It’s 1534, and Jacques Cartier is on his first voyage. He has seen barren, forbidding land, shot thousands of strange birds, discovered the Gulf of St Lawrence, and yet, he has much to learn.
July 7th. Cartier approaches the Bay of Chaleur. Without warning, his ship is swarmed with 50 canoes full of “fierce, warlike” peoples waving sticks menacingly. Panicked, Cartier ordered that a cannon be fired over their heads. The canoes left in a hurry. Thankful for his victory, Cartier hoped this would be the last he’d see of the ferocious natives.
But it was not to be. The next day, 300 natives returned. After Cartier’s initial alarm, it was soon realized that the reason they had been waving stick topped with beaver pelts at him was not to challenge him, but to trade. Relieved, he began to trade the fur for beads and knives. He later recorded that they had “bargained away all they had” for the tools the French offered.
Who were these intimidating people, and why were they so eager to trade? Well, although Jacques didn’t know it then, they were the Mi’kmaq, and this was far from their first experience with European traders.
I Dub You…
“Mi’kmaq” can refer to the tribe and their language. The origin of this isn’t clear, as the tribe called themselves “L’nu’k”, meaning “the people”. One possible explanation is that it came from the 17th century French greeting for the tribe was “nikmaq”, roughly translated to “my kin-friends”.
This tribe goes by many other names, most commonly Micmac. Along with other creative spellings (Míqmaq, Míkmaq, Mi'mkaq, Mikmak, for instance), they can also be referred to as Souriquois, Acadians (somewhat misleadingly), Tarrantines, Cable Sable Indians, Matueswiskitchinuuk (“Porcupine Indians”), and Shonack (Beothuk for "Bad Indians").
What’s Your Position?
Mi’kmaq were primarily concentrated in the Eastern Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI) in Canada. (They later settled into Newfoundland and New England.) In fact, they are the largest of all the tribes in this area. This location was the main reason that the Mi’kmaq became so engulfed in the European trade and conflicts that went with it.
Mi’kmaq is part of a Wabanaki cluster of Eastern Algonquin dialect, but it differs from nearby tribes. Combined with the characteristics in Cree, this suggests that the Mi’kmaq were latecomers in prehistoric times, possibly moving in from the north. This is dialect is still occasionally spoken in recent times.
Mi’kmaq were commonly described as being fierce and warlike by early chroniclers, but should not be so simply pigeon-holed. They were also known for their elaborately quilled boxes and baskets, unique only to this tribe. As well as the arts (painting, music, oratory, basketry, leatherwork and beadwork to name a few Mi’kmaq specialties), they were famed to be expert canoeists. This can be partly credited to their design: their birch bark canoes were light, able to cross open water, and even had sails added in the 1600s. In the Mi’kmaq culture, women generally did the manual work, including setting up wigwams, while the men hunted and defended the tribe.
No Fixed Address
The Mi’kmaq tribe were not 'true' nomads, but were seasonally nomadic. Their settlements were usually with communities either related by blood or with alliances. Their individual or joint households were generally located by a river or bay. The names of these bands often referred to previous locations (The Bear River band and Red Bank band, for instance).
In the winter, Mi’kmaq bands hunted caribou, moose and small game (which are easier to track in winter) using spears or arrows. They lived in conical birch bark wigwams (from the Mi’kmaq word for dwelling: “wikuom”. The word tepee is not in the Mi’kmaq language, and refers to dwellings covered in skins, not bark). These usually held 10 to 12 people, and were left open where the poles were lashed together to let smoke from the fire escape. They travelled by snow shoes and toboggan (also from a Mi’kmaq word: “taba'gan”). The men wore breechcloths, fur robes and fur leggings. Women wore similar fur robes as well as tunics. Mi’kmaq clothing was commonly decorated with porcupine quills (which explains why they were nick-named “Porcupine Indians”).
With the spring arrived, the all-Canadian custom of maple-sap gathering came with it. Summer marked the beginning of fishing season. This was highly emphasized in Mi’kmaq culture, and is part of the reason canoe skills were so necessary. Another source of food was shellfish, and often on the coast, seal-hunting as well. Summer dwellings were oblong and relatively open-air wigwams that held 10 to 24 people, sometimes big enough to need two fires.
Who’s Your Deity?
