Port Toulouse

First Nations People

First Nations People
The Europeans ArriveThe MissionariesThe Denys StoryThe Treaty of UtrechtPost 1713 SettlersThe Early CensusesParish of St. PierreThe Siege of 1745The Treaty of 17481750 Military Revolt1752 Inspection TourThe Fall of LouisbourgThe Acadians ReturnSt. Peter's TodaySources



The Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada

The First Nations People of Nova Scotia were known as the Mi’kmaq and were part of a loose confederacy of Indian tribal nations bound together by a common system of clans. They were the easternmost of the Algonquin tribes and their language stems from the Algonquin linguistic family. They occupied the forests and northeastern parts of North America, calling today’s Maritime provinces home long before European influence began. Archeologists who study the pre-history of the area are still trying to determine when the Mi’kmaqs began moving into the Maritimes. Mi’kmaq is the correct spelling of the Micmac name, but as years have passed, Micmac is most commonly used. They called themselves L’nu’k which means “the people.”

Early Lifestyle

At the time of their first contact with European explorers, the Mi’kmaq lived along the seacoasts and the rivers of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec and the eastern half of New
Brunswick, including the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as well as St. Pierre and Miquelon. Their homeland consisted of seven districts with a chief presiding over each jurisdiction. The chief also served as a delegate to the Grand Council - the Mi’kmaq governing body. In large canoes, these Indians traded and traveled down the New England Coast, up the St. Lawrence River and north into Labrador and later into Newfoundland and New England, as well. They call the region Mi’kma’mi. These natives were known to be mild and peaceful in temperament.

Due to the geographical location of their homeland, these Indians lived too far north to grow corn and did little farming. Instead, they were a semi-nomadic tribe moving between summer fishing villages near the coast to inland locations near the rivers where they established camps for winter hunting. They were skilled hunter-gathers, using bows, arrows, spears and traps to provide food and clothing to their families. Such clothing was made from animal hides - furs from moose or caribou - fish and birds.

In the late fall they broke their communal seashore camps and scattered inland to hunt deer, elk, bear, caribou, moose, beaver and porcupine. They lived near rivers in conical wigwams covered with white birch bark. Here they could spear and trap eels and other water creatures. They traveled around in snowshoes, by sled or by taba’gan, from which we derive the English word “toboggan.” During the winter season, women sewed and repaired canoes. They were also adept at working with hides and quills for clothing, using beads or quills, as well as basket making. In the spring and summer, Mi’kmaq villages were formed and families joined together often 10 to 25 per open-air wigwam.

At low tide in the summertime, one could see them combing the shores, gathering shellfish and eggs. They fished with line or spear at rivers, hunted coastal seals, smelts, herring, sturgeon, salmon, cod and eels; they collected roots, herbs and maple sap to supplement their summer diet. They moved about by light and durable canoes and were known for their dexterity with these craft. There was one type of canoe for lakes and streams and another distinctive, humped-back design which was very light and capable of maneuvering rapids and crossing open sea water. In these they sometimes ventured out to sea to hunt whales, walrus, porpoise, lobster and sea birds. In the 1600’s, they added sails to their watercraft.

Mi’kmaq Religion
Early missionaries crossed into North America intent on converting Native Americans. According to Mi’kmaq history, their spiritual beliefs were misinterpreted by the early settlers. The Europeans made assumptions that the absence of religious structure meant that the Mi’kmaq did not possess any form of religion or spiritual ideology. Further, they assumed that the religious practices of the Mi’kmaq were mere superstitions when in fact, such practices were pursued out of Mi’kmaq spiritual beliefs, based on respect for both the living and the deceased. Mi’kmaq approach to religion was relaxed and they displayed little outward manifestation of their worship. These people had no need, nor did they organize themselves into religious groups.

