Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw artist to explore traditional burials in new documentary, exhibit

Mi'kmaw artist Alan Syliboy is adding a documentary and art exhibit to his list of creations, and the focus will be exploring Mi'kmaw traditions around death.

Alan Syliboy came up with the idea when he noticed more traditional Mi'kmaw practices at funerals

Alan Syliboy says in Mi'kmaw culture, death is something children are aware of at a young age. (Submitted by Alan Syliboy)

A Mi'kmaw artist from Millbrook First Nation, N.S., is adding a documentary and art exhibit to his list of creations, and the focus will be exploring Mi'kmaw traditions around death.

"Death is always there. If you try to ignore it or not, it's still always there," Alan Syliboy told CBC's Mainstreet on Wednesday.

"And in Mi'kmaw society, death is not covered or hidden. When you're a child, you're aware [of it]."

The artist said he remembers his grandmother telling him that when she was eight years old, she would help her mother prepare someone for burial.

This painting by Alan Syliboy shows spirits ascending after death. (Submitted by Alan Syliboy)

"I think that's normal … you went with your mother and she taught you what had to be done," he said, adding that's just what the community does when a member dies.

His idea for the National Film Board documentary and art exhibit came to him while attending a burial that included the Christian tradition of being buried in a casket.

There, Syliboy noticed that sometimes tobacco or an eagle feather would be placed in the casket, or there'd be a fire burning in the backyard during the service.

"For a long time, it wasn't there, but it evolved. And this is what I'm thinking about," he said, adding that he now sees traditional practices at funerals more often.

Todd Labrador, a master canoe builder, made a birch bark shroud for his father to be buried in. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Syliboy said one traditional burial option is when a person is buried sitting upright — facing east — and a birch bark shroud with red ochre is placed over them. He said the Mi'kmaq are the People of the Dawn and the keepers of the Eastern Door and that type of burial had spiritual meaning.

"I think it's a reclaiming too, of who we are and this is a big part of who we are, how we see the end of our life," he said.

Todd Labrador, a master canoe builder from the Acadia First Nation in southwest Nova Scotia, made a birch bark shroud for his father, Charlie Labrador, who died in 2002.

Labrador said members of the community gathered after his death to make the shroud, which was sewn together using spruce roots.

'We honoured him'

Charlie Labrador was laid to rest in an open casket, surrounded by animal hides with his hands and face covered in red ochre.

Labrador constructed the casket using old pieces of plywood because his father "didn't want fancy things," he told Mainstreet.

"He'd rather use an old piece of plywood than a brand new piece of plywood. He would rather buy an old car than a new car. That's the way he lived, so we honoured him," Labrador said. 

This painting of a humpback whale being accompanied by red ochre spirits will be on display in the burial art exhibit. (Submitted by Alan Syliboy)

One other story that Syliboy discovered is about a Mi'kmaw person being buried near a well-worn path during the 16th century. He said by burying the person there, the people believed the spirit would be nourished by the women that walked the path.

Syliboy has spoken with Labrador and is continuing to research more Mi'kmaw traditions. People can contact him if they have stories to share.

Production of the documentary is expected to begin soon and Syliboy is hoping both projects will be completed within three years.

His previous projects have included several art installations and exhibits that include sculptures, paintings and murals. He's also a musician and performs in the group, Alan Syliboy and The Thundermakers.

In 2015, he wrote and illustrated a book titled The Thundermaker. A year later, Syliboy was appointed the Coady Chair in Social Justice at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., in 2016.


With files from CBC's Mainstreet