New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Customs of the Mi’kmaq People in the 1600’s, and Before

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The Customs of the Mi’kmaq People in the 1600’s, and Before

William F. Ganong was a reliable judge of such things, and he said that the following paragraphs were of high value to anyone wanting to know about the customs of the Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, and other Algonquin peoples.

This is a chapter from the book Description geogrphique et historique des costes de l’Amérique septentrionale: avec l’histoire du pais, written in the 1600’s by Nicolas Denys, Governor of Acadia. This English translation if from William F. Ganong’s version of the same, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (Acadia), Toronto, 1908.

Mikmaq Group

Mi’kmaq Group at Dorchester, N.B., ca 1904

Postcard, New Brunswick Museum

Following is Denys’ work, as translated and edited by Ganong. End Note Number 1 is sufficient as a general introduction.


Concerning the ways of the Indians, their polity and customs, their mode of life, their disposition, and that of their children; of their marriages; their method of building, of dressing, of speech-making, with other particulars.1

 It remains for me now to set forth the ways of the Indians, their characteristics, their mode of life, their marriages, their burials, their work, their dances, their hunting, and how they governed themselves in former times, as I have been able to learn it from them, and the way in which they did things thirty-seven to thirty-eight years ago when I was first in that country. They had as yet changed their customs little, but they were already making use of kettles, axes, knives, and of iron for their arrow-heads. There were still but few of them who had firearms.

They still lived long lives. I have seen Indians of a hundred and twenty to a hundred and forty years of age who still went to hunt the Moose; the oldest, who neared a hundred and sixty years, according to their account, no longer went. [These exaggerations were likely given to Denys by the Indians themselves.] They count by moons.

Before speaking of the way they live at present, it is necessary to look into the past. Their subsistence was of fish and meat roasted and boiled. To roast the meat they cut it into fillets, split a stick, placed it therein, and then stuck up the stick in front of the fire, each person having his own. When it was cooked on one side, and in proportion as it cooked, they ate it. Biting into it, they cut off the piece with a bone, which they sharpened on rocks to make it cut. This served them in place of knives of iron and steel, the use of which we have since introduced among them.

Having eaten all of it that was cooked, they replaced the meat in front of the fire, took another stick and went through the same process. When they had eaten all the meat from a stick, they always replaced it with more, keeping this up all the day.

They had another method of roasting, with a cord of bark from trees, attached to a pole which extended across the top of their wigwam, or from one tree to another, or upon two forked sticks stuck in the earth. The meat was attached to the lower end of the cord, through which was thrust a stick with which it was twisted several turns. After it was let go, by this means the meat turned a long time first one side then the other to the fire. When it turned no longer, the cord was again twisted by means of the stick through its middle, and again allowed to go.2 The surface of the meat being cooked, they would bite the outside, and cut off the piece close to the mouth, continuing thus until the whole was eaten. They also roasted it upon coals.

As for fish, they roasted it on split sticks which served as a grill, or frequently upon coals, but it had to be wholly cooked before it was eaten. All the children do their cooking like the others, with split sticks and upon the coals.

All these kinds of roasts were only an entree to arouse the appetite; in another place was the kettle, which was boiling. This kettle was of wood, made like a huge feeding-trough or stone watering-trough. To make it they took the butt of a huge tree which had fallen; they did not cut it down, not having tools fitted for that, nor had they the means to transport it; they had them ready-made in nearly all the places to which they went.

For making them, they employed stone axes, well sharpened, and set into the end of a forked stick [where they were] well tied. With these axes they cut a little into the top of the wood at the length they wished the kettle. This done they placed fire on top and made the tree burn. When burnt about four inches in depth they removed the fire, and then with stones and huge pointed bones, as large as the thumb, they hollowed it out the best they could, removing all the burnt part. Then they replaced the fire, and when it was again burnt they removed it all from the interior and commenced again to separate the burnt part, continuing this until their kettle was big enough for their fancy, and that was oftener too big than too little.