It’s true that Mi’kmaq primitive religion is obscure. Their history suggests that they lived according to specific laws bestowed on them by a higher power - a creator who deserved reverence and controlled their destiny. The Mi’kmaq called their Creator the “Great Spirit” whose laws governed their relationship with land, animals and mankind. Nature, as God, was their provider and sustenance of life and respect was the basic element of their spirituality. Their beliefs also included a number of invisible spirits, some good and some bad.

There is a Mi’kmaq myth handed down from generations past that all-powerful white Gods would come from the east to “conquer and possess their lands” and teach and show them the way to a glorious future. So, it seems that the North American natives were predisposed to adapting the European religion and it doesn’t appear that the Jesuits had too difficult a time converting them to the Roman Catholic faith. The process took place over a 70-year period, beginning with the conversion of their Grand Chief Membertou in 1610. The Mi’kmaq Nation’s first treaty with a European nation was an agreement with the Vatican that incorporated Mi’kmaq spirituality within the context of Roman Catholicism. Intermarriage between the French and the Mi’kmaqs was common, further binding the two cultures together. It is said that the Mi’kmaqs were the most firmly converted Christians of all North American groups. In 1628, they adopted St. Anne as their patron saint and each year Mi’kmaq gather at two areas in Nova Scotia to honor her - Chapel Island and Merigomish.

Accounts of the Mi’kmaq population vary considerably and numbers between 3,000 and 30,000 have been published. Yet, James Hannay, a reliable historian of Nova Scotia history, tells us that the early missionaries placed the count in the range of 2,000 to 3,000. Hannay was of the view that "an uncultivated country can only support a limited population.” Actual numbers were made only after the arrival of the Europeans and even then, remain suspect.

Although no permanent European settlement was made in the 1500’s, European diseases began to decrease the Mi’kmaq population. There were unknown epidemics between 1564 and 1570 and typhus in 1586. It is said that an epidemic in 1617 killed three-fourths of the native population. It reached a low point of about 1,800 in the year 1823.

Early European Contact
European contact began early - perhaps as early as the 11th century with the Viking settlements on the coast of North America. And, if not then, surely with the Basque fishermen who visited the Grand Banks before 1492. John Cabot made the first known contact with the Mi’kmaqs in 1497. Contact between the two groups became routine in 1501 when Basque, Spanish, French, British and Irish fishing boats visited the Grand Banks every summer. The Mi’kmaqs greeted them in their own Algonquian language and later, in French and English as well. Their very name comes from their own Indian word “nikmaq” which means “my kin-friends” or “allies” and they used this word as a greeting when speaking to the newcomers from Europe. Trade began between the Europeans and Mi’kmaqs when the fishermen began coming ashore to dry their catch. The natives looked forward to incorporating the strangers new technologies into their own culture.

Alliance with the French
The Mi’kmaq steadfastly allied themselves with the French throughout the early periods of Canadian history. There are a number of reasons for this alliance. The French were there longer than any of the other group and for the first century of European settlement there were no other settled white men in Mi’kmaq territory. Further, the Mi’kmaq related to the French much better than they did to the British. Part of the reason was that what the Indians knew of the English they learned from the French – not good! Another reason is that French temperament was much better suited to that of the Mi’kmaq. The French met their native friends on their level and learned the way of the woods, feasted, traded and established meaningful relationships with them. They built their homes near the bay rather than clearing forest lands and disturbing Mi’kmaq lifestyle. In time, they enjoyed a common religious bond and, of course, they intermarried. In the 100 years the French were in Acadia not one single treaty, between themselves and the Mi’kmaq, was required to maintain peace.

This alliance continued as the French moved their capital to Île Royale . They treated their Indian friends like sovereign allies. They lived among them and traded with them. It was their Mi’kmaq friends who helped them resettle in Île Royale and adapt to their new surroundings. They assisted in establishing transportation paths, lucrative trading posts, and even helped to fight the British. Mi’kmaq loyalty to the French never wavered during the time that the British and the French were trading places in Acadia or in Île Royale.

Copyright © June 2004, All Rights Reserved