Mi'kmaq wigwam brings history to life at historic P.E.I. site

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq elder Todd Labrador spent the week working with local Mi'kmaq to construct a birch bark wigwam, using local materials, and traditional techniques at the Port La-Joye-Fort Amherst historic site.

'For me, it's important to keep those old ways going and pass them on'

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq elder Todd Labrador, in the red hat, teaches how to place the birch bark. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Mi'kmaq history is coming to life this summer at the Port-La-Joye-Fort-Amherst National Historic Site.

The Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. and Parks Canada have teamed up to build a traditional birch bark wigwam.

"The building of the wigwam itself is a passing on of Mi'kmaq traditions but it's also you can see it's drawing quite a crowd and it's an interpretive event in itself," said Jesse Francis, manager of strategic initiatives for the Mi'kmaq Confederacy and Parks Canada.

"The big goal of the project is to bring alive Mi'kmaq history of the site and of P.E.I. generally."

Harvesting the birch bark was the first step of constructing the wigwam. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

'Great teacher'

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq elder Todd Labrador is leading the project, along with local elders and young people. 

"Todd is a great teacher and loves to teach and has a lot of traditional knowledge and it really draws people in, seeing the way he works," said Francis.

Michael Sark (left) lives at nearby Rocky Point and has spent the week working on the wigwam with Todd Labrador.

The wigwam project started earlier this week, as Labrador demonstrated the traditional way of gathering birch bark and roots to build the wigwam. 

"We have a lot of things right here in the forest but a lot of people don't know what's there," said Labrador.

"You know they walk over the forest floor and they don't know that all the rope they need is beneath their feet." 

Junior Peter-Paul uses roots to attach branches to the wigwam frame. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Youth and elders

Labrador learned wigwam building from his father who learned from his grandfather. He built his first in 1987.

"For me, it's important to keep those old ways going and pass them on," said Labrador.

"Once you have knowledge then you have a responsibility, now I want to make sure it keeps going."

The wigwam is made with traditional materials, harvested from the forest. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

This is the fifth wigwam Labrador has built. He also builds birch bark canoes.

"It's so special to see interest growing, to come here and see this many people involved, from youth to the elders," he said.

"To keep these things going, these traditions going, we need youth and elders, so it's really nice to see that here."

The completed wigwam will become the focal point for presentations on Mi'kmaq culture at the site this summer. (Submitted by Parks Canada)

'It means the world'

"It means the world to me," said Mi'kmaq elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache.

"My mother, she's gone now, she'd be 95 now, she'd be so happy because she grew up in a wigwam."

Knockwood-Snache, along with Junior Peter-Paul, will spend the summer at the site, doing presentations on Mi'kmaq games, songs, traditional medicines and more.

"My granddaughter is there tying the birch bark on, she's always been interested and I've always been teaching her that way," she said.

Mi'kmaq elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache puts tobacco on the wigwam, a gesture of thanks to the trees for being part of the structure. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

'A lot of closeness

This is the second wigwam for Peter-Paul, who built the first when he was 13, with his grandfather.

"Ever since I started working here on the site and doing this, I feel a lot of closeness to my ancestors," said Peter-Paul. 

Michael Sark, 14, lives at nearby Rocky Point and has spent the week working on the wigwam. 

"I'm young and I really want to learn about this type of stuff when I'm older so I can teach younger generations," said Sark.

"I'm going to be pretty proud of myself for helping out with this." 

Youth and elders work together to put the birch bark on the wigwam frame. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

The wigwam will remain on site for the summer, then will be covered up for the winter.

"For now, it's a one year project but Parks Canada and the Mi'kmaq Confederacy work together in an ongoing basis," said Francis.

"I think it's safe to say there will be projects of one form of another continue next year, we hope they will involve the wigwam."