Some Customs Of The Micmacs




(By Greta G. Bidlake in Christian Guardian.)

We all know something of the interesting aspects of Indian life that are
now passing into oblivion as our older men die and a young generation
comes into being. It is sometimes not only wise, but refreshing also,
to go back and try to imagine the lives, habits and customs of these
people who felt a pride in our forests, mountains and streams, long
before we inherited them through right of conquest, and into whose
legends and traditions are woven so many imaginative fancies as to how
our country took the form in which they beheld it.

The Micmacs roamed over the eastern shores of New Brunswick, over the
greater part of Nova Scotia and over Prince Edward Island. They seem to
have been a branch of the great Algonquin family. They lived at peace
with the Malicetes, who roved up and down the territory of the St. John
river, but both tribes were in dread of the Mohawks, who came out of the
unknown wilderness to the west and north and several times made war upon

That all Indians delighted in painting their bodies, dressed in skins,
used shells and feathers for ornaments, shot with bows and arrows, made
stone weapons and utensils, that they lived chiefly by hunting and
fishing, and dwelt in tribes, are facts of common knowledge. But that
our own maritime Micmacs possessed a crude literature, a language
colorful with words of apt and fanciful meanings, that they had their
own inflexible standard of morals and a rough, but reverential,
awe-inspiring religion, may not be so well known.

The wigwams in which they lived were of a skilful design, best suited to
their needs and cleverly constructed. The frame was first raised and
fastened. So many poles of such a length were placed at a regular
distance apart for a wigwam of a certain size. If the wigwam was to be
larger or smaller than this standard size, often set measurements were
used. Rows of bark, which were overlaid and fastened in place, covered
the summer wigwam. In the winter a thick coating of spruce boughs was
spread over this. The inside was also lined with these for extra
warmth. Fir boughs formed spicy smelling, resinous carpets, cushions,
and beds. The doorways in cold weather were also partly closed with
evergreens, placed on one side of the piece of blanketing that hung over
the opening and sprang back and forth as the occupants entered or left
their dwellings.

The language of these people was precise enough to have a particular
name for every post of the wigwam, every bar, every fastening, and every
tier of bark. The different portions of the interior had their allotted
use and were referred to in their own terms. For instance, the fire was
always built in the centre of the wigwam under the smoke hole. This
last could be regulated to draw in spite of the wind shifting. The
space on each side of the fire was called “kwamigwom.” One of these
kwamigwoms was set aside for the master and mistress, while the old
people sat facing them in the opposite space. If there were no old
people in the wigwam it was then the custom for the young girls to sit
there. The squaw always sat nearest the door and her lord and master
sat beyond. Toward the back of the camp was called “up” and no wife was
ever allowed to sit “above” her husband. Strangers and visitors were
given a seat at the back of the camp as a mark of honor and esteem.

The Indians were strict in the upbringing of their children. They did
not spare the rod if they felt it was needed to tame a rebellious spirit
or teach a young Micmac ruffian good manners. Children were trained
always to speak well of their parents. In going to and fro, s the
family sat around the fire, they did not pass between their parents and
the blaze, but went around unless there were old people or strangers on
the opposite side. Every boy and girl knows that we still have a
similar custom of not passing directly in front of people. Not only did
the inmates of a Micmac camp have their appointed positions, but they
had their appropriate postures as well. Men sat crosslegged as
Orientals do; women sat with their feet twisted around to one side and
with one foot under the other, while children sat with their feet
extended I front. Each of these ways of sitting down had its own word,
a very long and hard one to say in some cases. For example, a man might
say as he seated himself, “chenumbasi,” meaning “I sit down

A stranger, or ever a neighbor coming to the door in the daytime,
stepped inside the doorway and said “Kwa” as the usual form of
salutation. It is an odd coincidence that this word has the sound and
significance of the Greek word similarly used and meaning “Hail!” The
visitor was then asked how things went with him, and after that the
master of the wigwam inquired his errand. If it were a short one he was
supposed to state it at once and, having done so, to go about his
business. Familiar friends and welcome callers found themselves invited
in at once. A well-bred guest did not enter, if his visit were by day,
and pass to the highest and most honorable seat, but sat down near the
door till the owner of the camp invited him to move up higher. This,
too, is etiquette in our homes today.

When the visitor was seated the owner of the wigwam filled his pipe, if
he found that the errand would take time, or, if it were merely a
friendly call that he was receiving. He did this very slowly and
deliberately; then he lit it, took a few puffs to be sure that it drew
well, and handed it to his guest. Conversation followed. All new and
interesting happenings were enquired about and related in turn, the
utmost respect being mutually shown. When a meal was being prepared,
those sitting inside were expected to assist. To withdraw during the
process of cooking was rudeness, since it looked as if one wished to
shirk a share of the work. The Micmac law of hospitality was broken if
a stranger was not invited to eat and a refusal to do so on his part was
an insult.