Little is known of Mi’kmaq beliefs, but one of more common gods in Mi’kmaq mythology is Glooscap. Glooscap is said to have shaped the mountains, live in a wigwam in the clouds, and created the first native people from an ash tree.
As in many (if not most) cultures, the Mi’kmaq had a great deal of respect for the sun. They also were known for their elaborate feasts, which are held at weddings, the beginning of the hunting season, and funerals.
The unusual thing about Mi’kmaq funerals is that they were often held before the death. Members of the tribe who were thought to be incurably ill or injured were often abandoned. At the funeral, along with the feast, there was singing and dancing. Afterwards, the dying person made a speech of farewell and was left. Dogs were often killed as a sign of grief.
Each Mi’kmaq clan had its own chief (called a sagamore) and symbol, which was tattooed on the clan’s body and painted on belongings. Although leadership was usually not strong, the sagamore would provide the clan with canoes, hunting dogs, and weapons. In exchange, his followers would give him fish, game, and pelts. They were also concerned with the fishing and hunting economy.
Polygamy was often practiced, to later religions’ dismay. Children were a sign of power and authority, and were often a factor (as there were no hereditary social classes) in picking a leader. Leadership was rarely based on power, as prestige was a much more important factor.
War leaders, however, were picked solely on exceptional ability. Slavery wasn’t common. During war, women and children captured were assimilated into the clan, while male prisoners were usually tortured to death.
Several clans often form a confederacy. The sagamores meet at a general council several specified times in the year to discuss war and peace. They also elected a Grand Saqamaw to represent the Mi’kmaq people with outsiders. This was usually the Cape Breton Island sagamore. Only men who had killed their first moose could speak in district councils.
The Mi’kmaq who were among the first people to be affected by Europeans. They acted as intermediaries between Europeans and native groups located farther away from the shore. Unfortunately, this was not the only contact between the Mi’kmaq and Europeans. Later on, they experienced what one book described, in alarming euphemisms, as “depopulation” and “sociocultural disruption”. The frequent government attempts to alter Mi’kmaq lifestyle included trying to turn the Mi’kmaq people into agriculturalists. This clashes with their naturally nomadic nature, and not unexpectedly, failed. This was also due to badly conceived programs and encroachments.
The Mi’kmaq people were one of the first native groups to accept Jesuit teachings, and intermarried with settlers of New France.
- John Cabot took three Mi’kmaq with him when he returned to England. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, he disappeared several years later (on his second voyage) in the same area.
- Mi’kmaq began to trade continuously with French, Portuguese, and Spanish fishing crews.
- One of the most valued trading assets was "castor gras" or “greasy beaver”, which was sought by the French. Castor gras is beaver fur that has been worn against the skin until it is made smooth and glossy (by body heat). Since the Mi’kmaq already did this for practicality purposes (wearing the fur against the skin was warmer and more waterproof), it was a profitable trend for them.
- Typhus breaks out.
- Mi’kmaq watch as various Europeans try to settle various parts of Canada, fail miserably, starve and die.
- French trading ships begin to come regularly to Mi’kmaq land, exhausting fur resources. The Mi'kmaq start to act as middlemen between traders and bands farther west.
- The metal weapons the Mi’kmaq people acquired through trade combined with their warrior prowess give them a huge advantage over enemy tribes.
- French trading posts/settlements are set up.
- The French pull out of the Maritimes almost completely.
- After being caught in a scuffle between the French and British, some Mi’kmaqs are sold as slaves.
- Jesuit and French prisoners put in small boat and left to die. The boat drifts to Mi’kmaq territory in winter where the Mi’kmaq save their lives by feeding them and providing shelter. This helped convince Mi’kmaqs that British were enemies and the French were allies.
- Beothuk, who had friendly relations with Mi’kmaq, kill 30 French fishermen.
- The French encourage Mi’kmaq to settle the area and crowd the Beothuk out. They also supply Mi’kmaq with firearms, encouraging them to drive the Beothuk off.
- Some sources claim the French offer bounty for Beothuk scalps, but Mi’kmaq say this is a British myth. In either case, the Beothuk are driven off and by 1827, are extinct.
- Mi’kmaq attack Abenaki villages to the south, going down as far as Massachusetts. While there, they run into an epidemic and unwittingly bring it home with them.
- The epidemic hits hard, bringing the Mi’kmaq population from 20,000 to less than 4,000.
