A History of Nova Scotia Page

"The Micmac of Megumaagee"
"Unfortunately for the Indians, their enemies have been their only historians; the records of their cruelties remain, but the wrongs which provoked them are either untold, or are ignored and forgotten." (Hannay, p. 51.)

  • Introduction
  • The Origins of the Micmac
  • Population Levels
  • Spiritual Beliefs
  • Glooskap
  • The Christianization Process
  • The Chief
  • The Medicine Man
  • Funeral Ceremonies
  • Sweats, Tobacco and Dancing
  • Paternal Society
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Gathers, Fishers and Hunters
  • Clothing
  • Tools
  • Travel
  • Shelter
  • War Parties
  • Micmac-Euro Relationship
  • Notes
  • >>>>>>>>>> A Selection of Micmac Words <<<<<<<<<<


    Let us look in on a scene as described by Elizabeth Frame:

    "Here some of the women were busy sewing new and repairing old birch-bark canoes. In this primitive ship-yard neither broad-axe nor caulking-mallet was required. The framework was made of split ash, shaped with a knife and moulded by hand; this was covered with sheets of white birch-bark, sewed round the wood-work with the tough root-lets of trees. The wigwams were formed of poles stuck into the ground and secured at the top by a withe.1 This circular inclosure was covered with birch-bark; a blanket or skin covered the aperture which served for a door; and the centre was occupied by the fire, the struggling smoke of which found its way out at the top. Round the fire, boughs were laid, which served the family for seats. Dogs snored around the camps, and papooses lay sleeping in the cradles strapped to their mothers' backs, their brown faces upturned to the sun. One mother sat apart, nursing a dying babe. She had prepared a tiny carrying belt, a little pail, and a paddle, to aid her child in the spirit land. Beside the spring some women were preparing the feast for the congregated warriors. Over the fire were suspended cauldrons containing a savory stew of porcupine, caribou, and duck. Salmon were roasting before the fires, the fish being inserted, wedge fashion, into a split piece of ash some two feet in length, crossed by other splits, its end planted firmly into the earth at a convenient distance from the fire."2
    Who were these people? They were northern Indians who have long occupied the forests of the northeastern parts of the North American continent.
    "They were a typical migratory people who lived in the woods during the winter months, hunting moose, caribou and porcupine. In the spring they moved down to the seashore where they gathered shellfish, fished at the mouths of rivers and hunted the coastal seals. Like most Algonquin tribes, they lived in conical wigwams covered with birch bark while making canoes and household utensils from the same material. They also made cooking pots from clay and large wooden troughs in which they boiled their food by dropping stones, heated by the fire, into the water. Their weapons were stone3 tomahawks, stone knives, bows and arrows and spears with two edged blades of moose bone or other animals bones."4
    George MacLaren was writing of the original natives of a land which I refer to as Old Acadia; but which the natives at the time referred to as Megumaagee. They were stone age people, who, in their original state, were only but briefly sighted when the earliest of the European explorers came to the shores of an area which we now call the Canadian Maritime Provinces. What was had was but a glimpse of a people who were to be divested by the glimpsers. The fact of the matter is that within a generation, the Micmac were hurtled into a new age. So, therefore, what was to be recorded (a new age activity) and handed down to us: are but indistinct images, reflections and shadows of a people whose culture and traditions we shall never know in their true form, being, as they were, obliterated by European influences. The Micmac, their beliefs, their traditions, were all to change because of the processes of acculturation and miscegenation.5

    The Origins of the Micmac

    The ancestors of the Micmac -- like the ancestors of all of us who currently occupy the Americas -- came to occupy their traditional home lands through immigration. As to the time and manner of the immigration: it is, but speculation. The best thinking, it seems, is that the Palaeo Indians came into the area we now know as Nova Scotia some 11,000 years ago. They were but a branch of the original immigrants to the Americas: all came over from Asia via Siberia and slowly, in their nomadic fashion, spread south and east. Actually, it is thought,6 that these original people either died off or further immigrated. The Micmac people, likely lived further south before they came into the lands of our larger story, Acadia -- the ocean shores, from Gaspé to Cape Sable.7 There had been, as may be determined from the writings of the early explorers, a rather dramatic shift of the north American tribes, certainly for those in the northeast quarter of North America. This, likely, due to the ferociousness of the Iroquois. The ancestral home of the Iroquois was in an area now identified as upstate New York, the Mohawk River and the Finger Lakes. The influence of the Iroquois spread, directly and indirectly, across great distances. The Micmac, though they could make as great a show as any nation, were of a milder and retiring spirit; they were, as a consequence, under great pressure from their fiercer southern neighbors. It would appear at the time Acadia was first established, circa 1600, the Micmac were being pushed to the northeastern extremities of the continent.