The women among these indians, as among all Indian tribes, were treated
as inferiors. Not many years ago I lived near an Indian reservation for
some time, and while there observed that a squaw always followed her
husband when they made trips in to the village in order to trade at the
stores, and that she was careful not to walk by her lord’s side or go
before. This idea is now dying out, but in the old days women must keep
to the rear when members of an Indian family travelled. The squaws were
taught to maintain a respectful reserve and to be sparing of their words
when their husbands were present. The Indians used to tell a story of a
merchant’s lady who, it is said, objected loudly to her husband giving
the price a chief asked for his feathers. “When Indian make bargain
squaw never speakum,” said the son of the forest, cooly and pointedly
reproving her. When eating the men were helped first, and if a man and
his squaw called at a camp for a drink of water the man always drank
first. If there were other men along he handed the dish to them when he
had finished and the women would get it last.

It is not widely known that the Micmacs had a remarkable language, one
that was copious, flexible and expressive. It differed greatly from our
English speech, both in construction and idiom, and that is said to be
the reason that the Micmacs, with an eloquent language of their own,
speak such wretched English, and make such mistakes s putting the
subject for the predicate in sentences like, “Five hundred musquash
killum my father.” They did not use “r,” “f” or “y” in any of their
words and had no “a” or “the” before their nouns.

An Indian, who was boasting about the variety of his native language to
Dr. Silas Rand, once a well-known Micmac missionary of Nova Scotia, said
“Always, everything, two ways me speakum,” and this is literally true.

An Indian could count as far as he pleased, but he mainly counted by tens
and often used his fingers in the process. These Indians had, too, a
clever way of piecing syllables together and thus compounding long and
formidable words which, quite likely, could be represented in written
speech by a single small character.

The only grammar of the Micmac peoples was the authority of the best
usage. He who mispronounced words or failed to make a correct sentence
was set straight with, “They don’t say it so.” The Micmacs found in
Cape Breton differed from those of Nova Scotia in the pronounciation of
a number of words, and each took a childish delight in taunting the
other with utterances which seemed rude and uncouth. They also amused
themselves by bandying about what seemed to them most ludicrous ways of
saying things.

In writing their language, which was seldom attempted before their
coming in contact with the white man, they used letters resembling those
of English, but sounded like those of the French alphabet. This
resulted, quite unintentionally, I believe, in giving the poor
Englishman or Frenchman who wished to red the book a hard time of it. A
prayer book written in such a manner was compiled for Micmac use in the
early pioneer days and contained in condensed form, historical portions
of the Scripture and a catechism, as well as psalms, hymns and prayers
at length. It circulated freely among the Indians and what parents were
able to do so, taught their children from this. A few other books were
printed for them and Indian youths who had learned to read and write at
mission schools wrote out other copies in long hand.

The original learning of these Indians did not include this writing, of
course, but it did take in a store of knowledge, treasured up, hoarded
through the past and handed down from one generation to the next. There
were Micmac names for all the trees, plants, shrubs and useful roots in
the country they travelled, and any Indian could relate the natural
habits and uses of these at once. I suppose that is why the old people
among our first settlers often trusted to the Indian’s knowledge of
roots and herbs for the curing of their ills. The Indians had killed,
dissected, examined all the animals of North America from the mouse to
the moose, even the birds and fishes, so they knew something of natural
history. They were experts in the matter of the geography of eastern
North America and could draw rough maps, usually in the earth with a
stick or ton a piece of smooth birch bark, and usually to direct those
who were strangers to the country. Maps traced on birch bard were
sometimes left at the branching of a trail to tell the party following
in what part of the woods their friends would be found if they wished to
come up and camp with them. The ability to have what old woodsmen
called “the lay of the land” at their finger tips, still makes them
excellent guides and they are much sought after by sportsmen. They
remember particular spots clearly, they readily connect an event with
the vicinity in which it occurred and they are as keen as ever at
judging distances.

The Micmacs knew something of astronomy. They had observed that the
North Star did not move and, more than that, they called it by a name
which meant exactly what those two English words mean., They
discovered, too, that the stars around the Pole star did not set and
called several constellations by Indian names. It is a strange and
puzzling fact that they spoke of the Great Bear as “Muen,” the Micmac
term for “bear” and of the Milky Way by a phrase which meant precisely
the same as our English.

Their history was only legendary and consisted of facts so interwoven
with fable and fancy, the probable standing side by side with the
impossible, that they seem ridiculous to the white man and make it very
difficult for him to extract any real information from them. They
believed in a Great Spirit, or the Manitou, who was “good” and in
another who was “bad” and when speaking of either of these, they placed
an adjective before the word Manitou to convey which of the two beings
they wished to signify. The Great Spirit was the Creator of all
things. “He make us,” they said. They also believed in wizards and
witches. Glooscap was their hero, a sort of legendary Hiawatha, who was
of gigantic size and performed numerous astounding wonders. The Micmacs
now living in Nova Scotia still call Cape Blomidon “Glooscap-week” or
“Glooscap’s Home.” Those of New Brunswick have indistinct memories of
the stories told of him there, stories very similar to those related by
their brethren in the adjoining province.

A better understanding of their customs and habits teaches us that the
Micmac people are not to be despised. They had a civilization, though
rough one, of their own, and while we and our forefathers have advanced
them in many ways we have also debased them by unfair bartering, plenty
of villainous firewater and too often, neglect of their welfare. It now
remains for us to make the attempt to really understand them and do them