Friday, September 29, 2023

About the Mi'qmak



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 The First Nations' tribes of the St. Lawrence River Valley once were many. Not all shared the same language group or lifeways. Different tribes of Iroquois as well as the many members of the Algonquin/Huron group shared the abundant resources of the powerful river. Among these, probably some the first to encounter the European invasion in the 1600's were the Mi'qmak who lived around the St. Lawrence Bay area as well as in New Foundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and the Gaspe' Peninsula.  Their language belonged to the Algonquin family of languages, and, historically, they were members of the Alongonquin Abenaki Confederation, a league formed in opposition to the Iroquois. Later, the Mi'kmaq would be drawn into colonial wars between the British and French colonizers as well. 

As they were among the first indigenous people who encountered Europeans, between 1500 and 1600 it has been estimated that half their population died from newly introduced diseases, such as measles, mumps, diptheria and, of course, that great killer, smallpox. The first explorer they met was probably John Cabot, an Italian exploring for the English, who described them as fierce and warlike. Even earlier, they had even encountered European fishermen--Basque, Portuguese, French, and English--who had discovered the piscean bonanza of the Grand Banks, rich with Cod and whales.    

Originally, the Mi'kmaq were seasonal nomads, who called themselves "Lnu" (the People), people of the Red Earth. In the spring and summer they could be found on the coasts as they followed spawning events. Even as early as March, smelt were running in the thawing rivers, and later came the herring. Then they found waterfowl eggs and waterfowl themselves, birds busy nesting. 

There were always shellfish along the coasts and other kinds of fish, which they caught in loosely woven baskets, and by the use of ad hoc stone weirs built in the rivers. Here, they speared the fish they'd trapped. They also caught salmon, sturgeon, and even lobster and squid, out in the ocean using large sea-worthy canoes (5.5 to 8.5 meters) with a bark exterior and a cedar wood frame. These canoes were able to sail to the shoals around the islands and, in historic times, there are reports of the entire families traveling island to island in them. Lastly, in autumn, eels ran, providing a finale to their fishing season. They dried what they caught, pounded the flesh to flake and packed that in caches for winter.

Fine craftsmen before first contact, originally they made tools of stone and bone--hooks and arrow points and spear-heads--as well as many different size needles and awls for piercing hide and bark. They women were experts at basket making, these constructed of bark and decorated with porcupine quills, dyed in red and yellow (ochre), charcoal and ground shells. Those four colors, red, yellow, black and white, were also used in face paint and body decoration. They used wood to create spoons and kettles, these last heated by the addition of hot stones as well as finely made grass baskets.

In the autumn and winter, they would retreat inland, away from the gales of the coast, to hunt moose, elk, deer and caribou. Later, their efforts would focus on beaver, as the European fur trade had a lust for beaver pelts for men's hats. In colonial times, with both white men and red, hunting beaver, those clever creatures were nearly pushed to extinction. The Mi'qmak also hunted foxes, lynx, marten, and anything else which sported a beautiful winter fur coat. 

The Mi'qmak word for their homes, "wikuom" became our generic "wig-wam." These were oval, built of bent branches covered with bark and hides, easy to set up as they went from place to place. They loved to tell stories and these--elaborate creation stories of Creator "Mntu" who made everything, including the first Glooscap, his grandmother, as well as legends, hunters' and warriors' tales, stories that were particular to the band. The "Puoin" was a healer or shamen, also an interpreter of dreams. Interpreting dreams was often nightly pastime, because, long before Freud, they believed in the importance of their dreams. They often made important decisions based on what they believed were messages in their dreams, advice from their personal or tribal totemic figures or other interested spirits who watched over the lives of individuals.

The Mi'qmak were accustomed to living out-of-doors and did so, despite the weather, in even a time now called "the little ice age,"  unlike the Iroquois and Algonquin, who lived in palisaded villages in long houses. They considered settled living to be weakening. 

They also scorned growing crops as their neighbors did. Digging in the ground was not what real men did! Their social organization has been described as loose extended kinship groups, each group advised by a sagamore, a man who gained his position through his experience and reputation as a successful hunter, not by any exercise of power. The district chiefs were called Orsaqmaw and these men formed a great council by which the different groups of Mi'qmak negotiated among themselves about hunting territory, personal disputes and war-making. Decisions were made by consensus, which took time, reasoned debate and considerable debate.   

* Information gathered at various Canadian Heritage sites, particularly the Heritage sites of NewFoundland and Labrador.


Tomorrow is Indigenous Childrens' Remembrance Day in the US and in Canada, a day in which we remember the removal and indoctrination of First Nations' Children in official "boarding schools." These "schools" existed (supposedly) to "Kill the Indian and save the man," but the reality, we know was far diffierent, perhaps akin to the way the Chinese now abduct Tibetan and Uyghur children, hoping to turn them into small copies of the Han who are the ruling group in China. Sadly, we in the West provided the model, which the Chinese, with their attention to detail and modern psychological techniques have now "perfected."


Juliet Waldron~~ all my books are listed here @ 



  1. Thank you for this peek into the lives and history of the Mi'kmaq!

  2. Love learning new things or being remindd of old things. I've enjoyed your books

  3. Very informative post. Thank you for sharing your considerable research and knowledge. I love to learn about different cultures as I read fiction.


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