    Population Levels

    Paul Mascarene reported,8 in 1720, that "the Indians are but a handful in this country."9 The estimates of the Micmac population varied widely. 10 A census of 1687-8 discloses that there were then 925 Indians in territories that now form part of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.11 One count in 1721 was 289 and another, in 1722, 838. 12 In 1739, the Indian population was estimated: 200 braves in Acadia, 80 in Cape Breton, 195 at Miramichi and 60 at Restigouche.13 (Miramichi and Restigouche are to be located in the present day province of New Brunswick.) Further, in 1739, a memorandum to Isaac Louis de Forant, one made in order to acquaint him with his new post as the new governor of Ile Royal, set forth a number of 1,200. This number covered the principal encampments of the Micmac which we see listed in the report: Miragouëche, Port-Royal, La Heve, Cape Sable, Miramichi, and Restigouche.14 Thus, as we can see these numbers vary, and do not, in any event, include the Malecites of the St. John. I should say, that the first reliable number that we have is that which was struck as a result of the census of 1871: the Micmac of Nova Scotia at that time numbered 1,666.15

    The above accounts were those made only after the arrival of the Europeans. As to the Micmac population before then? Well, James Hannay, one of our most reliable historians of the era, was of the view that the total population never likely exceeded 3,000. This conclusion is not hard to accept if one remembers that the original natives, as found, were "hunter gatherers." As Hannay points out: "An uncultivated country can only support a limited population. The hunter must draw his sustenance from a very wide range of territory ..."16

    Spiritual Beliefs

    "Their primitive religion is obscure. They recognized a Great Spirit, or even several Great Spirits, whom they called Manitous - in Micmac Mento or Minto (pronounced Mendoo) [see Manitou] - and they had no other personal divinities. Interiorly they feared Manitou and revered and adored him, while exteriorly they offered him sacrifices and made him part of their sorcery, seeking to render him favourable, or rather to prevent his harming or hindering them in their various enterprises. From the time of their forefathers, they said, Manitou had kept plaguing them. They did not look upon him as all-powerful or benevolent, nor did they speak of him as their creator. There is no evidence that they believed in any sort of creation."17
    The Micmac, in a Spinozistic sense, certainly did believe in creation; and, did believe and recognized a higher power as having control of their destiny, a power that was entitled to reverence. These beliefs, indeed, was one of the distinguishing features of the North American Indian. Their general mental and moral attitude was totally shaped by their belief in nature, as God. They had no need, nor did they organize themselves into religious groups with rules and rulers, however, the European missionaries were only too keen to introduce the notion of organized religion: all the better, for the purposes of control. Lescarbot, based on his personal observations, quotes, with approval, his fellow countryman and explorer, Jacques Cartier, who had been in the territory 65 years earlier, between 1535 and 1541:
    "They believe also that when they die they go up into the stars, and afterwards they go into fair green fields, full of fair trees, flowers, and rare fruits. After they had made us to understand these things, we showed them their error, and that their Cudouagni is an evil spirit that deceiveth them, and that there is but one God, which is in Heaven, who doth give unto us all, and is Creator of all things, and that in him we must only believe, and that they must be baptized, or go into hell. And many other things of our faith were showed them, which they easily believed, and called their Cudouagni, Agoiuda."18 (Lescarbot.)
    If the Micmac had religious views, they "were of the most vague and indefinite character." They believed in "invisible spirits", some good and some bad, who dwelt in the winds and in the water. Courage in the chase for animals and in war against their enemies was the only principal standard which guided these men of the woods. They were, however, the "most superstitious of men" and had an "extreme dread of the supernatural", for example,
    "A dog was regarded as the most valuable sacrifice, and if, in crossing a lake, their canoe was in danger of being overwhelmed by the winds and waves a dog was thrown overboard, with its fore paws tied together, to satisfy the hunger of the angry Manitou. They were continually on the watch for omens, and easily deterred from any enterprise by a sign which they regarded as unfavourable. A hunter would turn back from the most promising expedition at the cry of some wild animal which he thought was an omen of failure in the chase."19


    The spirits in which the Micmac belief were not all "vague and indefinite"; indeed, some were distinct and identifiable. The one that readily comes to mind is Glooskap. Glooskap was the chief spirit of the Micmac: he had a myriad of lesser spirits that attended upon him: he created man from the heart of the ash tree. The names of all the birds and animals were long ago named by Glooskap. Glooskap, it was said, would ride on the backs of the whales and the loons were his willing messengers.

    "While he roamed the province incessantly, encamping in many different spots, his chief abiding place was the crest of Blomidon. Before his time the beavers, who were then huge, powerful beasts, had built a great dam across the strait from Blomidon to the Cumberland shore, thus making Minas Basin an immense pond or inland sea. One day by speaking a word or by waving his wand, Glooscap broke the beaver dam and let the fierce Fundy tides rush in, as they have ever since continued to do. Towards a beaver who was in hiding near, and whom the demigod wanted to frighten, he once tossed a few handfuls of earth. These lodging a little to the eastward of Parrsborough became Five Islands."20
    The Christianization Process

    Champlain, as most of these religious Frenchman were, was perplexed because he could not observe any outward manifestations of the Indian worship of nature:

