Pjila’si Mi’kma’ki

A primer on M’ik­maq his­tory and cul­ture for new res­i­dents of K’jipuk­tuk.



Indige­nous peo­ple of this land call our­selves Mi’kmaq (from ni’kmaq, “my kin;” orig­i­nally L’nu, “the peo­ple”). While some cel­e­brate Canada 150, the Al­go­nquian-speak­ing Mi’kmaq peo­ple have been on this land for over 13,000 years.

Although pre-colo­nial Mi’kmaq had no writ­ten lan­guage, ev­i­dence of their his­tory is found in pet­ro­glyphs. These pet­ro­glyphs, called Komqwe­jwi’kasikl (“sucker-fish writ­ing”), are prom­i­nent in Ke­jimku­jik and Bed­ford (Kwipek).

Tra­di­tion­ally, Mi’kmaw territory is re­ferred to as Mi’kma’ki, and has seven sub­di­vi­sions: Sipekne’katik (Wild Po­tato Area), Siknik­te­waq (Drainage Area), Unama’kik (Land of the Fog), Ke­spuk­witk (Last Flow), Ke­spe’ke­waq (The Last Land), Eski’ke­waq (Skin Dressers Territory) and Epekwitk aqq Pik­tuk (Lay­ing in the Wa­ter and Where Ex­plo­sions are Made). Hal­i­fax, or K’jipuk­tuk (The Great Har­bour) is part of Eski’ke­waq. As a re­sult of pop­u­lat­ing for­mer Beothuk territory, in the 1800s an eighth district was added, Taqamgug, which cov­ers all of New­found­land.

Dis­tricts would gov­ern them­selves through coun­cils made of band chiefs and el­ders, and each district would elect a Sag­maw (Chief) to rep­re­sent them at Santé Maw­iómi (Grand Council) in Unama’kik.

Mem­ber­tou was the Grand Chief dur­ing the early colo­nial era. He met Jacques Cartier in 1534 and was even­tu­ally bap­tised with the name Henri. This be­gan a largely friendly re­la­tion­ship with the Aca­di­ans and a long his­tory of in­ter­mar­riage be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties. Un­for­tu­nately, Euro­pean con­tact would even­tu­ally lead to a de­cline of, in some areas, 90 per­cent of the Mi’kmaw pop­u­la­tion.

In al­liance with Al­nôbak, Panawah­pskek, Wo­las­to­qiyik and Pesko­to­muhkati peo­ples, Wabenaki (Peo­ple of the First Light) was formed; its land is Wa­banahkik (Dawn­land). The con­fed­er­acy of na­tions brought al­lies in the Innu and Wyan­dot. Wabenaki lasted as a po­lit­i­cal en­tity for over 250 years and was re­con­sti­tuted in 1993.

It en­gaged in wars sup­port­ing France against the Bri­tish, fi­nally fight­ing on its own terms in The Drum­mer’s War in 1722. The 1725 Drum­mer’s Treaty ac­knowl­edged Mi’kmaw sovereignty and right to land own­er­ship.

In di­rect vi­o­la­tion to this, the City of Hal­i­fax was founded on un­ceded Mi’kmaw land in 1749. Colo­nial gov­er­nor Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis de­clared a bounty on Mi’kmaq, alive or dead. A sec­ond scalp­ing procla­ma­tion made in 1756 still ex­ists to­day. Corn­wal­lis’ statue re­mains in down­town Hal­i­fax, and his name still adorns a street in the north end.

The In­dian Act, passed in 1876, de­fines how the set­tler gov­ern­ment in­ter­acts with Indige­nous peo­ples, con­trol­ling op­er­a­tions of re­serves and who is con­sid­ered an “In­dian” with the even­tual goal that Indige­nous peo­ple will give up their cul­ture for a Euro­pean life­style.

Fur­ther­ing the cul­tural geno­cide was the Res­i­den­tial School sys­tem. Funded through the Depart­ment of In­dian Af­fairs and the Catholic Church, the Schube­nacadie In­dian Res­i­den­tial School was founded by the Sis­ters of Char­ity—the same or­ga­ni­za­tion that would found Mount Saint Vin­cent Univer­sity. Ten per­cent of all Mi’kmaw chil­dren would at­tend the school dur­ing its 37 years of op­er­a­tion, and were sub­ject to abuse.

The Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion is a bench­mark in Nova Sco­tian his­tory for all its res­i­dents, but no ef­forts were made to re­build the Mi’kmaw com­mu­nity of Tur­tle Grove on the east­ern side of the har­bour. The com­mu­nity’s res­i­dents had been the sub­ject of at­tempted forced re­lo­ca­tion prior to the ex­plo­sion. Sur­vivors were placed in a racially seg­re­gated shel­ter and scat­tered across the province for re­set­tle­ment.

On the feel-good side of his­tory, Mi’kmaq con­trib­uted to the in­ven­tion of mod­ern hockey. The old­est Mi’kmaw stick was from 1852 and was re­cently ap­praised for $4 mil­lion. Be­tween 1900-1909, Mi’kmaq-de­signed hockey sticks were the most pop­u­lar in Canada.

To­day, the Mi’kmaq lan­guage is in the midst of a re­vival, and the strug­gle for gov­ern­ment pol­icy con­sul­ta­tion is mak­ing strides. Some areas of Mi’kma’ki still strug­gle with un­clean drink­ing wa­ter, ac­cess to public ser­vices and per­sis­tent dis­crim­i­na­tion. Indige­nous peo­ple make up a dis­pro­por­tion­ate per­cent­age of the prison pop­u­la­tion, and are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence vi­o­lence and crime.

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