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A Brief Glimpse of Mi'kmaq Life: Objects from the McCord Collection

By Ruth Holmes Whitehead

The ancestors of the Mi'kmaq called themselves L'nu'k, a word that means "the People." They spoke an Eastern Algonquian language and lived by hunting and fishing the rich coastal waters and river systems of the Atlantic region. They were closely related to the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy, and these three groups could to a great extent understand each other's languages. The territory of the Mi'kmaq's ancestors included Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, together with portions of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Quebec and New England - areas where many of their descendants still reside. The present tribal name, Mi'kmaq, comes from their word nikmaq, which means "my kin friends."

Contact with Europeans

Contact with Europeans brought severe upheavals upon the Mi'kmaq. Technological and material processes that had been the source of direct and profound connections with the land, such as the making of stone tools and leather clothing, gradually disappeared with the introduction of products such as commercially-produced iron and wool. The acquisition of guns added a whole new dimension to warfare and, to meet the demands of the European fur trade, economic and social organization underwent a restructuring that moved away from ancient patterns.

The very ways of looking at the world - ways encoded in language from the earliest of early times - were wrenched into painfully different shapes to accommodate the Mi'kmaq experience of these strange new beings - Were they really human? - and their strange new ways and materials. Reports brought back by Mi'kmaq who visited the Old World, Europe, (starting as early as 1570) were at first not believed by kinfolk at home, for there were no words in the language to encompass what had been seen and experienced.

World view was further re designed when, in 1610, Mi'kmaq began converting to Catholicism. "Heathen practises" - usually whatever the missionaries found unfamiliar - were rigidly suppressed. It is not surprising that this period was a time of severe stress and disorientation for the Mi'kmaq.

The changes with the greatest impact, however, were brought about by death itself. Between 1600 and 1700, up to 90 per cent of the Mi'kmaq population died by epidemic diseases introduced from Europe and against which they had no immunity.

The transmission of information, oral histories, old techniques and insights was almost completely disrupted, and a period of painful regrouping took place after 1700. The fact that the Mi'kmaq survived at all came as a surprise to historians and politicians, who had long predicted their eventual extinction.


Before the arrival of Europeans, Mi'kmaq women made luxurious and richly-ornamented clothing for their families using leather and furs that they painted with mineral pigments and embroidered with porcupine quills and moosehair. Before 1500, both men and women wore leggings, loincloths, moccasins, robes and "sleeve" jackets, which resembled two halves of a bolero jacket cut down the middle and tied together at the centre back and front. Women also wore hide dresses, in two styles. Children were clothed like their fathers or mothers, according to their sex, and babies were wrapped in the softest furs or in the skins of birds until they could walk.

By 1600 Mi'kmaq women had begun to replace the hide and fur of the garments with cloth. Silk ribbon appliqué took the place of painting, and glass beads displaced porcupine-quill decoration. The style, cut and decoration of Mi'kmaq costume was, however, much slower to change.

Nevertheless, by the 1800s, men were wearing coats, based stylistically on the military greatcoats given to the Mi'kmaq as treaty presents by the French and English. Mi'kmaq women covered these garments with beadwork, and some examples bear many pounds of sewn-on glass beads.

Mi'kmaq women's skirts had evolved into tubes of woollen fabric, embellished with silk ribbons in bands of parallel lines and geometric forms. Traditional styles from the 1700s and 1800s were still remembered but, by the 1900s, were worn only on special occasions or by a few of the elders. At the time these outfits were made, younger Mi'kmaq women had begun to adopt European fashions, and they are thus not entirely representative of the cut, construction and workmanship used in earlier times.

Mi'kmaq women also turned their skills at beadwork and ribbon appliqué to making smaller items for sale. Many of these, such as tea cosies and small coin purses, were designed solely with European needs in mind. Others that had originally had a community use, like dolls, model canoes and moccasins, entered the souvenir market or were purchased by collectors of Aboriginal crafts.


A number of Aboriginal groups made quilled items of birchbark, but it is an art form that seems to have been pioneered by the Mi'kmaq, and their marvellous traditional geometric designs are unique. Quillwork on bark, as opposed to other Mi'kmaq quilling techniques, was aimed primarily at the European market and did not develop until after 1700.

Porcupine quills are naturally white with black tips. To make the colourful mosaics, they were dyed with home made or commercial colours. The ends of the porcupine quills were then inserted into holes in birchbark, which the artists cut and sewed into shapes that would appeal to European buyers. As thread, Mi'kmaq women employed the long pale roots of black spruce, debarked and split suitably fine. They also used these roots decoratively, both by dyeing them a variety of colours and by using them to wrap around the bands of bark that formed the sides of a box or lid. This wrapping was then interwoven with more quills in a checkered pattern. By the end of the 19th century, the more delicate birchbark creations frequently had their panels sewn with cotton thread or seamed with ribbon.

Bark insertion quillwork developed into a highly valued commodity and, in the two hundred years after 1750, it became a major source of cash or barter income. More and more European forms were added to the quillworkers' repertoire: jewel boxes and hat cases by 1774, flower pots with accompanying saucers by 1830, as well as lampshades, wastepaper baskets, fire screens, firewood caddies, tea cosies, doll cradles, fans and all sorts of small containers - for playing cards, calling cards, cigars, eyeglasses, watches and needles.


The historic Mi'kmaq material in the McCord Museum is a collection of objects rather than stories, personalities and cultural contexts. It thus provides only a glimpse of Mi'kmaq life; it is more a reflection of a particular buyer's tastes than a comprehensive picture of even one aspect of this people's long history. Nevertheless, these objects speak powerfully of the artistry and love of beauty of their Mi'kmaq creators.


Source: "Wrapped in the Colours of the Earth. Cultural Heritage of the First Nations" Exhibition Text, McCord Museum, 1992


Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Elitekey: Micmac Material Culture from 1600 A.D. to the Present. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1980.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Micmac Quillwork. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1982.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. "The Traditional Material Culture of the Native Peoples of Maine." In Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine, edited by Bruce J. Bourque. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, pp. 249-309.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes and Harold McGee. The Micmac: How Their Ancestors Lived 500 Years Ago. Halifax: Nimbus,1983.


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