    "I demanded of him what ceremony they used in praying to their God: he told me that they used no other ceremony but that everyone did pray in his heart as he would. This is the cause why, I believe, there is no law among them, neither do they know what it is to worship or pray to God, and live the most part as brute beasts; and I believe that in short time they might be brought to be good Christians, if one would inhabit their land, which most of them do desire. They have among them some savages whom they call Pilotoua, who speak visibly to the devil, and the telleth them what they must do, as well for wars as for other things; and if he should command them to go and put any enterprise in execution, or to kill a Frenchman or any other of their nation, they will immediately obey to his command. They believe also that all their dreams are true; and, indeed, there be many of them which do say that they have seen and dreamed things that do happen or shall come to pass; but to speak thereof in truth they be visions of the Devil, who doth deceive and seduce them."21
    The work of the missionary in converting the natives, was, apparently, not too difficult, as Lescarbot observed:
    "These people (as one may say) have nothing of all that, for it is not to be called covered, to be always wandering and lodged under four stakes, and to have a skin upon their back; neither do I call eating and living, to eat all at once and starve the next day, not providing for the next day.22 Whosoever then shall give bread and clothing to these people, the same shall be, as it were, their God: they will believe all that he shall say to them ... These people then enjoying the fruits of the use of trades and tillage of the ground will believe all that shall be told them, in auditum auris, at the first voice that shall sound in their ears; ... [an example of the chief of the St. John Indians] he eateth, lifteth up his eyes to heaven and maketh the sign of the Cross, because he hath seen us do so: yea, at our prayers he did kneel down as we did. And because he hath seen a great Cross planted near to our fort, he hath made the like at his house, and in all his cabins; and carrieth one at his breast ...."23 (Lescarbot.)
    In any event, it seems that the North American natives were predisposed to adapting the European religion. There was a myth handed down from the generations past that all powerful white Gods would come from the east to teach and show them the way to a glorious future. The Irish novelist, Eliot Warburton in his preface to his brother's, George Warburton's work, Hochelaga (1846) made reference to this feeling that ran among the natives:
    "Strange to say, this prophetic feeling [the east overcomes the west] was responded to by the inhabitants of the unknown world: among the wild and stern Mic-Macs of the North, and the refined and gentle Yncas of the South, a presentiment of their coming fate was felt. They believed that a powerful race of men were to come 'from the rising sun,' to conquer and possess their lands."
    As for the honesty and the general respect extended to women by the Micmac: we have the views of James Hannay:
    "They [the Micmacs] were distinguished for their honesty. They were still more distinguished for their chastity. There is no instance on record of any insult being offered to a female captive by any of the Eastern Indians, however cruelly she might otherwise have been treated."24
    The Chief

    The rulers (to the extent there were any) were male.25 The successful hunters, the providers of food for the family, the extended family, the tribe, were always to be given general preference and respect. The best of them was the chief. The chiefs were semi-hereditary.26 Though the sons of a chief always had the edge, any brave warrior/hunter could become a chief; continual success in the hunt or when fighting enemies would bring a young man to the top of his tribe.

    The Medicine Man

    The Medicine man, not one who was necessarily a good hunter or warrior, was also much respected and regularly consulted before the tribe struck out on any sort of an adventure. He was a special man who had proved himself as being able to call on the spirits, predict the future and thereby able to steer the tribe in the right direction.

    "If anyone be sick, he [well decked out with maracas or rattles, and feathers] is sent for; he maketh invocations on his devil; he bloweth upon the part grieved; he maketh incisions, sucketh the bad blood from it: if it be a wound, he healeth it by the same means, applying a round slice of the beaver's stones. Finally some present is made unto him, either of venison or skins. If it be question to have news of things absent, having first questioned with his spirit, he rendereth his oracles ...."27 (Lescarbot.)

    "So implicit was the belief in the medicine-man that when he pronounced a disease or a wound fatal, the patient ceased eating, and was given nothing more; he put on a fine robe and chanted his death-song.28 To hasten his end, the onlookers would throw cold water over him, or sometimes bury him half alive."29 (Diereville.)

    Funeral Ceremonies

    First thing that was to be done upon the death of an individual is for the family and the tribe to have a feast, one that continued for a couple of days during which numerous orations were pronounced.

    "On the third day a feast was held as a recognition of the great satisfaction which the deceased was supposed to feel at rejoining his ancestors. After this the women made a garment, or winding sheet, of birch bark, in which he was wrapped and put away on a sort of scaffold for twelve months to dry. At the end of that time the body was buried in a grave, in which the relatives at the same time threw bows, arrows, snow-shoes, darts, robes, axes, pots, moccasins and skins."30
    Lescarbot gives an accounting of the funeral ceremonies of a respected member of the tribe, one, Panoniac. Panoniac had traveled south down the coast, likely to the Cape Cod area, there to trade with their old enemy, the Armouchiquois. Panoniac, unfortunately, got the bad end of a bargain and was killed or badly wounded such that he eventually died. Panoniac, or his body was brought back up the coast. Lescarbot made the following observations:
    "After our savages had wept for Panoniac, they went to the place where his cabin was whilst he did live, and there they did burn all that he had left, his bows, arrows, quivers, his beavers' skins, his tobacco (without which they cannot live), his dogs31, and other his small movables, to the end that no body should quarrel for his succession."32 (Lescarbot.)
    The natives apparently did bury Panoniac, in the spring, just before getting a war party together so to go to revenge his death. They dug Panoniac up and transported his remains to "a desolate island, towards Cap de Sable, some five-and-twenty or thirty leagues distant from Port Royal. Those isles which do serve them for churchyards are secret amongst them, for fear some enemy should seek to torment the bones of their dead."33 Further,
    "after they have brought the dead to his rest, every one maketh him a present of the best thing he hath. Some do cover him with many skins of beavers, of otters, and other beasts; others present him with bows, arrows, quivers, knives, matachias, and other things."34 (Lescarbot.)
    Into the grave would be laid a the materials that the dead member might need in his new life beyond death:
    Into the Grave they put a living Dog,
    Hatchet and Corn, a blanket and a Pipe,
    Tobacco, Powder, Lead and Pot, Canoe
    And musket for they think that he who dies
    Will make a Journey of great length
    And will have need of all this Gear
    For clothing and for nourishment.
    35 (Diereville.)
    Sweats, Tobacco and Dancing

