Who We Are

by Trudy Sable and Julia Sable

According to archaelogical evidence, the Mi’kmaq people have lived in their homeland for approximately ten thousand years. The region they called Mi’kma’ki included what is now Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, the north shore of New Brunswick and inland to the Saint John River watershed, eastern Maine, and part of Newfoundland, including the islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as well as St. Pierre and Miquelon. They thought of their homeland as containing seven districts: Kespukwitk, Sikepne’katik, Eski’kewaq, Unama’kik, Piktuk’aqq Epekwitk, Sikniktewaq, and  Kespe’kewaq. A keptan orsaqmaw (district chief) presided in each jurisdiction, doubling as local ruler and delegate to the Grand Council Sante’ Mawiomi (Johnson 1996: 376–378).

Five hundred years ago, Europeans first landed on the Atlantic shores of what to them was a new continent. The Mi’kmaq welcomed them and identified themselves as the L’nu’k, the people. Since then they adopted the name Micmac, which is sometimes written Mic Mac, or in French, Micmaque. The term Mi’kmaq comes from their word nikmak, meaning “my kin–friends” (Whitehead 1988: 1).

The current spelling, Mi’kmaq, is from the 1974 Smith/Francis spelling system that the communities in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton have adopted (Mi’kmaq is the plural form; Mi’kmaw is the singular). Throughout this essay we will be using the Smith/Francis system to offer alternative spellings (in italics) to various ones used in historical records. In other areas, including New Brunswick, many people have modified a writing system that Capuchin missionary Father Pacifique created in the 1890s while he lived among the Mi’kmaq.

Mi’kmaq culture belongs to the great family anthropologists call Algonkian because their languages and cultures are similar. This extended family includes nations and tribes across North America such as the Maliseet, Abenaki, Eeyou Cree, Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) and other peoples.

Europeans, mostly English, Scottish, Irish, and French, began to settle in Atlantic Canada 500 years ago. Initially, it was more French, followed by the English, followed by waves of Germans, Irish, Scots, Black Loyalists from the United States, and Loyalists from the U.S. This influx of Loyalists following the American Revolution doubled the population and caused many Mi’kmaq to lose their lands.

Also, wars and disease have disrupted the communities, as has what was then a new religion – Roman Catholicism.

The culture began to die out as the new Canadians restricted the Mi’kmaq to reserves. The government compelled children to attend educational systems designed to eliminate both their families’ ancient culture and their language. The federal government considered indigenous dances harmful, so from 1876 to 1951 it actively suppressed Mi’kmaq traditions.  For example, the 1927 Indian Act severely restricted celebrations and prohibited indigenous people from dancing both on and off the reserves (Joseph 2006: 11).

Ellen Robinson, a Mi’kmaw elder, recalled in the 1930s that no more than two indigenous persons could gather in one place at one time. Also, the Catholic church discouraged or forbade traditional dances, the Mi’kmaw language and other cultural activities (Ellen Robinson, personal communication, Dec. 14, 2005).

Sarah Denny, a Mi’kmaw elder now deceased, said the priests constantly told her people that their dances and chants were the work of the devil (as cited in Sable 1990: 17).

Caroline Gould, a Mi’kmaw elder from Waycobah Reserve (formerly Wycocomagh) in Cape Breton, remembered that she could only receive Holy Communion if she said prayers in English (Margaret Johnson and Caroline Gould, personal communication, Dec. 19, 2005). However, not all priests worked to destroy indigenous ways. Some would even join in the dances themselves.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the colonizers forced the Mi’kmaq to settle on a few large reservations such as Eskasoni and Indianbrook in Nova Scotia, as well as Big Cove and Burnt Church in New Brunswick.  Settlement, or “centralization,” deeply affected Mi’kmaw culture. The system cut the Mi’kmaq off from ancestral lands that held their peoples’ memories.

Anti–language and cultural policies in school, church and other places divided the older and younger generations. The Mi’kmaq could no longer openly hand down the ceremonial rituals and cultural knowledge their forbears had embedded in traditional songs and dances.

Yet the Mi’kmaq First Nation and its distinctive music, dance, stories, language, ceremonies and traditions persist today in testimony to the strength and determination of its people.

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