The kettle being finished, it had to be used. To this end they filled it with water, and placed therein that which they wished to have cooked. To make it boil, they had big stones which they placed in the fire to become red hot. When they were red, they took hold of them with pieces of wood and placed them in the kettle, they made the water boil. Whilst these were in the kettle, others were heating. Then they removed those which were in the kettle, replacing them there by others. This was continued until the meat was cooked.

They had always a supply of soup, which was their greatest drink; they drank little raw water formerly, as indeed they do at present.3 Their greatest task was to feed well and to go a hunting. They did not lack animals, which they killed only in proportion as they had need of them. They often ate fish, especially Seals to obtain the oil, [which they used] as much for greasing themselves as for drinking; and [they ate] the Whale which frequently came ashore on the coast, and on the blubber of which they made good cheer. Their greatest liking is for grease; they eat it as one does bread, and drink it liquid.

There was formerly a much larger number of Indians than at present. They lived without care, and never ate either salt or spice. They drank only good soup, very fat. It was this which made them live long and multiply much. They would have multiplied still more were it not that the women, as soon as they are delivered, wash the infant, no matter how cold it may be.4 Then they swaddle them in the skins of Marten or Beaver upon a board, to which they bind them. If it is a boy, they pass his penis through a hole, from which issues the urine; if a girl, they place a little gutter of bark between the legs, which carries the urine outside. Under their backsides they place dry rotten wood reduced to powder, to receive the other excrements, so that they only un-swathe them each twenty-four hours. But since they leave in the air during freezing weather the most sensitive part of the body, this part freezes, which causes much mortality among them, principally among the boys, who are more exposed to the air in that part than the girls. To this board there is attached at the top, by the two corners, a strap, so arranged that when it is placed on the forehead the board hangs behind the shoulders; thus the mother has not her arms encumbered and is not prevented either from working or going to the woods, whilst the child cannot be hurt by the branches along the paths. They have three or four wives, and sometimes more. If one of them turns out to be sterile they can divorce her if they see fit, and take another. Thus they are able to have plenty of children. But if a woman becomes pregnant whilst she is still suckling a child, she produces an abortion.5 A thing which is also ruinous to them is that they have a certain drug which they use for this purpose, and which they keep secret among themselves. The reason why they produce the abortion is, they say, because they cannot nourish two children at the same time, forasmuch as it is necessary that the child shall cease suckling of itself, and it sucks for two or three years. It is not that they do not give them to eat of that which they have, for in chewing a piece of anything they place it in their mouths and the infant swallows it.

Their children are not obstinate, since they give them everything they ask for, without ever letting them cry for that which they want. The greatest persons give way to the little ones. The father and the mother draw the morsel from the mouth if the child asks for it. They love their children greatly.6 They are never afraid of having too many, for they are their wealth. The boys aid the father, going on the hunt, and help in the support of the family. The girls work, aiding the mother; they go for the wood, for the water, and to find the animal in the woods. After the latter is killed they carry it to the wigwam. There is always some old woman with the girls to conduct them and show them the way, for often these animals which it is necessary to go and find are killed at five or six leagues from the wigwam, and there are no beaten roads.

The man will tell only the distance of the road, the woods that must be passed, the mountains, rivers, brooks, and meadows, if there are any on the route, and will specify the spot where the animal will be, and where he will have broken off three or four branches of trees to mark the place. This is enough to enable them to find it, to such a degree that they never fail, and they bring it back.7 Sometimes they camp where the animal is. They make broiled steaks and return next day.

After they have lived for some time in one place, which they have beaten [for game] all around their camp, they go and camp fifteen or twenty leagues [perhaps 40 or 60 miles] away. Then the women and girls must carry the wigwam, their dishes, their bags, their skins, their robes, and everything they can take, for the men and the boys carry nothing, a practice they follow still at the present time.

