New Indigenous festival in Stephenville celebrates Mi’kmaq culture

A new festival happening in Stephenville this weekend is giving people in the region a chance to share in the best of Mi’kmaq culture and traditions.

The Sweetgrass Festival is a first-time event being held by the Mi’kmaq community in partnership with the Town of Stephenville, the Qalipu Cultural Foundation, and the Canadian Red Cross.

“It’s a culture that’s been, for many years, invisible here, or at least that’s how most of the people have felt,” said Paul Pike, director of cultural and community programming at the People of the Dawn Indigenous Friendship Centre in Stephenville.

The three-day event will highlight the art, music, dancing, storytelling, and traditional knowledge of the Mi’kmaq people, he said.

The Mi’kmaq across Newfoundland have experienced a revival of interest in their culture after efforts to get recognition were successful through the formation of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band, but Pike said the Sweetgrass Festival is not just for Qalipu members.

Nor is it just for people with Indigenous ancestry, he said, as the events this weekend are open to everyone who wishes to attend.

Many of the artists who will be featured in the “Indigenuity” exhibit at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre are Silver Feather Artists, a special recognition given to outstanding Indigenous artists from the Bay St. George region. (Submitted)

Sowing the seeds for Sweetgrass

The idea for the new festival began during discussions with the Town of Stephenville, said Pike.

When people think of Stephenville’s history, he said the former U.S. air force base is usually the first thing to come to mind.

“But the town and the Mi’kmaq community realize there was obviously a strong cultural community here long before the base that isn’t always celebrated in the town,” said Pike.

Consultations with local residents led to plans for events to highlight the Mi’kmaq way of life, and the Sweetgrass Festival was born.

Sweetgrass is a plant that is considered sacred to Indigenous peoples and is often used in smudging, a ceremony of purification or spiritual cleansing.

The weekend’s events include “Indigenuity,” an exhibit of Indigenous culture, art, and design at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre. The exhibit features the work of 17 artists and is curated by local Mi’kmaq artist Marcus Gosse.

Mi’kmaq artist Marcus Gosse created an exhibit called “Indigenuity” at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre. (W. Evan Butler/Submitted )

On Saturday, there is a paint event on the theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as a concert featuring traditional Mi’kmaq dancers from the Bay St. George region along with musicians, including Pike himself, who is formerly of the band Medicine Dream.

Sunday’s line-up features a mawi’omi, which has elements of a powwow, at Blanch Brook park. The day also features children’s activities, storytelling, and a flycasting tutorial from Qalipu chief Brendan Mitchell. 

“The idea is to get the whole community involved and to share who we are,” Pike told CBC Radio’s Newfoundland Morning.

Artists and crafters such as Phyllis Cooper will be featured in an exhibit called “Indigenuity” at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre, from August 23 to 29. (W. Evan Butler/Submitted)

Cultural learning

Pike said the idea of the Sweetgrass Festival and other events throughout the year is that people will get a better chance to learn about the Mi’kmaq culture.

He acknowledged that people have had little opportunity to do that until recently.

“In school, we grow up, we learn about other countries and other cultures, and we really know very little about our own front door, our own doorstep,” said Pike.

Even though Mi’kmaq have lived on the island of Newfoundland for hundreds of years, the first modern-day powwow wasn’t held until 1995, in the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River.

The Bay St. George powwow in Flat Bay began in 2005.

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