Who were the Mi'kmaq people?

By J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Column One

Pjila'si (welcome). Most archeologists agree that the Mi'kmaq first appeared in their homeland around ten thousand years ago. This tribal territory eventually included all of what are now Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Gaspť Peninsula of Quebec, New Brunswick, eastern Maine, and part of Newfoundland and Labrador, including the islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as well as St. Pierre and Miquelon and the Mi'kmaq referred to their territory as Mi'kma'ki, The French early on referred to Newfoundland as Terre Neuve referred to the area on the mainland including Cape Britain Island as Acadie or the Souriquoys country. The Mi'kmaq called Newfoundland, Ktaqamk.

Archaeological evidence indicates that these first inhabitants arrived from the west and lived as gatherers and hunters and were largely migratory -following the seasonal resources of the region. Others believe that they arrived from the north because of similarities with the Cree language. During the summer they hunted and fished, sometimes canoeing out to sea to hunt whales and other marine life. Their winter camps were situated inland, built usually along rivers and lakes so that they could supplement their hunting by spearing and trapping eels and many other fish and water-based wildlife.

Newfoundland Presence

Frank G. Speck in 1922 wrote, "The Micmac claim to have had some knowledge of Newfoundland from remote times. They speak of a branch of their people called Sa'yawe'djki'k, (SŠqwťjŪjk), 'ancients', who lived on the southern and western coasts before the eighteen century".

Mi'kmaq oral tradition holds that the Mi'kmaq have continuously maintained a presence on the island since prehistoric times and that this original population was later joined by a group from Cape Breton. Newfoundland (Ktaqamk) was referred to as the First Land. They traveled to Ktaqamkuk via the Strait of Belle Island from Labrador or through the Cabot Strait from Unama'kik.

Frank Speck, in 1922 also said this of the Mi'kmaq: "The present Indian inhabitants, whose language is Micmac, are mixed offspring of Montagnais hunters from Labrador and Micmac from Cape Breton. Immigration from both these neighboring regions must have commenced at least several centuries ago, because our records from the early part of the nineteen century show both the Micmac and the Montagnais to have been firmly established in Newfoundland at that time".

Modern Scholars and Archeologists argue that Mi'kmaq settlement of the island was not permanent until the 1760s (Bartels and Janzen 1990). These authors argue that, while Mi'kmaq from Cape Breton hunted, fished and trapped in Newfoundland on a seasonal basis from a very early date, later during the 1760s, European influence and their "resistance to Mi'kmaq demands to have Roman Catholic Priests appointed to serve their spiritual needs" were among the factors influencing a group of Cape Breton Mi'kmaq, led by Chief Jeannot Pequidalouet, to take up permanent residence in Newfoundland. His claim of a land grant by the Governor of Nova Scotia in Bay St. George while believable is not proven by a documentation that has yet surfaced. Many argue the period was a time when Mi'kmaq sometimes lived and hunted in what we now call Cape Breton and what we now call Newfoundland- making both islands part of the group's traditional territory. This would seem likely. The Mi'kmaq would have known this region as Unama'kik.

Mi'kmaq camps were found in and around St. George's Bay and the Codroy River in the southwest, White Bear Bay and Bay d'Espoir on the island's south coast, and Bonavista Bay, Gander Bay, and the Bay of Exploits in the northeast. In 1857, Newfoundland census takers recorded Mi'kmaq families in St. George's Bay, Codroy River, Grandy's Brook (on the south coast), Conne River, Bay d'Espoir, and in the Bay of Exploits.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a British naval officer indicated a Mi'kmaq village of about 100 people in Bay St. George, and by the 1830s, Newfoundland missionaries were referring to a Mi'kmaq village in Conne River of about the same size. There were a much larger number of Mi'kmaq living in Newfoundland at any one time, but population figures for Native people in this era must be regarded with caution. It is not at all clear that European observers took into account the fact that families moved seasonally between home villages, hunting territories, fish camps, and trap lines. Census-takers, too, were not always reliable, nor is it likely that they could always win the trust of Native informants. Thus many families chose not to be identified as Indian or French Indian.

The Jesuits in the 1600's made this observation:

"I have often wondered how many of these people there are. I have found from the Accounts of the Savages themselves, that in the region of the great river, from Newfoundland to ChouacoŽt, there cannot be found more than nine or ten thousand people. Look at the chart and I will give you the enumeration of them. The Souriquoys, in all, 3000, or 3500. The Eteminquois to PentegoŽt, 2500. From PentegoŽt to Kinibequi and from Kinibequi to ChouacoŽt, 3000. The Montaguets, 1000. This is about ten thousand souls, and I believe it is the highest number. The other tribes are not known to us."

Next column will deal with the origin of the Mi'kmaq name; it's origins and identity.

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher

Cape St. George, NL.

Sources: Frank Speck, 1929 Indian Notes: Beothuk and Micmac

The Jesuit Relations

As printed in The Georgian Newspaper, September 16-22, 2003


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