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Before the Europeans stepped on the mainland Canada, the then traditional cultures of the Canadian inhabitants flourished. Different tribes existed here with their own ways of life independent from other tribes’ rule. With the discovery of the tribes by the visiting Europeans and other explorers, the adventurers gave them the general name ‘Indians’ as they thought they had reached the Indians’ mainland.
The name has however been considered as impropriate by most people with the term ‘First Nations People’ being preferred. A distinction has also been made between the various tribes present here, one of them being the Mi’kmaq people, who inhabit “cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island among other parts of Canada” (Rodgers 16).
The tribes in these regions had a hard time dealing with the visitors who came in the name of colonizing them with others coming to convert them into Christianity. Some of the invaders however had the ultimate goal of displacing them from their land besides imposing their rule on them. Their culture has been passed down throughout generations.
There has been little influence by the visiting Europeans and or tribes from the south. The major group of the Mi’kmaq tribe lived in cape Breton, which was segregated from the other districts that the people occupied. The following is a research paper detailing the history of the Mi’kmaq people living in Cape Breton. It investigates their life before the Europeans, governance, religion, and demographics amongst others.
The Mi’kmaq people form part of the Algonquian people whose other members include the Passamaquoddy people, the Maliseet people, and the Abenaki among others. These are considered as the Aboriginal tribes of Canada who have lived in the land since time immemorial. Of these tribes, the Mi’kmaq is the most Eastern tribe living in the districts of Epegoitg (the current Prince Edward Island) and Nova Scotia (Earle 405).
These people have traditionally relied on fishing and hunting as their source of livelihood with the main animal hunted being the porcupine and the moose (Earle 414). They have taken the time to conform to the cold weather during the winters by devising many tricks of hunting throughout the year irrespective of the weather changes. The French people were the first Europeans to establish contacts with the Mi’kmaq people.
They sought to convert them to the Roman religion, which was then Christianity (Earle 419). The French also tried to establish a lasting relationship with the people. The plan worked well as they fought alongside each other against the British.
Most of the history of these people has been passed down orally from one generation to the other, as the Aboriginal people were not keen on recording their own history. There are therefore disparities in the times and events between the different narrators. These people were however good at walking long distances.
Before the Europeans
Before the coming of the Europeans, the Mi’kmaq people used to hunt for food and fish. They did this to get food enough for one day, as they believed in waking up to hunt for the next day. They did not preserve food except when it was hard and needed to rot it first as a way of softening it. The weapons of choice were the spears and arrows, which were made from the readily available materials.
Hunting was substituted with fishing with the Eel being their favorite meal despite its elusiveness. In most instances, the meat was eaten raw. Any hard meat was softened by rubbing it against stones and kicking it hard with the same. Fire would be made by the same method used in the other surrounding areas by rubbing dry pinewood.
Pebble stones were the other options used to make fire, which was described as a more efficient alternative to rubbing together of pinewood (Earle 417). Since the process of making fire was tedious, it would be kept burning for days by chosen women who were made responsible for the same. Later, the women received a lot of praises and thanksgiving for their role in preserving the fire, which later became sacred to them (Earle 419).
In recognizing the women, the famous ceremony of dancing around the fire would take place. To begin with, the tall people in the campsite assembled around the fire after the third day of its lighting. They would then smoke pipes by holding the smoke in and exhaling it at the face of the women who had preserved it for this long. The ceremony of dancing around the fire would then follow in songs of praise to the Gods.
The women responsible for the preservation of the fire also got rewards of various presents besides being made wives of chiefs. If they were not ready, they would also choose a perfect husband for them. After the event, they would then make the fire larger for use in roasting meat, which would then be eaten by everyone. The bones from the meat that was eaten during this day or any other day would be thrown away into the waters from where the food came, which was thought of appreciating the continuity of the species on which they fed (Earle 422).
The Mi’kmaq people had different tools for preparing their food and killing their prey. Their main raw material was beaver bone, which was used to make a variety of tools for cooking and hunting. A chisel would be made by rubbing the beaver bone against a hard surface, which would be a hard rock (Earle 422). They are known for their expertise in making canoes by using the beaver bones to cut the wood used in the construction.
