Mi'kmaq: Identity and language

By J Benwah

je'sn penwa
Thunder Cloud

Column Two

Pjila'si (welcome), in this column, I would like to discuss a little about the Mi'kmaq language and our identity.

Over centuries we have been known by many names. More recently, however, the Europeans stuck the name Micmac on our people. Long before European contact, the Mi'kmaq were known as the L'nu'k, meaning "the people". The word Mi'kmaq was derived from Nikmaq that was a form of greeting used and later associated by the Europeans as a term of tribal identity for our people. European traders trying to find a shorter route to India, accidentally landing on our North American shores called our people Indians thinking they had reached the Indian coast. We are not from India and I find in personally objectionable to be referred to as an Indian. Some do not mind and I respect their wishes.

Our ancestors called the French Ni'kmaq Françoise and to the French we were the Souriquois and today we acknowledge ourselves as being Mi'kmaq. Mi'kmaq is plural while Mi'kmaw is singular, but over the years, Micmac had become the more commonly used name by non-natives. There are other variations of the spelling. Other names used for Mi'kmaq over the course of European occupation include: Ktaqamkuk (Taqamkukewa'q) Mi'kmaq, Cape Sable Indians, Gaspesian (Mi'kmaq of Gaspee), Matueswiskitchinuuk (Malecite "Porcupine Indians"), Shonack (Beothuk), Tarrateen (British), and others.

French deserters from the European fishery, Acadian, and others came to our settlements and as a result many interactions between our peoples came about and included some intermarriage. This led to some of the Mi'kmaq as being referred to as Jack-a-tars: French speaking Mi'kmaq. In the 1945 census of Newfoundland, many families registered as French Indian, which was another nickname. The fact is that many families choose not to reveal their Mi'kmaq identity as it was often ridiculed and looked down on. Those living in Conne River are often known as Miawpukek Mi'kmaq.

The Micmac language called Mi'kmawi'simk is a beautiful and diverse one that is part of the Algonquian language family, and its ancestral language I am told is Proto-Algonquian. It varies from the Abenaki and has some similarities with the languages of the Montagnais and Cree. The language is still spoken today. Before the Europeans came, communication amongst the Mi'kmaq involved a network of runners who went from settlement to settlement relaying messages for important matters concerning all.

Early examples of the written language were hieroglyphics written on birch bark or animal hides. Father La Clerq, a French missionary priest, adapted it to translate scriptures in 1691. He used his work to translate scripture as well as ordinary communication into the Micmac language and published a forty thousand -word dictionary in 1894. A new orthography was developed in 1974 to give a more accurate representation of the sounds of the Micmac language. Today, there is renewed interest in learning the language and it is being taught in many homes and especially in schools on reserves throughout the Mi'kmaq territories.

It the next column we will look at their relationship with the Jesuit missionaries.

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher

Cape St. George, NL.

As printed in the September 30-October 6, 2003 issue of The Georgian Newspaper


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