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Introducing some of Canada’s “First Nations” Part 11: the Micmacs

Before I start to introduce you to the Mi’kmaq First Nation, I would like to explain why me, history gal, is now presenting the First Nations of Canada. Well, the first reason is simple: I am Canadian and very proud to be. Also I strongly believe that history is much more than dates or events or important persons (such as pharaohs, kings, emperors) or warriors and wars etc. History is about the people who are behind all those events, it is also about culture. So I might have called myself anthropological gal or socio-cultural gal or some other name. But history gal it is and stays.

The Micmacs, often called Mi’kmaq or Mickmaki progressively installed themselves in the “Gaspésie” peninsula of Quebec. The people called themselves “Elnou” or “L’nu” which means in the Mi’kmaq tongue “men” or “people” or even friends.They then conquered other regions of eastern Canada such as Nova-Scotia, Prince-Edward island, a part of New-Brunswick and Newfoundland (where the Beothuks lived as I mentionned in part 1 of my introduction to the First Nations) and even as far down as in Maine and in the Boston region. They called their traditional territory “Mi’gma’gi (Mi’kma’ki) and it was divided in seven zones: Unama’gi , Esge’gewa, Sugapune’gati, Epegwitg aq Pigtug, Gespuggwi’tg, Signigtewa’gi, and Gespe’gewa. As of 2015, there are at least 60,000 persons registered as Micmacs in Canada with some 8,935 still speaking the original Mi’kmaq language.

The Mi’kmaq language is part of the Wabanaki family of the algonquian languages of the east. The Mi’kmaq language also used a written alphabet, composed of individual and double consonants along with five vowels that may be long or short. Historically, Mi’kmaqs used pictograms, but their writing changed along with the contact with missionaries who taught them catholicism with French and English in the 17th century. You can find below a pictogram example of the Lord’s Prayer in Mi’kmaq pictogram. At a certain time, the Mi’kmaq language had more than 17 distinct and different dialects including the “restigouche”, a dialect unique to Quebec. (Here I have to apologize as I cannot for the life of me as a translator find the English term for “restigouche”).

The Micmac religion is basically the same as all the other First Nations tribes. They called their primary god by the name of “Glooscap” This god fashioned the surrounding areas of the Micmac’s territory while he was travelling and even when he laid down: yes he formed the Annapolis region while lying down on Nova-Scotia while using Prince-Edward island as a pillow. He gave the animals and man their actual form. He was also a great warrior who taught his people, the Mi’kmaqs, several hunting and war techniques and he could, of course, predict the future. The god Kinap had supernatural abilities and performed several miracles to confuse the tribes who renounced him. But Kinap always used his skills for good or maybe to play tricks. Pouwowin was a sorcerer who made magic spells and beverages and who was considered to be the legendary spawn of a 16th century shaman by the name of Bohinne. He is also able to predict the future, walk upon the water and protect individuals and communities against from evil spells. As you might see, there is a lot of European influence on this god. Sketekemouc was a ghost god which announced an upcoming death. The Micmacs also believed in a demiurgic Great Spirit which the Europeans called “Mentou” or, in the more English term, the devil versus the christian god which they called “Niskam”, an equivalent of God almighty. But according to the Micmacs, the Great Spirit created the world in seven stages: sky, sun, earth then humans, the God Glooscap, his grandmother, his nephew and his mother. Glooscap created seven men and seven women from fire sparks, one for each of the seven territories of the Micmacs.

Every home extended itself frequently beyond the family: polygamy practices and the engagement regime whereas the fiancé would serve for two to three years his future father-in-law, contributed to this. Certain verbal recounting of stories that were transmitted across time explain that a few hunting and fishing techniques required two to three men working together. The women were sometimes asked to transport the animals carcass by pulling it with a sleigh back to the camping site. The months were divided equally in terms of hunting and fishing and weather changes: January was for small cod fishing, February was considered an eye sore due to its cold weather, March was simply spring, April was where most eggs were laid, May was where young seals and/or kipper were hunted, June was the month of the first tree leaves, July was the sloughing period of most big animals, August was for the birds in flight, September saw the moose in heat, October was for training exercises, November was considered the month of the deads, December was the winter solstice.

The Mi’kmaqs lived in the typical conical wigwam which could shelter 10 to 12 persons mostly in winter. During summer, they build much larger wigwams to be able to accommodate from 20 to 24 persons. The centre was always reserved for the fireplace which was overhung by an opening for the evacuation of smoke. The Micmacs were mostly dressed with clothes made from caribou skins. But the women adorned their dress with a belt. Breeches and moccasins were also made from caribou or moose skin. Mikmacs were very spiritually ingrained in the natural world. In fact, they strongly believed that a stable life resides in the respect and the protection of the environment and also in the harmony between people and creatures that live in this world. When they first encountered the Europeans, they went about bareheaded, but before long they adopted the bonnet, made from fur or bark. As you can see from the picture at the beginning, which dates from 1865, the Micmacs, at that time, dressed themselves almost like Europeans although the women decorated their clothes, bonnets and moccasins with beads and beautiful embroidery.

With the contacts and sporadic commercial exchanges with European fishermen, the Mi’kmaqs, when they first met the first real Europeans settlers on their territory already knew some of their customs, merchandises and commercial habits. On top of this, we can find in the oral tradition of the Micmacs a premonition pronounced by a Mi’kmaq woman where people would arrive in Mi’gma’gi on floating islands. The same woman had apparently also said the arrival of a legendary spirit that had crossed the ocean in search for “people with blue eyes”. But, also being close to the Atlantic Ocean, the Micmacs were some of the very first First Nations to come in contact with European explorers, fishermen and merchants. The Micmacs, as such, were then some of the First Nations who suffered the most from depopulation and socio-cultural upheaval. Certain historians also estimate that diseases brought along with the Europeans decimated the Mi’kmaq population by half during the years of 1500-1600.

Today, the Micmacs are mostly recognized for their art form which you can see some pictures below.

Micmac Birchbark Box with Porcupine

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Micmac quillwork chair seat (courtesy Glenbow Museum/Canadian Ethnology Service, CMC)

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Written by HistoryGal

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17 Comments

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  1. You’ve done an impressive job here, but I was a little shocked to see a King fan neglect to mention the Micmac burial ground outside of Ludlow. You also omitted the wendigo from their pantheon…

    Seriously though, this wasn’t a post so much as a proper article…

    • Well, all I have to reply Alex is thank you very much for your nice comment. I did not mention the Micmac burial ground outside of Ludlow because it did not come up in my small research. I must admit also that I totally forgot about the wendigo in the First Nations folklore and again it did come up in my small research. But I will remedy this in another post on another First Nations, promise. P.S.: Thank you for your support and your up-vote.

      • The burial ground was a reference to Pet Semetary, because you mentioned being a King fan in one of my posts. But the wendigo was actually part of many first nation tribes folklore. It is an interesting taboo rationale

        • Sorry about replying so late to your comment. All I can say is that I read Pet Semetary some 25 years ago and I remember only parts of it. As for the wendigo (again) I just might write eventually a separate post just on that subject alone as part of a supernatural relation to history. I am not sure I am making any sense but after all folklore is a very real part of certain historical event. I will have to look it up.

    • Thank you very much for reading and commenting and especially for your up-vote. I do all my research in French and write in English to give me some more practice in my translation career. But it is also because I am French first and English second. P.S., sorry about the delay in answering your comment.

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