Baskets, Guitars and Houses: What’s Selling at Mi’kmaw Salites Helps Grieving Families

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

Walter Denny looks forward to the return of an uplifting Mi’kmaq tradition that brings people together.

After saying their final farewells at the funeral and wake, the Mi’kmaq hold a salite, a celebration that includes a feast and a lively auction. Salites are part of the grieving process and help raise funds to cover costs.

But for the past two years, many commemorative events have been canceled due to the pandemic.

“People have teacups, baskets, personal items, like jewelry,” Denny said. “I once sold a 1942 Gibson guitar and it went away [for] $10,000.

“It’s fun when the mess starts and some people are looking for good things that they would like to buy.”

Denny says a salite has been held for nearly everyone buried at Eskasoni Cemetery outside Holy Family Parish. The Mi’kmaq tradition also lives on in other First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Denny lives in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia and is heavily involved in church activities, such as singing in his choir and acting as a salite auctioneer.

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

“The person who had died wanted their house put under dirt,” 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 deceased can start bidding wars, as people want a physical piece of someone they lost.

At other times, Denny said people would buy back the items they donated. In these cases, Denny said the main goal was just to give money and have fun.

“You end up winning and losing a few too,” he said. “But it’s a really nice party and it just brings all these good feelings.”

‘Start your healing process’

Denny was heartbroken over the loss of his grandfather when he was just 10, but he remembers how much the gathering lifted his spirits.

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

“We have had visitors who are not from the community who have died here. Again the same courtesy was extended to them. It is beautiful, it is different.

“You don’t hear about this in 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 really beautiful way, [a] Mi’kmaq way. »

Walter Denny stands outside the parish church of the Holy Family. Denny says the dirt is happening in places in Eskasoni, including the basement of the church. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

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

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

This estimate is based on a 2019 survey of association members and does not include expenses such as obituaries, flowers or headstones.

“It’s a relief for some…to celebrate someone’s life and not worry about the cost,” Denny said.

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

Salite origins

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

The adoption of Catholicism led to an exchange of customs between the Mi’kmaq and the French.

“The early French, as the Mi’kmaq would have observed, they would get together a lot when someone died in their family, and they would have wakes, two, three night wakes,” said hereditary chief Stephen Augustine. .

“People get together, they bring food, mostly to feed family and friends. And to support the cost of the funeral, they would pay a small allowance to the priest to say mass and do the burial ceremony, so the idea of ​​Salite in Mi’kmaq is a French derivation, which means charity.”

Augustin said that over time, traditions have blended and transformed into today’s parties and auctions that make up the salites.

Augustine said he had heard of salites who had raised between $1,200 and $20,000.

(CBC Communications)

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