One of the most fascinating histories of settlement in Nova Scotia is that of its original inhabitants, the Mi’kmaq.
Many historians have chronicled Mi’kmaw history only from written documentation left behind by early European explorers. However, to better understand our past and our homeland requires knowledge of the many different oral stories passed down by generations of Mi’kmaq.
To begin this amazing journey we must go back 13,000 years, to the end of the last Ice Age that covered most of Eastern North America. Archaeological evidence in central Nova Scotia shows that a hunting/gathering group of people followed the caribou to that area at that time, and camped at the foot of the Cobequid Mountains. Mi’kmaw Elders today maintain that these early settlers were our forefathers.
There are over 800 sites of early Mi'kmaw occupation scattered across Nova Scotia, including primary locations at Blomidon, Debert, Kejimkujik, and the Mersey River system. As well, stories of the mythical character Glooscap provide us with a series of messages and lessons giving glimpses into the geological features and creatures who inhabited the area in its earliest years.
The Mi’kmaq occupied and enjoyed all of today’s Atlantic Provinces -- Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland -- as well as portions of the Gaspé Peninsula, for thousands of years. This territory was known to them as Mi’kma’ki.
The Mi’kmaw Nation belonged to a much larger tribal grouping known as the ‘Wabanaki Confederacy,’ which included the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki tribes of Eastern North America. These were all members of the larger Algonquin family which occupied lands east of the St. Lawrence River, the Adirondacks and the Appalachians.
Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1500s, Mi’kma’ki was divided into seven districts, each named for the geographical characteristics of that area, and each led by a District Chief. Together, they made up the Mi’kmaw Grand Council, which governed by consensus over the entire territory and its people. The Mi’kmaq Nation was orderly, well-governed, strong, knowledgeable and successful.
The Mi’kmaw language is part of the Algonquin language group, indicating that tribal connections extended far beyond Mi’kma’ki for trade and social relations. Many Nova Scotia place-names used today have their roots in the Mi’kmaw language:
- Shubenacadie – Land of the wild turnip (Sipekne’katik)
- Pictou – Explosion of gas from the ground (Piktik)
- Musquodoboit – flowing out square (Muskwitoqukwek)
- Canso – Opposite loft cliffs (Qamso’q)
- Baddeck – A portion of food set aside for someone or a place near an island (Abitakwik)
Mi’kmaq people lived close to waterways, as their main source of travel was the birch-bark canoe, carrying them great distances for trade and survival. The natural environment provided everything they needed, and they depended on their knowledge of the seasons, weather, animals, plants, and hunting and preparation skills for survival.
They used their resources sparingly and wisely, with great respect, and learning was passed from generation to generation. Mi’kmaw education included teaching traditional survival skills, as well as knowledge of other tribes within Eastern North America.
Early colonists relied on the knowledge and resourcefulness of the Mi’kmaq for their own survival, but the rapid European settlement of Nova Scotia brought many changes to the lives of the Mi’kmaq. Foreign governments soon became the law-makers, followed by the creation of Canada and its provincial boundaries.
At one time the entire population of Nova Scotia was Mi’kmaq. They now number 25,070 individuals -- 2% of the total population. Once travelling freely throughout the province, Mi’kmaq now occupy only 26,000 acres, set aside for them as reserve land owned by the Government of Canada.
There are approximately 35 reserves scattered across Nova Scotia today, all allotted to and administered by thirteen First Nation Mi’kmaw communities established since 1958-59. Each community has its own leadership known as the Band Council, with an elected Chief and several Councilors. The traditional Grand Council continues to exist, but its authority to govern has been largely transferred by the Indian Act to the elected Chiefs and Councils.
With their undeniable connection to the land dating back 13,000 years, today’s Mi’kmaq continue to share their rich history and culture with their neighbors and are an important component of the cultural mosaic which makes up Nova Scotia as we know it today.
Just as other cultures in the province have their traditions, music, food and stories, so too do the Mi’kmaq. Traditional hunting is practiced for ceremonial purposes, celebrations and community feasts. Beautiful crafts (Ash baskets, wooden flowers, quillwork, etc.) are still produced, utilizing materials provided by the natural environment.
The beat of the drum permeates the air throughout the summer months as Mi’kmaw communities celebrate powwows, opening doors for neighbors to enjoy music, songs and dancing. A traditional meal of moose, venison, fish, blueberries and famous Mi’kmaw bread (lu’sknikn) is often served.
Smudging ceremonies cleanse hearts and thoughts, and open minds to accept and respect diversity and change. The seven sacred prayers accompany a sweet grass ceremony to give thanks for the gift of life and all that is provided. These practices often open meetings and celebrations at both native and non-native venues throughout the province.
On October 1st every year, Mi’kmaq from around Nova Scotia join the provincial government in hosting Treaty Day – a celebration commemorating the signing of the 1752 Treaty, and including many public events.
In the last two decades our people have reverted to the proper spelling of the word ‘Micmac’, now written as Mi’kmaw or Mi’kmaq. Mi’kmaq is the plural form of the singular Mi’kmaw. Because it is plural, Mi’kmaq always refers to more than one Mi’kmaw person, or to the entire Nation.
All Mi’kmaq are proud of their place in history as the earliest inhabitants of the province, and work today toward better cross-cultural understanding among all Nova Scotians.