Maliseet - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. One of the first groups in North America to lose their aboriginal religion because of missionary activity, the Maliseet have generally retained the teachings of the French Roman Catholic missionary priests of the 1600s and 1700s. In the last decade traditional Plains Indian Religious practices, involving the reintroduction of the sweatlodge, chanting, drumming, and the burning of sweet hay, have been adopted by some families and have acted as an overlay on Christian practices. Kuloskap (Koluskap) was a culture hero and transformer. Some Maliseet see strong Parallels between him and the Christian deity, but insist that Kuloskap was never worshipped. Certainly some syncretism of Religious traditions is present. The universe was populated with numerous other supernaturals that took animal or part human, part animal forms. Most were thought detrimental to the welfare of humans and had to be controlled by Kuloskap. From the end of the nineteenth century various forerunners signaled and still continue to signal death, illness, or other misfortune, much as in the folk traditions of the French and the residents of the British Isles whose beliefs have strongly influenced the Maliseet.

Religious Practitioners. With the introduction of Christianity, the role of the shaman ( motewolon ) changed from that of curer to sorcerer, and with further enrichment from European folk tradition by the beginning of the twentieth century, to that of witch. Shamans were traditionally male. Political leaders were invariably motewolon as well. By the Beginning of the 1900s most white witches were thought to be women whose powers were said to be psychic.

Ceremonies. The shamans' curing ceremonies were public and drew observers. Feasts were held on the occasion of Marriage, upon a young man having killed his first game, on the installation of a chief or his assistant, and on other public occasions when Maliseet from divergent regions came together or hosted leaders from neighboring tribes. Christian Ceremonies are important to the present-day Maliseet.

Arts. Traditional dances, formerly performed by adult men and women, are now performed by children and women for Whites and for visitors from neighboring bands and tribes. Drumming and chanting, in some cases from non-Maliseet Indian sources, are being introduced by contemporary traditionalists. On special Christian holidays, Maliseet sing portions of the Mass in the community church service in Maliseet or a related Algonkian language.

Medicine. Herbalists, both male and female, continue to prepare herbal remedies on some reserves. White witches, until recently were thought to be knowledgeable in breaking witchcraft spells, often using iron, sharply pointed objects, or the wood or berries of the mountain ash tree. Traditionally, disrespect for game brought illness or misfortune to the Community, and the shaman through his spirit helpers was thought to be able to exorcise the offended spirit. At present the Maliseet utilize hospitals and medical personnel available in neighboring White communities.

Death and Afterlife. Witches and animal spirits until Recently were held responsible for death as well as illness, a belief that existed alongside accepted Catholic beliefs and practices. In general, death was associated with much ritual and elicited considerable fear. Some traditional Maliseet have introduced modifications to the Catholic funeral, including placing goods with the corpse to be buried, drumming, chanting, and dancing in a circle around the grave. In short, rituals surrounding death have been a major part of Maliseet Religion, from the shamanic rituals of the 1600s through Catholic ritual with an emphasis on singing and praying in an Indian language in the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century to the practice of the new traditionalists with its emphasis on borrowed or rediscovered ritual.


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