Nova Scotia·Eskasoni Community Bureau

Baskets, guitars and homes: What sells at Mi'kmaw salites helps grieving families

The history of the Mi'kmaw tradition known as a salite dates back 400 years to the baptism of Grand Chief Henri Membertou.

Celebration includes feast and lively auction after a person's death

Walter Denny began volunteering as a salite auctioneer in his early 20s in his hometown of Eskasoni, N.S. The memorial fundraisers help grieving families pay for their loved ones' funeral costs. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

This story is part of a series from CBC's Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC's platforms.

Walter Denny is looking forward to the return of an uplifting Mi'kmaw tradition that brings people together.

After saying their final goodbyes at funeral and wakes, the Mi'kmaq host a salite — a celebration that includes a feast and a lively auction. Salites are part of the grieving process and help raise money to cover costs.

But for the past two years, many memorial events have been been cancelled due to the pandemic. 

"People have tea cups, baskets, personal stuff, like jewlery," said Denny. "I sold a 1942 Gibson guitar once and it went [for] $10,000.

"It's fun when the salite starts and some people are scoping out good things that they'd like to purchase."

Denny says a salite has been held for almost every person buried at the Eskasoni graveyard outside Holy Family Parish. The Mi'kmaw tradition endures in other First Nations communities around Atlantic Canada as well. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Denny lives in Eskasoni, N.S., and is heavily involved in church activities, such as singing in its choir and acting as a salite auctioneer.

During one salite held in nearby Membertou, Denny was asked to auction off a dead man's house.

"The person who had passed away wanted his house put on salite," he said. "All I had was a picture and [I] was walking around, selling the house."

Bidding wars

Often sentimental items that belonged to the person who died can ignite bidding wars, as people want a physical piece of someone they've lost.

At other times, Denny said people will buy back items they've donated. In those instances, Denny said the main goal is just to donate money and have fun.

"You end up winning and losing a few as well," he said. "But it's a very nice celebration and it just brings all these good feelings."

'Starts your healing process'

Denny was heartbroken at the loss of his grandfather when he was just 10 years old, but he remembers how the gathering uplifted his spirits.

"You see how people come together and celebrate his life," Denny said.

"We've had visitors who aren't from the community that have passed away here. Again, the same courtesy was offered to them. It's beautiful, it's different.

"You don't hear about this from other communities. I'm going to put this out there, for the world, it's just unique. And it kind of starts your healing process in a very nice way, [a] Mi'kmaw way."

Walter Denny stands outside the Holy Family Parish church. Denny says salites happen in places throughout Eskasoni, including within the church basement. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Denny said money raised at a salite is used to cover burial costs and related expenses.

The Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia estimates the average cost of a funeral within the province is around $7,000.

That estimate is based on a 2019 poll of its the association's membership, and does not include expenses for things such as obituaries, flowers or headstones.

"It's a relief for some ... to celebrate a life of someone and not worry about the cost," Denny said.

He said leftover money goes to the family and they then decide how to use it.

Salite origins

The beginnings of salites date back to the baptism of Grand Chief Henri Membertou on June 24, 1610, at Port-Royal, N.S.

The embracing of Catholicism led to an exchange of customs between the Mi'kmaq and French.

"The early French, as the Mi'kmaq would have observed, they gathered a lot together when someone died in their family, and they held wakes, two, three nights of wakes," said hereditary chief Stephen Augustine.

"People come together, they bring food, mostly to feed family and friends. And to take care of the cost for the funeral, they would pay a little stipend for the priest for saying the mass and doing the burial ceremony, so the idea of salite in Mi'kmaq is a French derivation, which means charity."

Augustine said over time traditions mixed and transformed into the present-day feasts and auctions that make up salites.

Augustine said he's heard of salites that have raised anywhere from $1,200 to $20,000.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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