    The Micmacs, though a wary lot, were described by the first Jesuit missionaries as "mild and peaceful in temperament."36 They, certainly, were often men of few words. Lescarbot recounts he saw many times how a total stranger would arrive at an encampment of Micmacs set up outside the walls of the habitation at Port Royal. The stranger would somehow know which hut to enter, the hut of the chief, Membertou. The stranger would immediately sit down, take out his pouch of tobacco, fill and light his pipe, take a number of hauls on the stem and then "did give the tobacco-pipe to him that seemed to be the worthiest person, and after consequently to the others. Then some half an hour after they did begin to speak."

    The Micmac, as it seems with all the North American natives were very sociable. They would interact freely amongst themselves and were very hospitable even to strangers who might come among them. They would readily share their food and their tobacco and invite them, for example, into their sweat hut.37

    As for a sweat hut, or pit: Lescarbot describes one38: they "dig in the ground, and make a pit which they cover with wood and big flat stones over it; then they put fire to it by a hole, and, the wood being burned, they make a raft with poles, which they cover with all the skins and other coverings which they have, so as no air entereth therein; they cast water on the said stones, which are fallen in the pit, and do cover them; then put themselves under the same raft" and there they sit in spiritual union, in song and in motion.

    Diereville also gave a description of the sweat hut:

    "They dig a hole as long as themselves, & line it on both sides with stones which have been heated at the fire until they are almost red; after that they place a layer of Fir branches at the bottom, & lie down at full length upon them. They are then covered with other branches, which, because of their bituminous nature, give forth a dense vapour as they grow warm; it is not long before they are sweating to the very bone, & for as long a time as they desire. What surprised me most, was to know that these sudorific Ovens are always constructed on the edge of a Lake or River, & that the Indians emerge all dripping, only to plunge instantly into the water."39 (Diereville.)
    As for tobacco: it was to be for the Micmac always ready at hand, he was always in need of it. Tobacco was therfore an easily traded item; it was a unversal medium of exchange. (The other easily traded commodities were powder and shot, and, of course, liquor.)40 The natives kept tobacco on their person at all times; they "have certain small bags of leather hanging around about their necks or at their girdles."41 "They smoke with excessive eagerness ... men, women, girls and boys, all find their keenest pleasure in this way."42

    And dancing:

    "These ridiculous Dancers follow one another around in a circle, clinging together & moving forward very slowly, by leaping with joined feet, executing contortions & making faces, each more hideous than the last. A certain vocal note like this: Houen, houen, houen, if one can so express it, marks the cadence, & they pause from time to time to give utterance to the terrifying yells with which the dances always end. The instrument which provides the accompaniment is perfectly suited to all this; it is a little stick about a foot long, which an Indian who is not dancing, strikes against a tree, or some other object, according to the place in which they happen to be, singing through his nose at the same time."43 (Diereville.)
    As for games they played: there was one that has come to my attention. It was described by Lescarbot; he called it Hazard.
    "They put some number of beans, coloured and painted of the one side in a platter; and, having stretched out a skin on the ground, they play thereupon, striking with the dish upon this skin, and by that means the beans do skip in the air, and do not all fall on that part that they be coloured; and in that consisteth the chance and hazard - and according to their chance they have a certain number of quills made of rushes, which they distribute to him that winneth for to keep the reckoning."44 (Lescarbot.)
    Paternal Society

    Micmac society was paternal, like that of the European society, versus, Iroquoian social organization which was maternal.45 In Diereville's Relation, we see where an analogy was made of the beaver to the family structure of the Micmac. The aged beaver watches over all the rest. Once a beaver establishes his family in a spot the family will not allow any other beavers to come into the territory and will go to war to defend their stake and deal with "vagabond beavers."46

    The men, apparently, had no care for anything but hunting and going off to war: the women, "neither being forced or tormented" did all the work.47 Women were not allowed to sit in on any of the councils or attend any of the feasts.48 Where a kill had been made on a hunt the animal would be left where it fell; the women would "go flay it and to fetch it, yea, were it three leagues off ..." The woman made all the clothes for the family, quietly chewing and sewing.49 When, in the spring, it was time to obtain a store of bark for their houses and the canoes; again, it was the women who did all the work. Whether out of fear or love, the women were not heard to complain.50

    Woman, for example, were an integrate part of an Indian travel party as Samuel Hearne's traveling companion, Matonabbee, points out: "Women were made for labour," said Matonabbee, "one of them can carry, or haul as much as two men can do ... there is no such thing as traveling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country without their assistance." He himself traveled with from five to eight wives, "most of whom would for size have made good grenadiers." Hearne appreciated their usefulness, but was repeatedly appalled by the way in which they were treated.51