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An arrow to be used for hunting would be made by attaching a sharp beaver bone to the end of the arrows to imitate the iron end of the French arrows. Initially, their ancestors made their canoes by making use of the moose skin whose hair had been scrapped off (Earle 422). They placed it over the wooden frames and used to sail to adjacent Islands.
The skin was later replaced by birth bark, which lasted longer besides being safer compared to the moose skin, which would quickly rot. Animal tendons would be used to stitch the pats together to prevent separation when sailing. Journey by canoes was used to escape enemies who attacked a village. They also used them to move from one village to another in a lagoon.
The danger with canoeing was the fish they describe as vicious man-eaters, which would even overturn a boat and feed on its inhabitants. Weapons, which resembled the present day harpoons, would be used to keep the fish at bay by preventing them from overturning the canoes.
The Mi’kmaq people were able to resist the British rule for a long time. This revelation was due to their excellent organizational power and passion for their land, which they protected intimately from any outsiders. They had one of the most efficient systems of governance available at the time, which consisted of various levels leadership.
For effective administration, the land was divided into many administrative areas with each having its own authority under a supreme leader. The Mi’kmaq people divided themselves into districts with each under its own leadership and boundaries. At the height of the leadership sat the chief who was in charge of all matters dealing with governance, settling of disputes, and religious functions.
They were also the leaders of the supreme council consisting of village elders, other chiefs, and prominent community members in the village (Prins 34). Their role was making decisions on the community, forming guidance on any dispute, and declaring wars on their neighbors. Laws were also made here thus ensuring that the culture was propagated forward.
The move touched on the everyday life of the citizens by ensuring that there was order within the land. Whenever war broke out, the council was responsible for re-establishing peace. In fact, it set aside fishing and hunting grounds for various people to prevent the starting and or escalation of disputes. Santé Mawiomi was a larger council where all the chiefs of the various districts congregated to make decisions on behalf of the community as a whole (Prins 35).
The leader of this council was the grand chief who would be the supreme leader of the Mi’kmaq people selected from the district of Cape Breton or the closer district of Unamaki. The present day Chapel Island was the location of the grand council where the grand chief ruled the community (Prins 33). With the death of the grand chief, the eldest son would take control of the chiefdom thus taking over the roles held by the father.
This means that the grand chief hood was hereditary. The original meeting place of the council has been maintained with decisions that influence the people being made here to the present day. The council is described as having made decisions on wars, which were prominent in keeping the British at bay besides preventing them from taking control of the region and or imposing any rule on their people.
The Mi’kmaq people called their land Mi’kma’kik, which consisted of the provinces and districts adjacent to the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Clermont 12). They included cape Breton, which had a significant number of the people living there. It is estimated that the Mi’kmaq people had covered an area of about 122, 000 square kilometers before the colonialists divided them into territories for ease of administration and control.
Before the arrival of the Europeans who brought with them epidemics, their population was at a maximum of 15,000 with the number being tagged to the potential of the land they had occupied at the time and their workmanship (Prins 27). The family unit that is most apparent with the Mi’kmaq people was the extended family where members lived together only splitting to hunt for the winter (Martijn17).
Intermarriage between members of these families, which formed a band, ensured that their culture and ethnicity were preserved. During the years 1815 and 1838, there was a marked migration into Cape Breton after the conclusion of the Nepoleonistic wars (Andrew 12). It is also stated that the population of Cape Breton rose from around 6000 to approximately 35420 within the same period (Harvey 31).
In the middle of the 19th century, the population of the Mi’kmaq living in the Cape Breton was about 500 (Andrew 61). The population remained low with the challenges of drought and famine combined with poverty causing the population to plateau.
Culture and Religion
The religion of the Mi’kmaq people in Cape Breton involved the worship of spirits with the main one being referred as Manitou. Other smaller ones included the Manitou. Sacrifices offered to the spirits included roast meat from small animals and other agricultural produce. The spirit was supposed to protect them during wars, make their women fertile, and increase their luck while hunting.
