God of Winter. (Submitted by Gerald Gloade)

The community also hosted a feast alongside Apuknajit teachings from Gerald Gloade, researcher and historian from Mi’kmawey Debert Centre. Apuknajit is the spirit of winter who represents a time when survival is the most difficult due to the challenges of hunting and gathering in the cold weather. 

Traditionally a feast is offered to the spirit of Apuknajit in hopes of appeasing him in order to have a safe passage to springtime. 

Mi’kmaw oral traditions and legends describe Apuknajit as a Mi’kmuesu: a Mi’kmaw wizard and shape shifter who can take on the appearance of any animal. 

This winter offering was integral to Mi’kmaq, not only for appeasement of the winter god but also to offer thanks for what you’ve been given thus far in both nutritional and emotional sustenance throughout the cold months. 

Following the feast, a pipe ceremony was held by four elders, knowledge keepers and pipe carriers to ground the event in sacred ceremonial energy. These powerful pipe carriers carried out this nourishing ceremony to honour the significance of the winter months and carry the prayers of the people who gathered to take part.

Men seen holding wooden instrument singing a song
A kojua competition was hosted at the gathering where youth and elders took turns in sharing songs while others danced. (Sis’moqon/CBC News)

The evening ended in a kojua competition. Kojua is a traditional Mi’kmaw song and dance performed with a ji’kmaqn, a traditional Mi’kmaw instrument, made of split ash wood. 

Sarah Prosper is a dancer from Eskasoni who took part in the kojua competition.

Prosper said these types of gatherings have been missed in communities and elders shared some teachings about how people used to attend dance gatherings that would go all night long.

“You could really feel the people proud of who they are” said Prosper. “We invited the sacredness of our own social dances to midwinter.” 

Women seen dancing in mi'kmaw regalia
Sarah Prosper, seen here in a black regalia, was one of the dancers who took part in the Kojua competitions. (Sis’moqon/CBC News)

Organizer Denny said the event left him feeling quite emotional, with its strong turnout of community members and elders from across the Atlantic provinces.

To see all the people dancing left him thinking back to times when kojua was something that wasn’t so widely celebrated. 

“If [the elders] didn’t record these songs … if they didn’t think about kojua, It wouldn’t have survived,” said Denny.

A young girl holding hands with some women, all dressed in Mi'kmaw regalia and dancing
Dancing was a big part of the midwinter celebrations in Millbrook. (Mackenzie Pardy)

“I’ve been singing, I’ve been putting in my work into this. It’s paid off and in such a good way … I recognize my elders who I get those teachings from because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to do this.” 


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