Mi'kmaq History and People: Food and Diet

By Jasen Sylvester Benwah

je'sn penwa
Spotted Wolf

Pjila'si (welcome),

The Mi'kmaq of Mi'kma'ki (Mi'kmaq territory that spands across Easter Maine, Atlantic Canada and Eastern Quebec) spent most of the year along coastal areas, taking advantage of the wealth of food available there throughout all but about six weeks of the year. There were some local variations but generally fish of all kinds, including salmon and sturgeon, plus porpoises, whales, walrus, seals, lobster, squid, shellfish, eels and seabirds with their eggs made up the bulk of their diet. They also ate moose (introduced to Newfoundland later), caribou, beaver and porcupine (there are no porcupine in Ktaqamkuk), as well as smaller animals, like squirrels. Berries, roots and edible plants were gathered during the summer. Meat and fish were dried and smoked to preserve them.

The Jesuit in the 1600's said regarding the diet of the Mi'kmaw: "Their food is whatever they can get from the chase and from fishing; for they do not till the soil at all; but the paternal providence of our good God, which does not forsake even the sparrow, has not left these poor creatures, worthy of his care, without proper provision, which is to them like fixed rations assigned to every moon; for they count by Moons, and put thirteen of them in a year. Now, for example, in January they have the seal hunting: for this animal, although it is aquatic, nevertheless spawns upon certain Islands about this time. Its flesh is as good as veal; and furthermore they make of its fat an oil, which serves them as sauce throughout the year; they fill several moose-bladders with it, which are two or three times as large and strong as our pig bladders; and in these you see their reserve casks. Likewise in the month of February and until the middle of March, is the great hunt for Beavers, otters, moose, bears (which are very good), and for the caribou, an animal half ass and half deer. If the weather then is favorable, they live in great abundance, and are as haughty as Princes and Kings; but if it is against them, they are greatly to be pitied, and often die of starvation. The weather is against them if it rains a great deal, and does not freeze; for then they can hunt neither deer nor beavers. Also, when it snows a great deal, and does not freeze over, for then they cannot put their dogs upon the chase, because they sink down; the savages themselves do not do this, for they wear snowshoes on their feet which help them to stay on top: yet they cannot run as fast as would be necessary, the snow being too soft. They have other misfortunes of this kind which it would be tedious to relate."

"Now our savages (they were not the savages) in the middle of September withdraw from the sea, beyond the reach of the tide, to the little rivers, where the eels spawn, of which they lay in a supply; they are good and fat. In October and November comes the second hunt for elks and beavers; and then in December (wonderful providence of God) comes a fish called by them Ponamo, which spawns under the ice. Also then the turtles bear little ones, etc. These then, but in a still greater number, are the revenues and incomes of our Savages; such, their table and living, all prepared and assigned, everything to its proper place and quarter. Never had Solomon his mansion better regulated and provided with food, than are these homes and their landlords."

Before the Europeans came, the Taqamkukewa'q (Newfoundland Mi'kmaq) hunted and trapped throughout the interior of the island, trapping various types of wildlife. Later they traded for guns, knives, flour, tobacco, and other things they could not make. Most families laid claim to specific trapping territories, hunting for meat, especially caribou (an essential part of Mi'kmaq diet), but essentially the area was open to everyone. Modern day Mi'kmaq also raise livestock and plant vegetables.

Welįlin (thank you).

Wantaqo'ti, (peace).

Compiled by Jasen S. Benwah

Local Mi'kmaq Researcher and Saqamaw of Benoit First Nation

Cape St. George, NL.

As seen in the June 30 - July 5, 2004 issue of the Georgian Newspaper


Website Copyright © 2004 Jasen Sylvester Benwah