Coined by 19th century anthropologists, the term “vision quest” describes a spiritual journey in various Indigenous cultures in which participants, often adolescents, are said to receive sacred knowledge and strength from the spirit world. Practised as a rite of passage among some Indigenous cultures in North America, such as the Siksika (Blackfoot), Cree, Anishinaabe (including the Ojibwe) and Inuit, vision quests reflect the role of spirituality and contemplative thinking in Indigenous cultures, and provide an important connection between the participant, the Creator and nature. Though reduced as a practice following colonization, vision quests remain part of the cultural traditions of Indigenous populations in Canada in the modern era.
Two-Spirit, a translation of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) term niizh manidoowag, refers to a person who embodies both a masculine and feminine spirit. Activist Albert McLeod developed the term in 1990 to broadly reference Indigenous peoples in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. Two-spirit is used by some Indigenous peoples to describe their gender, sexual and spiritual identity.
Trickster is a word used to describe a type of supernatural figure that appears in the folklore of various cultures around the world. In Canada, the word has been popularized by anthropologists studying the role of these figures in Indigenous teachings and oral histories. Indigenous peoples call tricksters by their own names, such as Glooscap or Glooskap (Algonquian), Wisakedjak or Weesageechak (Cree) and Nanabush or Nanabozho (Anishinaabe). While Indigenous nations construct tricksters in their own ways, there are some cross-cultural similarities. Often considered cultural heroes, tricksters are credited with protecting (and in some cases, creating) human life. As their name suggests however, tricksters are also associated with rule-breaking. They are curious pranksters who frequently cross and challenge boundaries, as well as ignore social harmony and order. For generations, trickster stories have been used to entertain community members as well as to transmit traditional knowledge about society, culture and morality.
Smudging is a cultural ceremony practised by a wide variety of Indigenous peoples in Canada and other parts of the world. Although practices differ, smudging is used for medicinal and practical purposes as well as for spiritual ceremonies. The practice generally involves prayer and the burning of sacred medicines, such as sweetgrass, cedar, sage and tobacco. While colonization has repressed such traditions, the practice of smudging has survived to the present day.
First Nation, Métis and Inuit religions in Canada vary widely and consist of complex social and cultural customs for addressing the sacred and the supernatural. The influence of Christianity — through settlers, missionaries and government policy — significantly altered life for Indigenous peoples. In some communities, this resulted in hybridized religious practices; while in others, European religion replaced traditional spiritual practices entirely. Though historically suppressed by colonial administrators and missionaries, especially from the late 19th- to mid-20th centuries, many contemporary Indigenous communities have revived, or continue to practice, traditional spirituality.
A windigo is a supernatural being belonging to the spiritual traditions of Algonquian-speaking First Nations in North America. Windigos are described as powerful monsters that have a desire to kill and eat their victims. In most legends, humans transform into windigos because of their greed or weakness. Various Indigenous traditions consider windigos dangerous because of their thirst for blood and their ability to infect otherwise healthy people or communities with evil. Windigo legends are essentially cautionary tales about isolation and selfishness, and the importance of community.
The potlatch (from the Chinook word Patshatl) is a ceremony integral to the governing structure, culture and spiritual traditions of various First Nations living on the Northwest Coast and in parts of the interior western subarctic. It primarily functions to redistribute wealth, confer status and rank upon individuals, kin groups and clans, and to establish claims to names, powers and rights to hunting and fishing territories.
Cultural appropriation is the use of a people’s traditional dress, music, cuisine, knowledge and other aspects of their culture, without their approval, by members of a different culture. For Indigenous peoples in Canada, cultural appropriation is rooted in colonization and ongoing oppression. Indigenous peoples have seen culturally significant symbols and motifs used in non-Indigenous goods, marketing and art. They have also seen stereotypical images of “Indians” used in sports logos and the sale of various products.
Indigenous languages are spoken in all regions of Canada. There are around 60 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 10 separate language families. While in many places there has been decreased transmission of languages from one generation to the next, recognition of this has led to efforts by Indigenous peoples to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with a large number of languages and great linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages are spoken widely, and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. On 6 December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to implement a new law to protect and preserve Indigenous languages in Canada.
Indigenous territory — also referred to as traditional territory — describes the ancestral and contemporary connections of Indigenous peoples to a geographical area. Territories may be defined by kinship ties, occupation, seasonal travel routes, trade networks, management of resources, and cultural and linguistic connections to place.
In Canada, the term Indigenous peoples (or Aboriginal peoples) refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. These are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. In 2011, more than 1.4 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous. Though severely threatened — and in certain cases extinguished — by colonial forces, Indigenous culture, language and social systems have shaped the development of Canada, and continue to grow and thrive despite extreme adversity.1
Hiawatha is an important figure in the precolonial history of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of present-day southern Ontario and upper New York (ca. 1400-1500s). He is known most famously for uniting the Five Nations — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk — into a political confederacy. In 1722, the Tuscarora, a First Nation from much farther south, joined the Confederacy, forming what we now know as the Six Nations.
The Lac La Croix Indigenous pony, also known as the Lac La Croix Indian pony or the Ojibwa pony, is thought to be the only existing breed of horse developed by Indigenous people in Canada. It takes its name from Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario, where it was last found in the wild. Known in the Ojibwa language as bebezhigooganzhii or mishdatim (meaning “one big toenail”), it is a small, semi-feral horse that once lived in the wild and worked as a service animal — but is also considered a spirit animal — for the Ojibwa people of northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota. Today, this friendly, all-purpose breed is used in equine therapy, Indigenous heritage programs and tourism. Conservation efforts in Canada and the United States strive to protect the breed, which is critically endangered.
The Cree language (also called Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi) is spoken in many parts of Canada, from the Rocky Mountains in the West to Labrador in the East. Cree is also spoken in northern Montana in the United States. Often written in syllabics (i.e., symbols representing a combination of consonant and vowel, or just a consonant or vowel), Cree is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in Canada.
Contemporary Indigenous (Aboriginal) art is that which has been produced by Indigenous peoples between around 1945 up to the present. Since that time, two major schools of Aboriginal art have dominated the contemporary scene in Canada: West Coast Aboriginal art and the Woodlands school of Legend Painters.