Having arrived at the place where they wish to remain, the women must build the camp. Each one does that which is her duty. One goes to find poles in the woods; another goes to break off branches of Fir, which the little girls carry. The woman who is mistress, that is, she who has borne the first boy, takes command, and does not go to the woods for anything. Everything is brought to her. She fits the poles to make the wigwam, and arranges the Fir to make the place on which each one disposes himself. This is their carpet and the feathers of their bed. If the family is a large one they make it [the wigwam] long enough for two fires; otherwise they make it round, just like military tents, with only this difference that in place of canvas they are of barks of Birch. These are so well fitted that it never rains into their wigwams. The round kind holds ten to twelve persons, the long twice as many. The fires are made in the middle of the round kind, and at the two ends of the long sort.

To obtain these barks, they select all the biggest Birches they are able to find, and these are the thickness of a hogshead. They cut the bark all around the tree as high up as they can with their stone axes; then they cut it low down, also all around; after that they split it from above downwards, and with their knives of bone they separate it all around the tree, which ought to be in sap to loosen readily. When they have enough of it, they sew it edge to edge, four pieces together or five together. Their thread is made from root of Fir8 which they split in three, the same as the Osier with which the hoops of barrels are tied. They make it as fine as they wish.

Their needles are of bone, and they make them pointed as awls by dint of sharpening them. They pierce the barks, and pass this root from hole to hole for the breadth of the barks. This being finished they roll them as tightly as they can that they may be the easier to carry. When they strip them off the wigwam to carry them to another place, since they are dried from the fire which had been made there, they heat them again to make them more supple. In proportion as they heat, they are rolled up; otherwise they would break through being to dry.

At the present time they still do it in the same way, but they have good axes, knives more convenient for their work, and kettles easy to carry. This is a great convenience for them, as they are not obliged to go to the places where were their kettles of wood, of which one never sees any at present, as they have entirely abandoned the use of them.

As to their marriage, in old times a boy who wished to have a girl was obliged to serve the father several years according to an agreement.9 His duty was to go a hunting, to show that he was a good hunter capable of supporting well his wife and family. He had to make bows, arrows, the frame of snowshoes, even a canoe—that is to say, to do the work of men. Everything that he did during his time went to the father of the girl, but nevertheless he had use of it himself in case of need.

His mistress corded the snowshoes, made his clothes, his moccasins and his stockings, as evidence that she was clever in work. The father, the mother, the daughter, and the suitor all slept in the same wigwam, the daughter near her mother, and the suitor on the other side, always with the fire between them. The other women and the children also slept there. There never occurred the least disorder. The girls were very modest at that time, always clothed with a well-dressed Moose skin which descended below the knees. They made their stockings and their shoes from the same kind of skin for the summer. In winter they made robes of Beaver. The modesty of the girls was such in those old times that they would often hold their water twenty-four hours rather than let themselves be seen in this action by a boy.10

The term being expired, it was time to speak of the marriage. The relatives of the boy came to visit those of the girl, and asked them if it were pleasing to them. If the father of the girl was favourable to it, it was then necessary to learn from the two parties concerned if they were content therewith; and if one of the two did not wish the marriage, nothing further was done. They were never compelled. But if all were in agreement, a day was chosen for making a banquet; in the meantime the boy went a hunting, and did his very best to treat the entire assembly as well to roast as to boiled meat, and to have especially an abundance of soup, good and fat.

