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Music Cape Breton's Diversity in Unity

Mi'kmaq Mi’kmaq Lament For The Dead [Video]

From Poems of Rita Joe (Abanaki Press)
© Rita Joe, 1978

Ma’lta elasnl Se’susil,
Saqamaw, wula i’mu’sipn,
Mu pa npisoqq wijikitiekaq,
Skatu kejitu nike’,
Kisu’lk iknimultal msit ta’n tel-tamjil.


Martha said to Jesus:
Lord, if you had been here
My brother would not have died,
But I know that even now
God will give you whatever you ask
of him.

This selection comes from the film footage of Song of Eskasoni (1993, NFB/Morningtide Films). Directed by Brian Guns, the film celebrates the life, poetry and song of Rita Joe.

Mi’kmaq Lament For The Dead, 1992. Rita Joe/Brian Guns. Song of Eskasoni Collection. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Rita Joe describes this Mi’kmaq Lament For The Dead:

The customs of various tribes
Are many.
The Mi’kmaw observe the rules
Of guiding traditions.

When a native dies, immediate supplications for the dead are said by a member of the family or the nearest relative. Then they wait with the prepared body for a three day wake, at which native prayers and hymns are sung and food and comfort given freely.

Then the Mass for the dead is sung by the priest and we answer prayers by the priest in Micmac. The hymns that we hear in our own tongue often move the native people to tears, for they are more beautiful to us heard in our own language.

When the body is being lowered into the ground, the native choir members sing a hymn that has been handed down for centuries:

Ma’lta elasnl Se’susil,
Saqamaw, wula i’mu’sipn,
Mu pa npisoqq wijikitiekaq,
Skatu kejitu nike’,
Kisu’lk iknimultal msit ta’n tel-tamjil.

Then the Grand Chief tells the people that there will be a gathering at the community hall where food, donated by the people from the reservation, is served to the other visitors.

Then the deceased’s personal belongings and donations from the people are gathered together and an auction is held. There are instances where people will give the last they have to the auction. Then, when it is over, the bills are paid and if any money is left, it goes to the surviving family.

Habits of old
Our elders teach;
We honour, and we tell.

Poems of Rita Joe, Abanaki Press, 1978.

Rita Joe

Rita (Bernard) Joe was born in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Island, on March 15, 1932. At the young age of ten she was orphaned and shortly after was sent to the Indian Residential School, located in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. She later moved to Eskasoni where she met her husband, Frank Joe; they married in 1954. They lived all of their lives in Eskasoni, raising a family of 10 children.

In the 1960s, Rita first began to write poetry, primarily as a mechanism in which to challenge existing negative stereotypes regarding aboriginal people. She wrote about the manner in which the Mi’kmaq viewed the world, about Mi’kmaw traditions, culture and especially about the beauty of the Mi’kmaw language. She believed that her poetry demonstrated a gentle persuasion in changing people’s negatives views of aboriginal people.

Rita’s poetry became celebrated nationally and through her lifetime she went on to publish seven books. She became known as the Poet Laureate of the Mi’kmaq people for her accomplished writings and also received many awards, including the Order of Canada in 1990 and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1997. She also was known for her two song recordings, The Oka Song, and Drumbeat is the Heartbeat of the Nation.

Rita Joe died March 20, 2007 at the age of 75 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.