    "If he possessed a canoe, gun and ammunition, spear, hatchet, a moonodah, or pouch, looking-glass, paint, pipe, tobacco, and dice bowl, he was looked upon as a man of wealth, and very eligible for a husband. A squaw who could make pouches, birch dishes, snow-shoes, moccasins, string wampum beads, and boil the kettle, was considered a highly accomplished lady. The courtship was extremely simple and short. The lover, after advising with his relations as to the girl he should choose, went to the wigwam where she was, and if he liked her looks, tossed a chip or stick into her lap, which she would take, and, after looking at it with well-feigned wonder, if she liked her lover's looks, would toss it back to him with a sweet smile. That was the signal that was accepted. But if she desired to reject him, she threw the chip aside with a frown."52
    From Lescarbot we determine that a father would not give his daughter to a man unless he had some means by his industry to nourish and maintain both the daughter and his future grandchildren. Diereville disclosed how the young male Indian would have to seek out the father of the maiden and prove to him that he was going to be a good hunter. Also, Diereville goes into how the couple themselves might know what it is that each would find acceptable in the other (by accepting gifts53). Once the maiden's family was won over, then there was not much ceremony, the girl would follow her new husband into the woods so that they might go on a hunting trip; they would come back with the game they caught and a marriage banquet would then take place.

    Like so many of the native customs and traditions, those surrounding marriage changed when the Europeans arrived. Christian notions were imposed upon the willing Micmac. The French priests wanted to see a Christian marriage ceremony; and, so it was to become that the family would get the young couple to go over to the church. The conversation between families in respect to a young couple in the tribe, who appear to be eyeing one another, usually led to the question, "when are they to stand up in church?"

    "I have seen some who have come from a great distance in order to receive this Sacrament from the Curé of Port Royal, & I have even seen those who had been married in the Indian fashion renew their vows before our Altars. Although it is one of the most sacred rites, I could not help laughing. The Curé, who did not understand the Indian language, & was no better able to speak it, had as Interpreter one of his Parishioners who understood & spoke it very well; he would say to him, in French, all the beautiful things he could about the excellence & duties of matrimony; the Interpreter repeated the same in the Indian tongue to the prospective Husband & Wife, who, by their demonstrations, appeared to be charmed by them; then, repeating after the Curé, he asked whether they would follow from point to point all the instructions he had given them; they, in their own language, promised to do so, which was interpreted into good French & testified to the Curé, who proceeded in this fashion until the couple had been united."54 (Diereville.)
    Before the times when the French missionaries exercised their influence, it was not considered unusual for a man to have more than one wife. "Sometimes our (Lescarbot) savages having many wives will give one of them to their friend ..." Men were generally very particular about the behaviour of their wife or wives, and "if the wife should be found to be faulty, she will be put away or in danger to be killed by her husband ..." If a woman should lose her husband through death, she does not marry again, but go about declaring her widowhood by daubing their face with coal beaten to powder and with grease and applied thickly. Indeed, as Lescarbot points out, they may dramatically change their diet - not eat meat - until the death of her husband has been revenged.55


    "When the wife is in labour & believes that delivery is at hand, she leaves the Wigwam & goes some distance into the Forest with a Squaw to assist her, and the business is soon over. The Mother gives the Woman, who has delivered the Child, the knife with which the cord has been cut, and that is her only recompense.
    To fortify his skin against
    The rigour of the bitter cold,
    Which in such climates must be borne,
    They wash him in the stream; no less
    In winter's hard and cruel days
    Than in the fairest Summer time.
    The first nourishment he takes is Fish oil or the melted fat of some animal. The Papoose is forced to swallow this, after which he gets only his mother's milk until he is strong enough to live as the others do. He is swathed in the skins of Foxes, Swans, & Wild Geese, & a bundle of moss is placed on his hinder parts to keep him from spoiling such fine swaddling clothes."56
    The children would be slowly introduced to solid food by the mother, and did so, as she ate her own food; she did the chewing until the little one could handle it on his or her own. We see too from Lescarbot57 how a baby board58 was devised for the infants which "they carry on their backs, their legs hanging down: then being returned into their cabins, they set them in this manner up straight against stone or something else. And as in these are parts [France] one gives small feathers and gilt things to little children, so they hang a quantity of beads and small square toys, diversely coloured, in the upper part of the said board or plank ..."

    Apparently, the English soldiers when they captured a group of Indians, as occurred in the southern frontier of Acadia, the present day State of Maine, during the late 1600s, they would often bring the small Indian children back home to Boston with them, and, in turn, send them over to England as curiosities for their respective English families to admire.59

    Gathers, Fishers and Hunters

    Unlike the tribes to the south, in the "northern area, especially among the Micmac, agriculture was absent."60 The Micmac, of course, would gather roots and herbs in order to supplement their sea food diet in the summer. In the winter the Micmac ate meat.61

    As we have seen62, the Micmac, like all northern people in their primitive state, were a migratory people. They lived in the woods during the winter months, hunting moose, caribou and porcupine. In the spring they moved down to the seashore where they gathered shellfish and fished at the mouths of the rivers. They would take any fish they could get on a line or a spear and combed the shores at low tide and would place in their gathering baskets all manner of shelled fish, and, in season, the eggs.63

    A few words on the Micmacs "nomadic self-sufficiency": In the fall of the year they broke their seashore camp and headed to their favourite winter camp, inland; up the rivers and along the lakes.64 The Indian hunting season usually extended from January to March. Sometimes, during a mild winter the hunting season did not come at all. The hunting technique for the northern Indian was dependent on their ingenuity and their understanding that an animal was normally at a distinct disadvantage during the winter. The Micmac hunting party would travel quickly with their snowshoes over the top of the frozen snow in order to run down the larger animals who laboured in the deep snow.65