The day having arrived, all the relatives and guests assembled, and everything being ready the men and older boys all entered the wigwam, the old men at the upper end near the father and mother. The upper end is the left in entering the wigwam, and a circuit is made passing to the right. No other woman entered save the mother of the boy. Each one having taken his place, all seated themselves upon their buttocks …, for that is their posture. The bridegroom brought in the meat in a huge bark dish, divided it, and placed it on as many plates as there were persons, as much as they could hold. There was in each plate enough meat for a dozen persons. He gave each one his plate, and they devoted themselves to eating. The bridegroom was there also with a great dish of soup, which he gave to the first one that he might drink his fill. He, having sufficiently quenched his thirst, passed the dish to his neighbour, who did the same. When it was empty it was filled again. Then having drunk and feasted well, they took a [comfortable] posture. The oldest of them made a speech in praise of the bridegroom, and gave an account of his genealogy, in which he was always found descended from some great chief ten or twelve generations back. He exaggerated everything good that they had done, as well in war as in hunting, the spirit they showed, the good counsel they had given, and everything of consequence they had done in their lives. He commenced with the most ancient, and, descending from generation to generation, he came to a conclusion with the father of the bridegroom. Then he exhorted the bridegroom not to degenerate from the worth of his ancestors.11 Having finished his speech, all the company made two or three cries, saying hau, hau, hau. After this the bridegroom thanked them, promising as much as, and more than, his ancestors; then the assembly gave again the same cry. Then the bridegroom set about dancing; he chanted war songs which he composed on the spot and which exalted his courage and his worth, the number of animals he had killed, and everything that he aspired to do. In dancing he took in his hands a bow, arrows, and a great shaft in which is set a bone of a Moose, sharply pointed, with which they kill animals in winter when there is a great depth of snow. This sort of thing [they did] one after another, each having his song, during which he would work himself into a fury, and seemed as if he wished to kill everybody. Having finished, the entire assembly recommenced their hau, hau, hau,12 which signifies joy and contentment.

After this they commenced again to eat and drink until they were full. Then they called their wives and children who were not far off; these came and each one gave them his plate from which they proceeded to eat in their turn. If there were any women or girls who had their monthlies, she had to retire apart, and the others brought to each one her portion. In those [old] times they never ate except alone by themselves; they did no work, and did not dare touch anything, especially anything to be eaten. It was necessary they should be always in retirement.13

They have thus developed into a custom the recital of their genealogies, both in the speeches they make at marriages, and also at funerals. This is in order to keep alive the memory, and to preserve by tradition from father to son, the history of their ancestors, and the example of their fine actions and of their greatest qualities, something which would otherwise be lost to them, and would deprive them of a knowledge of their relationships, which they preserve by this means; and it serves to transmit their [family] alliances to posterity. On these matters they are very inquisitive, especially those descended from the ancient chiefs; this they sometimes claim for more than twenty generations, something which makes them more honoured by all the others.

They observe certain degrees of relationship among them which prevents their marrying together. This is never done by brother to sister, by nephew to niece, or cousin to cousin, that is to say, so far as the second degree, for beyond that they can do it. If a young married woman has no children by her husband at the end of two or three years, he can divorce her, and turn her out to take another. He is not held to service as in the case of the first; he simply makes presents of robes, skins, or wampum. I shall tell in its proper place what this wampum is. He is obliged to make a feast for the father of the girl, but not so impressive a one as on the first occasion. If she becomes pregnant he gives a great feast to his relatives; otherwise he drives her out like the first, and marries another. This wife being pregnant, he sees her no more. As to these matters, they take as many women as they please provided that they are good hunters, and not lazy. Otherwise the girls will not accept them. One sees Indians who have two or three wives pregnant at the same time; it is their greatest joy to have a large number of children.

For all these festivities of weddings and feasts they adorn themselves with their most beautiful clothes. In summer the men have robes of Moose skin, well dressed, white, ornamented with embroidery two fingers’ breadth wide from top to bottom, both close and open work. Others have three rows at the bottom, some lengthwise, and others across, others in broken chevrons, or studded with figures of animals, according to the fancy of the workman.

They work all these fashions in colours of red, violet, and blue, applied on the skin with some isinglass. They had bones fashioned in different ways which they passed quite hot over the colours, in a manner somewhat like that in which one gilds the covers of books. When these colours are once applied, they do not come off with water.

