Mi’kmaq history and people : Tools and gear

By J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Pjila'si (welcome). Birch bark was also the material of choice for domestic tools and, like most of their clothing, often decorated with porcupine quills. Elaborately quilled boxes and baskets are uniquely Micmac, and their skill with quillwork is reputedly the best.

Before the arrival of Europeans the Mi'kmaq people had mastered techniques which enabled them to make tools and equipment from animal bone, ivory, teeth, claws, hair, feathers, fur, leather, quills, shells, clay, native copper, stone, wood, roots and bark. Pecking and grinding stone to a sharp edge and smooth surface made axes, adzes and gouges. In turn, these tools were used to cut and carve wood. Fine carving was done with sharp beaver teeth.

For killing game and butchering meat, they used spears, knives, arrow points and scrapers, all made from special stones like chalcedony. This rock fractures in a certain way to "peel" the stone away in flakes, creating a razor-sharp edge. Bone points were used to harpoon sturgeon and porpoise, and for the wood-and-bone fish spears. Awls, painting tools and sewing needles were also of bone. Copper was worked into needles and fishhooks. This type of equipment was usually made by men, who also fashioned baby-carriers, sleds, snowshoe frames and tobacco pipes of stone, bone, bark, wood and even lobster claws.

In addition to preparing clothing, women made bags and mats of reeds, of cedar and basswood bark, of grasses and cattail leaves. The variety of weaves and dye-colours they used impressed early European settlers. Women may also have made baskets of long tree shoots or plant stems, using a wicker weave. Weirs were made in this way to trap fish, driving stakes into the streambed and weaving branches in and out until the river was blocked and the eels or fish were forced to swim into a trap.

After 1600 Mi'kmaq women began making a variety of items solely for sale to Europeans. This included their famous porcupine quillwork on bark, where hundreds of brightly dyed quills were used to make a mosaic on top of birch bark. The quill ends were inserted into holes in wet bark, which quickly contracted around them to hold the quills in place. Bark ornamented like this was then made into boxes, chair upholstery, and many other "European" items. The women also sold settlers an enormous variety of baskets, now being made of wood splints. Dyes and decorative weaves made these as pretty as the older reed bags. Beadwork items were for sale, too, and examples of lavishly beaded and appliquéd tea cosies, purses and men's vests still survive in museums. Welálin (thank you).

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher

Cape St. George, NL.(Ktaqamkuk)

Wantaqo'ti, (peace).


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