    The Beaver, too, though they might be trapped in the summer, were easier and less expensive to capture in the winter:

    "The surest way is to take them in traps; moreover, the bait put into these is nothing more than a strip of Aspen bark, which they like above all other things, & it does not cost so much as the powder & shot used in shooting them. Here is another way in which they are caught; when winter hardens the surface of the water where their huts are built, & they believe themselves well protected from attack by the Hunters, the latter go out on the ice to break down the huts with blows of their axes, & the Beavers are forced to abandon them, & escape to the borders of the Lake, where they conceal themselves between the ice & the bank, on which they lie upon their bellies; but in vane do they seek immunity from death in this way; the Hunters set their Dogs to search all around the Lake, & they have such good noses that they never fail to smell them, & indicate the place by stopping; then the ice is shattered with great strokes of the axe. It is rather surprising that the Beavers do not flee from the noise thus made as they would under other circumstances. When the holes are cut, the animals are uncovered, caught by their tails, dragged out, and their heads broken with blows from an axe."66 (Diereville.)
    The moment of the kill, after sometimes a long chase, was a spiritual moment for an Indian hunting party. The kill meant that the spirit of the animal was thus released, maybe, in part, to settle itself in the brave hunters. Immediately the eyes of the animal, bird, or fish were dug out and cast away, being of the belief that the creature as a class saw through these eyes (dead or alive) and the hunter, on another hunt, would have great difficulty to sneak up on the hunted animal. Also, for the same reasons, a bone of a killed animal would not be given to a dog lest the hunters might be prevented, in a future hunt, from killing another. The hunter who actually brought the animal down, by silent and mutual understanding, was relieved of any further onerous duties. "The one who kills an Animal, satisfied with his skill and the honour which redounds to him, abandons it to his Companions, who, in generous requital, always give him the best part when they are dividing it among themselves."67

    As for the cooking of the meat:

    "The Indians cooked their meat by broiling it on live coals, or roasting it on a sort of spit in front of the fire. But soup was their favourite delicacy; they boiled it in a capacious wooden cauldron made out of the butt of a large tree and hollowed out by fire. As such a vessel was not easily made, they frequently regulated their camping ground, in some measure, by the conveniences for establishing such a soup-kettle. The soup was boiled by dropping red hot stones into the cauldron, which, when cooled, were immediately replaced by others hot from the fire, until the meat was cooked."68
    One should not get the impression that the native Indians feasted with any amount of regularity. A feast might be had if the tribe was sufficiently moved to make preparations, at times when feasting was in order such as when the braves were working themselves up to go off on a war party or if the memory of recently departed member needed to be celebrated, a funeral; and only ever if the hunters had just returned with a suitable catch. The Indian feast usually consisted of "fish, flesh, or Indian corn and beans boiled together." Further, women and children were excluded, though allowed to take what was left over.

    More often than not, though, normally, the Micmac in their natural state suffered from great privations.

    "Yet, although certain seasons they luxuriated in abundance of food, at times they were subject to the greatest privations and on the verge of starvation. Then, no sort of food came amiss to them; reptiles, dogs, and animals of all sorts, were eagerly sought after and ... devoured; roots of various kinds were in great demand ..."69
    Their eating manners, based on the European standards, were somewhat lacking:
    "... they wash not themselves at meals, unless they be monstrously foul; and, not having any use of linen, when their hands be greasy they are constrained to wipe them on their hairs or upon their dogs' hairs. They make no curiosity of belching being at meals ... Not having the art of joiner's work, they dine upon the broad table of the world, spreading a skin where they eat their meat, and sit on the ground."70 (Lescarbot.)

    I quote a contemporary observer who came to Port Royal in 1606, the 36 year old lawyer, Marc L'Escarbot:

    "... they cover them with a skin tied to a latch or girdle of leather, which, passing between their buttocks, joineth the other end of the said latch behind. And for the rest of their garments they have a cloak on their backs, made with many skins, whether they be of otters or of beavers, and one only skin, whether it be of elan, or stag's skin, bear, or luserne, which cloak is tied upward with a leather riband, and they thrust commonly one arm out, but being in their cabins they put it off, unless it be cold."
    Lescarbot continues:
    "... in winter they make good beaver sleeves, tied behind, which keep them very warm. ...
    Our savages in the winter, going to sea or a-hunting, do use great and high stockings, like to our boot-hosen, which they tie to their girdles, and at the sides outward there is a great number of points without tags. I do not see that they of Brazil or Florida do use of them, but, seeing they have leather, they may as well make of them, if they have need as the others. Besides these long stockings, our savages do use shoes, which they call mekezin, which they fashion very properly, but they cannot endure long, specially when they go into watery places, because they be not curried or hardened, but only made after the manner of buff, which is the hide of an elan. ...
    As for head-attire, none of the savages have any, unless it be that some of the hither lands truck his skins with Frenchmen for hats and caps; but rather both men and women wear their hairs flittering over their shoulders, neither bound nor ties except that the men do truss them upon the crown of the head ... with a leather lace, which they let hang down behind. ...
    ... when they go to the wars, they have about their heads as it were a crown made with long hairs of an elan, or stag, [leather] painted in red, pasted or otherwise fastened to a fillet of leather of three fingers breath ...
    ... our Souriquois ... carry a knife before their breasts, which they do not for ornaments but for want of pocket, and because it is an implement which at all times is necessary unto them."
    During Diereville's time at Acadia, c. 1700, the Micmac were observed wearing72, particularly during the winter, the skins of animals, this, in addition to a blanket which they might have secured from the white man in a trade. No matter the season, there was little difference in the dress of the man or the woman; the garments on the women extended to the lower part of their legs. In the summer they wore but a shirt and a belted loin piece (cloth or leather). Stockings or chaps would be fashion out of leather or cloth by the Indians. Two pieces would be sewed up and "there are always two flaps, Diereville observes, which extend four fingers beyond the seam. It would appear too that our Micmacs had the traditional laced up moccasin made out of either seal skin or other skins which they had worn for a season. The leather parts of their dress were often embellished with dyes and porcupine quills coloured red and white.73 Another decoration was, as the Indians called it, matachias. It was braided cord by which both men and women would bind up their hair. The matachias as Diereville observed had small beads acquired from the white-man in trade; it can only be imagined that these beads took the place of shells and quills used in earlier times. As for cosmetics: "they use so much animal fat & Fish oil especially on their faces, that they are almost invariably dripping with it, & this is their usual perfume." Tattooing, incidently, was not known among the Micmac, but they would, as Lescarbot points out74, on occasion, put burning coals on their skin as a sign of courage which would make lasting scars, of no particular design.

    In the spring of the year it was a practical guarantee that the natives would find white traders at the mouths of certain of the rivers. Down these rivers would come the natives in their canoes filled with pelts obtained from their winter catch. Polished as they were with a chafing motion and natural skin oils throughout the course of a winter's use, the winter fur-clothing of the natives was more highly valued by the trader then the raw pelts on the bottoms of their canoes: the garment skins of these Indian paddlers were often bought right off their backs. Thus, it was usual, in the spring, to see the natives decked out in brand new cloth clothing, only to happy to get rid of their heavy skins for shot, muskets, powder, pots, knives, hatchets, and alike.


    Our contemporary observer, Lescarbot, in chapter XVII of his history, deals with the tools and weapons of the Micmac. As he explains, the bows and arrows were "strong without fineness." Eagle feathers were used for the arrows. Originally, bone was used for the heads of the arrows; but, and quickly, upon the arrival of the white man, the natives were converted to using iron. Their maces, or clubs, were made out of hard wood. They used animal gut for bow strings and for tying the strips of leather to the frames of their "rackets" used to go hunting over the snow. Their canoes were made of bark. "When they remove, they put all that they have into them, wives, children, dogs, kettles, hatches, matachias [beadwork], bows, arrows, quivers, skins, and the coverings of their houses ... they are four foot broad ... sharp towards the ends, and the nose is made rising, for to pass commodiously upon the waves. ... And to the end they leak not, they cover the seams (which join the said barks together, which they make of roots) with the gum of fir trees."


    The Micmac, like all Algonkin, were migratory and had developed the art of traveling, whether it was summer or winter, to a fine degree. For winter travel they used toboggans and snowshoes; for summer travel, the graceful bark canoe.

    We have had passed down to us, a 1774 description on the making of a Micmac canoe:

    "Their canoes are very ingeniously made mostly of the bark of the birch tree, without nails, pins, leather or hemp; instead of which they sew them up with root of trees, dyed different colours, and line them with ashwood slit thin like the girth wood used for milk pails, etc. in England. They are sharp at each end, about two feet wide in the middle, and will carry four or five men; with the use of a paddle they make their way very expeditiously on the water. We crossed the Annapolis River twice with an Indian in one of these canoes."75
    Bark from the tree, the principal building material of the Indians, needed for such projects as building a canoe or a new abode, could only be stripped from the trees, with any ease, in the spring of the year when the sap was running.


    The fact that the Micmac were migratory impacted mightily on every aspect of their lives. Their material possessions were few, and, of necessity, portable. Their home was a single family dome-shaped lodge, the wigwam. Saplings, probably small young pine or spruce, rigid as they are, would have been preferred. A number of sapling poles, maybe stripped of bark, but not necessarily, would be pitched to form a circle. A band of flexible young hard wood, such as willow, would be employed to twist, at their tops, the several sapling or wigwam poles together. The resulting frame work would then be wrapped with what ever might be available, including bark, skins, or, later on, the white man's canvas as might be found on a wreck washed up on the seashore.

    Diereville describes the construction of a Wigwam:

    "This is the manner in which it is constructed. Fifteen or sixteen Poles, more or less according to its size, are set up in a circle, two feet apart; they are a fathom [six feet] or a fathom & a half in height, & their upper extremities are joined in a point, & fastened together; the Poles are covered with branches of Fir, & large pieces of bark from the same tree, or from Birch, & sometimes with skins; a hole is left at the bottom that is only large enough to go in & out of, on all fours. Inside, a Pole traverses it at a height of four or five feet, & on it the Kettle is hung over a fire, which is kept low, & built in the centre of the rear part of the Wigwam."76
    War Parties

    "Before starting, they always had a feast of dog's flesh, which they believed made them courageous, and a war dance ... While in friendly territory they divided into small parties for the convenience of hunting; but when they reached the enemy's frontier they went in close array, and in silence. To conceal their numbers, sometimes they marched in single file, each one in the track of his predecessor."77
    For the Indians to go on the war path, councils of men would first come together to discuss the cons and pros of such an action. Old complaints would be dug out and exchanged. Though, at first, opinions were diversified as to what to do about their problems, eventually, after much persuasive speaking and gesturing, their several opinions were to shake down to two, coming from two factions: the old and the young: keep the peace or go to war. The young usually won out.

