Who We Are

By Elaine Keillor

The name Algonquin came from a Maliseet word, elakómkwik, meaning “They are our relatives” (Day/Trigger 1978: 792). The early 1600s was a hard time. Everything changed so quickly that no one was sure where each cultural group first lived or where it eventually stayed.

Samuel de Champlain used “Algoumequin” in 1603 to name one cultural group he found in the Ottawa River valley. Father Charles Arnaud noted that these “Algoumekuins” (who the Montagnais [Innu] called the Algoumekuots) coloured their faces and painted their possessions bright red with pigment from a special root.

Today, Algonquin refers to the Ottawa River valley people who have spoken a dialect of the Algonkian language family (Clément 1996, 1-2). The Weskarini, Matouweskarini, Keinouche (Pike), Otaguottouemins and Onontchataronon have been among the historic band names (Day/Trigger 1978: 792).
Juliette Gaultier de La Vérendrye (born Juliette Gauthier 1888-1972) learned Algonquin traditional songs and dances from the 1920s through to the 1940s while she worked closely with several Maniwaki informants.

This essay relies extensively on Gaultier’s unpublished notes in her Fonds at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gaultier’s informants, as she wrote down the name, apparently called

themselves Onigoke, which might have been her way of spelling Algonquin. Not until the late 1940s did transcribers substitute the word Algonquin regularly for Onigoke, and at least ten other terms were used for this nation (Personal communication: Jacob Wawatie). Gaultier’s informants said these people originally lived somewhat farther south. Later, they occupied the Ottawa and Gatineau River valleys up to James Bay.

Today the largest Algonquin settlement is Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg, next to Maniwaki, Quebec. Luc-Antoine Paginawatik (1803-1874) founded the settlement in the 19th century (McGregor 2004: 180).  Indeed, Gaultier’s two main informants were Paginawatik’s descendants (Clément 1996: 127). One, Wa Ba Die Kwe (White Caribou Woman), used the Euro-Canadian name Angélique Caponicin (1884-1979).

The other, Mka Di Mik Kwe (Two Black Beaver[s] Woman) used the name Madeleine Jacko Clément.
The Onigoke honoured Gaultier with an Indian name, Gathering Flower Woman. As she reported, the Algonquins’ life-ways included preparing traditional foods and colourful dyes from different plants.

Some of these dyes could appear on their clothing. They also found many ways to use birch bark, most prominently as covering for their traditional dwelling, the pikogan. They would bite intricate designs into birch bark and use the resultant pieces as windows in the pikogan or as decoration.

Their culture has always included legends, songs, dances and animal stories. Like the olden days, today’s Algonquins continue to hunt and to grow certain foods.

Our Daily Cycle

The moon has organized the Algonquin year. Long before Europeans came, the Algonquin gave each month a seasonal name. People of wisdom knew that if the April moon came late, April weather did not come until the moon was full (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).
Each day would begin with an invocation to the sun. An old Algonquin story said that once a certain person dreamed the Sun was dancing and singing. He told his people, so to honour the dream, they began two ceremonies: the Sun-Dance and the Song to the rising Sun.

Today’s people have continued those ways. The Sun singers have always begun this incantation with a trembling voice while tapping four fingers lightly on their lips. Other songs have ancient roots. Summer tunes must have high pitches, while in winter the pitches must be lower. An example of a high-pitched summer song would be the Rainbow Song (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

The Sunset Dance, throughout Algonquin communities, has always honoured the end of each day.

This song, danced in a circle around the sun-lodge, has copied the dancing of the sunset colours in the sky.  Accompanied with tewigan (tewehigan) drums, the people whistled and sung the melody on the syllables. Each time the tune would circle around to its beginning again, the people would sing a half-pitch higher (Gaultier de la Vérendrye, Juliette Coll. 1-A-160M; B325 F.4).

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Indigenous Dance