- The Mi’kmaq ally with French against the English when fur trade was no longer profitable. They rarely fight, but are always loyal.
- The Mi’kmaq frequently raid New England frontiers.
- British claim Nova Scotia, but French continue to trade with Mi’kmaq.
- French also give firearms and large annual gifts to Mi’kmaq. The British couldn’t afford to match this, leading to Mi’kmaq thinking that that British are stingy.
- French priest killed and mutilated by the British.
- In retaliation, Mi’kmaq kill 2 British soldiers and wound 12.
- Smallpox epidemic. French accuse British of deliberate infection, and the Mi’kmaq population drops down to about 3,000.
- Edward Cornwallis (the lieutenant governor) openly admits his opinion of the Mi’kmaq people as “rebellious subjects”. This, combined with British encroachments on Mi’kmaq summer encampment land, makes the Mi’kmaq people feel threatened.
- This led to a Mi’kmaq Attack on fishermen in Canso. The ships in Chignecto were also raided, a sawmill in Halifax was set on fire, and 18 British soliders were captured.
- Cornwallis threatened to send troops to “root them out entirely”. His council posted a reward of £10 for every Mi’kmaq scalp or prisoner.
- Cornwallis dispatched the Cobb expedition with 100 men to hunt down and kill Mi’kmaq.
- In September, aided by sympathetic French missionaries, Mi’kmaq declare war on the British intruders.
- The reward for Mi’kmaq scalps is raised to £50.
- Scalps of obviously European descent get turned in, so the reward is cancelled. Cornwallis decided hired killers are probably not the answer.
- Temporary peace between the Mi’kmaq and British reached at Halifax in November.
- The truce ends and Mi’kmaq people resume raids.
- A new peace plan is proposed, but British authorities refuse.
- 7,000 Acadians not cooperating with British were stripped of possessions, imprisoned, and deported.
- Some Acadians escaped and fought a guerrilla war beside the Mi’kmaq.
- As Acadians are relatives, the Mi’kmaq get worked up.
- Mi’kmaq begin to attack British forts.
- Groups of Mi’kmaq sign treaties with British.
- British offer bounties for Mi’kmaq scalps, this time £30 for warrior scalps and £25 for women and children prisoners.
- Peace is finally established between the Mi’kmaq and British.
- British control most of Mi’kmaq-occupied land.
- The Mi’kmaq population plummets to about 1,800.
1800s - 1900s:
- Mi’kmaq come under the authority of the Canadian government.
- Mi’kmaq are employed as labourers (in crafts, coopering, porpoise fishery, road/rail/lumber work). This integrated them into the economy, but left them socially isolated.
- Salvaged some of their traditional culture in political decision-making, religion, and language.
- The Mi’kmaq descendents number about 10,000, though they are usually part white. Most work as poor labourers.
- The forced relocation scheme became the greatest threat to Mi’kmaq as a distinctive people.
- Mi’kmaq campaign for federal tribe recognition.
- Although the unemployment rate in reserves are high, there is a number of successful musicians, artists, writers, business and professional persons in Mi’kmaq reserves.
- Many work in cities.
- There are about 16,000 registered Mi’kmaq in Canada, according to a recent count.
- Canada has 28 separate groups of Mi’kmaq.
- The US only acknowledges Aroostook Band in northern Maine. The state recognition was accomplished 1973, but federal status wasn’t until 1991.
- Because of the 1794 Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the Mi’kmaq have the right to move freely back-and-forth across the US-Canada border.
Can You Condense That?
The Mi’kmaq are a Canadian tribe with a rich, diverse culture that fought to keep it. They are strongly tied with the French, and were crucial to First Nations-European trading, and therefore “settling” Canada.
Bennet, Jaenem, Bryne, Skeoch. Canada.
Info Sheet – The Mi’kmaq (http://museum.gov.ns.ca/arch/infos/mikmaq1.htm)
Jacques Cartier’s First Voyage (http://www3.sympatico.ca/goweezer/canada/z00cartier1.htm)
McGee, Harold Frankling Jr.Micmac. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Volume 2, p. 1348.
Micmac. Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 8, p. 101.
Mi’kmaq Portraits Collection. (http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mikmaq/)
Tanner, Adrian. Mi’kmaq Indians. World Book 2005 Edition, Volume 13, p. 540.
The Land and People, Volume 5, p. 76.