St. Bonaventure's Catholic Church in Tracadie filled with the smell of sage — smouldering sweet grass and cedar — as members of the Indigenous community welcomed Mi'kmaw remains nearly 500 years old back to Epekwitk — P.E.I.
"I feel good for their spirit because now they're home," said Keptin John Joe Sark. "It's no place for our people's remains in an institution where people can go by and gawk at them."
The bones are part of a discovery made in 1959 at Blooming Point. The remains were found by a farmer after a storm revealed wrapped bones along the beach.
The bones made their way to Memorial University, where they were kept until 1991. Sark wrote a letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that same year asking for help getting the bones back.
"In two weeks I had them back," Sark said.
However, not all the remains, and their beaver fur and birchbark wrapping, were returned. One remained.
Alison Harris, a bioarcheologist at Memorial who is originally from P.E.I., contacted Sark to let him know she wanted to return the box left behind.
Harris said the bones brought back to the Island included the remains of seven different Mi'kmaw people — four adults, one adolescent, a toddler and an infant. She said they could be from the same family.
"The remains needed to be returned to the island," said Harris. "This is where they belong. They need to be with their people."
Harris was given a sacred eagle feather for helping the remains return home.
"It was an honour," she said. "It was a very moving experience and it is one I will definitely treasure."
Sark explained that in Mi'kmaw tradition, bodies were first wrapped in furs or birchbark and elevated on platforms until they were essentially mummified. The bones would then be wrapped again and buried at another location.
The remains were left on an elevated platform at the church cemetery on Sunday. Members of the Mi'kmaw community sang, drummed, sprinkled tobacco and held a pipe ceremony in honour of the seven people being laid to rest.
Harris handed over a burial permit to Sark before she left the service.
Sark said there was a reason he wanted to include the church in the ceremony. He said the first Mi'kmaw person to be baptized was a grand chief in 1610. He became Christian and all the Mi'kmaw people followed.
"They could be Christian, but in the same token it's all the same creator," Sark said.
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