Small changes in language can mean a lot.
That was the message Mi’kmaq leaders sent with this year’s 11th annual Mawiomi, or powwow, at Confederation Landing Park.
The celebration of traditional Mi’kmaq culture, teachings, songs and dance has in the past been referred to as a powwow, the common word referring to a social gathering for many different Indigenous communities. But this year, the leaders of Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations decided to officially refer to the event as a Mawiomi, a specific Mi’kmaq word that means gathering.
The two-day celebration opened with a performance by Abegweit Thunder, a traditional drumming group, of a gathering song and an honour song.
In his remarks during the opening of the celebration, elder Junior Peter Paul referred to the traditional Mi’kmaq songs as the “heartbeat of our nation, the heartbeat of our ancestors.”
"We need that back. The powwows that we go to, we don't hear these Mi'kmaq songs so much. So that's what we're going to do. We're bringing them back," Peter Paul said.
"It's all important to teach these to our children, our Mi'kmaq children. And it's always important to teach these to the non-Indigenous people to let them know where we're at, where we're standing and where we're going with this.”
An erosion of traditional culture and language has been a direct result of the legacy of residential schools and colonization in Canada.
But in her remarks during the opening, Lennox Island First Nation Chief Darlene Bernard, who was elected in June, also emphasized the need to share traditional Mi’kmaq language and teachings with both members of the community and non-Indigenous people.
"We were a proud people. We had a society where the children were the priority always, but it was a matriarchal society and we were the life-givers. We were the clan mothers and, yes, we were a longhouse people," Bernard said.
"We need to share that with all Canadians and all visitors."
A key component of this is language revitalization. Abegweit First Nation Chief Junior Gould, who was also elected in June, said fluent speakers of the Mi’kmaq language are few and far between.
"You can probably count them on a couple of hands. The problem with the language — and the Mi'kmaq language especially — is there's some dialect division," Gould said.
Both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have their own Mi’kmaq dialects, Gould said. As a result, a unified written language has not yet been fully developed.
"The basis for any culture and organization is on the language. So we have to internally get our culture and our language identified and universal," Gould said.
Joel N. Denny, who is a professional archivist from the Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, has been working to establish a standardized written system for the Mi’kmaq language. He said there are currently as many as nine written variations of the language across the region.
"At this point we need a standardized writing system to help us to obtain and revive all the words that we have," Denny said.
"That's our next step."
As to the role of outside governments play in language revitalization, Denny said these provincial or federal authorities should make room for Mi’kmaq communities to work with the school system.
"I think the governments should allow our communities to come up with strategies of how to implement the language revival. Not to dictate how you do it," Denny said.
"The will is there. The desire is there. Within our communities there's a cry within, the spirit within, to revitalize our culture and language. They are vital now. Or else they're going to be extinct."