To dress their skins, these are soaked and stretched in the sun, and are well-heated on the skin side for pulling out the hair. Then they stretch them and pull out the hair with bone instruments made on purpose, somewhat as do those who prepare a skin for conversion into parchment. Then they rub it with bird’s liver and a little oil. Next, having rubbed it well between the hands, they dress it over a piece of polished wood made shelving on both sides just as is done to dress the skins for making gloves upon an iron. They rub it until it becomes supple and manageable. Then they wash it and twist it with sticks many times, until it leaves the water clean. Then they spread it to dry.

For the skins dressed with the hair, these are only treated with the livers, with which they are well rubbed by hand; they are passed repeatedly over the sticks to dress them well. If they are not then soft enough, more of the livers is added and they are once more rubbed until they are pliable; then they are dried. All of those robes, whether for men or for women, are made like a blanket. The men wear them upon their shoulders, tying the two ends with strings of leather under the chin, while all the remainder is not closed up. They show the whole body with the exception of their privy parts, which are hidden by means of a very supple and very thin skin. This passes between their legs and is attached at the two ends to a girdle of leather which they have around them; and it is called a truss [brayer].14

The women wear this robe in Bohemian fashion. The opening is on one side. They attach it with cords in two places, some distance apart, in such a way that the head can pass through the middle and the arms on the two sides.15 Then they double the two ends one above the other, and over it they place a girdle which they tie very tightly, in such manner that it cannot fall off. In this way they are entirely covered. They have sleeves of skin which are attached together behind. They have also leggings of skin, like stirrup stockings, without feet; the men wear these likewise.

They also make moccasins of their old robes of Moose skin, which are greasy and better than new. Their moccasins are rounded in front, and the sewing redoubles on the end of the foot, and is puckered as finely as a chemise. It is done very neatly; the girls make them for themselves embellished with colours, the seams being ornamented with quills of Porcupine, which they dye red and violet.

They have some very beautiful colours, especially their flame-colour, which surpasses all that we see in this country of this nature. It is made from a little root as thick as a thread.16 As for the leaf, they are not willing to show it, something which is unusual with them. Such were approximately their summer clothes. During the winter their robes are of Beaver, of Otter, of Marten, of Lynx, or of Squirrel, always martachées17 that is to say, painted.

Even their faces, when they go to ceremonies with their fine clothes, are painted in red or violet; or else they make long and short rays of colour, according to fancy, on the nose, over the eyes, and along the cheeks, and they grease the hair with oil to make it shine. Those who are finest among them look like a masquerade. Such are their fineries on their days of holiday-making.

End Notes:

These are selected notes from Ganong, edited for this blog:

  1. Our author is, of course, describing the Mi’kmaq tribe of Indians which occupied all of Nova Scotia, and the entire extent of his government from Canso to Gaspe. As he was intimately acquainted with them through his long experience as fur-trader and fisherman, this part of his book has a high value, and we would there were more of it. Most of his statements are in agreement with one or the other of the several works we are so fortunate as to possess about these Indians. Of these the following are of particular value. The references in Champlain’s writings are all too brief, and confined to some account of their hunting and burial customs. But Lescarbot (in his Histoire de la Nouvelle France, Paris edition, 1612, cited) gives a systematic though condensed account of them, all the more valuable in that it is made from observation before the Indians had any extensive permanent contact with the whites. Nearly contemporary are the valuable observations of Father Biard, fully given in the Jesuit Relations for 1611-1614 (Thwaites’ edition, II, III). Most extensive of all, however, though later than Denys, is Le Clercq’s Nouvelle Relation de la Gaspesie (Paris, 1691), a work almost entirely devoted to these Indians, whom he calls Gaspesiens. His book is not only an invaluable repository of fact about them, but it has a literary merit and a pleasant humour unfortunately absent from Denys’ book. There appears to be a certain connection between the works of Le Clercq and Denys, for the former describes many matters in a way strongly recalling the latter; and I believe that Le Clercq in writing his book used that of Denys, but more as a source of suggestion than of information. He gives many matters in far greater detail than Denys, and includes many topics which Denys omits altogether. In fact Lescarbot’s and Le Clercq’s works are attempts at orderly complete treatments of the Indians, while Denys, though perhaps aiming at completeness, shows his lack of scholarly training in his important omissions and defective proportioning of subjects. But he makes some amends for this in his more minute account of many interesting matters connected with their daily life, in which feature his work surpasses that of any other writer. There is also some matter of value in St. Valier’s Estat present de l’Egltse (Paris, 1688; Quebec edition of 1856 cited), and in Dieréville’s Relation du Voyage du Port Royal de l’Acadle (Amsterdam, 1710)—the latter an independent book based upon personal observations made about 1700. Another systematic work, which must, however, be used with some caution, is an Account of the Customs and Manners of the Micmacs and Marlcheets, Savage Nations, by a French Abbot [Maillard], (London, 1758). Of modern accounts, based upon traditions, &c, the best is Silas Rand’s Lectures, delivered in Halifax in 1849, published 1850. Other works of lesser worth are mentioned by Bourinot in Trans. Royal Soc. of Canada, IX, 1891, ii, 328. Of course there are many other accounts of these subjects both by early and by recent writers, but in all cases, I believe, they include no original information. The Mi’kmaq in their customs were very like the Maliseets and other Algonkian tribes to the south-west, so that works treating of those tribes have a value also for our present subject. Among these the most valuable are references in the Memoirs of Odd Adventures, by John Gyles (Boston, 1736; reprinted Cincinnati, 1869), and the Journal of Captain William Pote, Jr. (printed New York, 1896), while the modern writings of Montague Chamberlain in the magazine Acadiensis give material from personal knowledge and tradition.
  2. Our author’s account of cooking methods is much the most detailed we possess.
  3. Le Clercq, on the contrary, says they drank water with pleasure in the summer.
  4. A custom mentioned also by Le Clercq, who gives a great deal more information about the treatment of the young children. The method of carrying the children here described was well-nigh universal among the Indian tribes, and is described by most early writers.
  5. Mentioned by most of the other writers on these Indians. Also the high value placed on fecundity, or upon having many children, is mentioned by all writers on these Indians.
  6. Their love for their children is noted by several other authors.
  7. That it was the duty of the women to go and fetch home the game killed by the men is stated by others. We may doubt, however, whether the women could find the game from such scanty directions.
  8. The black spruce, used by the Indians for such purposes to this day (Ganong’s, day, 1908).
  9. This term of service was apparently a year; it is thus given by Le Clercq, whose account otherwise agrees closely with that of our author, while Lescarbot, Diereville, and Gyles thought this time was one of marriage but of continence.
  10. There is substantial unanimity among all the early writers as to the modesty of the Indian women and girls.
  11. The grace and force of these Indian orations made at marriages, funerals, and upon other public occasions are emphasised by most of our early writers.
  12. Most of our early writers mention this expression of approval or applause, though it is sometimes written differently.
  13. A very widespread aboriginal custom. For our Indians it is mentioned, with more or less additional detail, by others.
  14. In Canadian French brayet is now anything put on to cover the person in bathing.
  15. Le Clercq gives a similar account of their dress, adding that the men wear it somewhat as in the pictures Hercules wears the lion’s skin. Lescarbot makes precisely the same comparison, and adds that the women wear theirs somewhat as in the pictures of Saint John the Baptist.
  16. This plant was without doubt the small bedstraw, the variety called in the older, and as well in the newest, works Galium tinctorium. Kalm states that the Indians used the roots of this plant to dye their porcupine, quills red, and that the colour stood the weather well.
  17. This word is apparently of Micmac origin, but I have not been able to find its equivalent in modern Micmac. The word is said to be still in use among the Canadian French.

Written by johnwood1946

August 20, 2014 at 9:44 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. That was a amazing and information filled article….Thanks lots to br learned 🙂


    November 11, 2014 at 6:13 PM

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