In most instances, man’s best friend was the most appropriate sacrifice to the spirits. The friend would be sacrificed to the spirits to prevent unscrupulous luck and evil spirits. Dogs would also be sacrificed in disasters such as those in sea while sailing to appease the spirit to save them from storms or from drowning. These people are also described as being superstitious with basic life events being interpreted as offensive omens.
The owl, for example, was associated with shoddy luck. Whenever it cried, a hunter would abandon his endeavors to continue the next day. Despite their belief in spirits and superstition, these people also believed in the existence of a superior being who was responsible for the creation of everything they used and one who determined their destiny. This made it easier for the French missionaries and priests who met them to convert them into Christianity.
In his book, Lescarbot states that the people believed that they went to a place full of rare trees and fruits and close to the stars where they spent the rest of their lives in harmony with the universe (4). He was however able to convince them that what they worshipped was an evil spirit and that the only true God is the one he worshiped. Upon convincing them, they converted to Christianity.
As indicated above, the Mi’kmaq people’s culture involved moving from one place to the other in search of food for their families. The migration followed the seasonal movement of the animals with respect to weather changes with the moose and the porcupine being the main animals they hunted. In winter, these animals would be hunted in large numbers since they were available.
Spring would take them to the seashore where a fish diet would be the main food. Moving from one place to the other during the seasonal changes meant that they kept few personal belongings thus owning hunting tools and the agricultural appliances only. Chiefs were the main authority for the tribe.
One would become a chief based on the provisions he/she made to the family and tribe in terms of food from hunting. Chiefs were most often the hardworking males in the tribe, with some inheriting the chiefdom from their fathers.
The 19th Century
In the wake of the 19th century, the Mi’kmaq people had interacted with many tribes and Europeans with a change of culture being evident. Their number however remained low especially in Cape Breton with the main inhabitants being the visitors. In the mid-19th century, the Mi’kmaq people had little land left to hunt and fewer areas to fish since the land had many immigrants (Andrew 1).
These were mainly the Europeans who they had interacted with for nearly three hundred years. Agriculture was perceived as an alternative to hunting and fishing. Men started working for a wage to provide food for their families (Andrew 10). Andrew also claims that the mid-19th century also saw the building of pressure on the original inhabitants of the cape due to the rising population of immigrants into the area (11).
This period saw the most significant change in social organization of the Mi’kmaq people with the British playing a significant role in the change.
The Mi’kmaq people of cape Breton are indigenous to the area having seen the influx of foreign inhabitants. They are diverse people who have adapted the changes in history though preserving their culture with them. There are insufficient records of these people and their culture before the 17th century.
Most of the people’s traditions are passed from one generation to the other through oral literature. These people are known to have practiced a well-organized system of governance, which is still to be adored today. They therefore form one of the most civilized nations in history.
Therefore, in a bid to get a detailed picture of these people, the paper has given a comprehensive account of their origin, their way of life before the entry of the Europeans, their governance, culture and religion, as well as their state as from the dawn of the 19th century.
Andrew, Parnaby. “The Cultural Economy of Survival: The Mi’kmaq of Cape Breton in the Mid-19th Century.” Labour/Le Travail 61.1(2008): 69–98. Print.
Clermont, Norman. “L’adaptation maritime des Micmacs.” Martijn 1.1(1986): 11-27. Print.
Earle, Lockerby. “Ancient Mi’kmaq Customs: A Shaman’s Revelations.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXIV.2(2004): 403-423. Print.
Harvey, Caxton. Scottish Immigration to Cape Breton. Don MacGillivray and Brian Tennyson, eds. Sydney: Cape Breton Historical Essays, 1980. Print.
Lescarbot, Marc. Nova Francia: A Description of Acadia, 1606. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Martijn, Charles. Early Mikmaq Presence in Southern Newfoundland: An Ethnohistorical Perspective, c.1500-1763, 1987. Web.
Prins, Harald. The Mi’kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. Print.
Rodgers, Robert. A Concise Account of North America. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1765. Print.