    It should be noted that when the Europeans (almost invariable the French) wanted to recruit their Indian friends to assist them in an attack on the European foe, they would throw a feast. For example, the French governor, Governor Villebon up along the St. John during the years 1690-1700 invited the tribes to such feasts. Usually two separate feasts were held: one for the chiefs and another for the warriors.78

    Relationship with the White Man

    We conclude our discussion of the Micmac by briefly examining their early relationship with the Europeans.

    The Micmac got on with the French in a much better manner than they ever did with the English. I suppose the primary reason is that for the first century of European settlement, during the 1600s, there were to be no other settled white men in Micmac territory other than that of the French. What the Micmac knew of the English is what they learned from their friends the French; and, make no mistake, the French had nothing good to say about the English. So, throughout the course of several generations, the Micmac were to become firmly entrenched in their hatred of the English. Another reason is that the French temperament was much better suited to that of the Micmac. The French, much to their credit and benefit, met their native friends at their level and learned the way of the woods: the English were much too stiff and direct and did not believe the Indians could teach them a thing. The French went to the natives and feasted with them and gave them presents. With the coming of the English, especially as of 1749, the English would issued summonses to the Micmac to come to the English and then proceeded to dictate terms. Another important reason as to why the French and the Micmac got along as well as they did, is, that they put themselves, in time, in a position to claim a common religious bond. The fact is that the French saw to the conversion of the Micmac to Catholicism, in wholesale lots; and, then, proceeded to control them through the missionaries who lived among them, full time. These missionaries were to gain control over the Micmac, to the extent that anyone ever could, through the old-fashioned prescription of fire and brimstone.

    "With the traditional attachment of the Indians for the French, it was not difficult for the missionaries to gain great influence over them. Indeed, they became the most important political agents of the French officials in holding the allegiance of the Indians and in inciting and encouraging them in their ruthless attacks on frontier houses and villages, frequently being present in person during the massacres which took place.
    Among the many priests who performed devoted services in Canada during three hundred years, only a very small number have had similar records, and it must, therefore, be concluded that the natures of these few men were warped and their spiritual development completely dwarfed by political and material considerations and by certain unrestrained natural instincts and passions. Their policy was to keep the Indians ferocious savages ..."

    The Indians were treated like children, and like parents, the white men awarded the Indians for good deeds and punished them for bad: except the French preferred the former approach, the English the latter. The French made a point of gathering their Indian friends together once a year and gave them gifts of powder, lead, flints, and axes. The English were quick to single out wrongdoing Indians and then to proceed to give to each a dose of English justice, which, in those days, was harsh and humiliating. The French treated the Indians as sovereign allies; they lived among them and traded with them. Not so the English! The English treated the Indians like so many land squatters.80

    The result of this treatment, upon their settlement in Acadia, was that, for a fifty year period, 1710-60, the English were forced to live within fort walls and to proceed beyond only in the presence of an armed guard. As Armstrong wrote, the English were subject to "the daily insults and cruel massacres of the Indians, who are supported and clandestinely encouraged by the French" and who make annual gifts to the Indians "of arms, powder and ball."81

    That the French were ready to lend a hand to the Indians -- no doubt; but, in the process, it served the international aims and purposes of France. It is clear that the French used the native Americans to make the English settler's life on the Atlantic seaboard, one of constant worry. It was a matter of French policy, stated in numerous official documents such as that of 1749:

    "As it is impossible to openly oppose them [the English], for they are within their rights in making in Acadia such settlements as they see fit, as long as they do not pass its boundaries, there remains for us only to bring against them as many indirect obstacles as can be done without compromising ourselves, and to take steps to protect ourselves against plans which the English can consider through the success of these settlements. The only method we can employ to bring into existence these obstacles is to make the savages of Acadia and its borders feel how much it is to their advantage to prevent the English fortifying themselves, to bind them to oppose it openly, and to excite the Acadians to support the Indians in their opposition (to the English) in so far as they can do without discovery. The missionaries of both have instructions and are agreeable to act in accordance with these views.
    Our savages have taken a number of English scalps, their terror of these natives is unequaled, they are so frightened that they dare not leave the towns or forts without detachments, with the protection of these they go out for what is absolutely needed."
    The Micmac, though it seems plain they could not have chosen to be at the side of any other, in the great French/English conflict over North America, had simply chosen the wrong side. With the end of the Seven Years War and the Treaty Of Paris, in 1763, France, by force of arms, had permanently lost her power in North America. The Micmac were thus left with but memories of their friends the French, and left, too, to carry the burden of vanquished rivals. Victory had given to the English the right of Dominion over the Micmac of Megumaagee. One hope only was to remain to them, the only hope of the vanquished -- the hope: that in their resignation that their new masters would treat them with understanding and compassion.

    -- End


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    Peter Landry
    2012 (2020)