History of the Mi’kmaq

The Mahone Bay Museum is located on unceded land in the territory of Mi’kma’ki. ‘L’Nu’k,’ meaning ‘the people’ in the Mi’kmaw language, have occupied and honoured these lands for over 10,000 years.

This exhibit text is located in the Museum and has been developed with the help of local Mi’kmaw. The goal of this exhibit is to decolonize our space by encouraging visitors to learn about the history of this area from the perspective of the Mi’kmaq.

Spelling and Pronunciation

Mi’kmaq or Mi’gmaq: pronounced “meeg-gm-mahh” is the plural form used to the Mi’kmaq people as a collective group. This word is to be used instead of the more common anglicized version: “mic-mac”. For example, “Mi’kmaq history is often shared through oral tradition.”

Mi’kmaw or Mi’gmaw: pronounced “meeg-gm-maaw” is the singular form and is used to describe individuals. For example, “A Mi’kmaw woman told me about the history of her culture.” It can also be used as an adjective to describe something related to the Mi’kmaq or their culture. It can also refer to the Mi’kmaw language.

Mi’kma’ki or Mi’gmagi: pronounced “meeg-maa-gi.” THis is the name of the Mi’kmaq territory.

Early Life in Mi’kma’ki

The Mi’kmaq (pronounced “meeg-gm-mahh”) were just one of the Indigenous groups living in what is now known as Canada.

The Mi’kmaq were hunters, fishers, and gatherers with a deep connection to nature. They traveled all over Mi’kma’ki (pronounced “meeg-maa-gi”) and crafted everything they needed, such as, wigwams (dwellings), baskets, a variety of tools, weapons, snowshoes, clothes, and more from natural resources. 

The Mi’kmaq relied on natural resources that were available seasonally and therefore moved around to harvest those resources and track animals. They spent warmer months near the coast to access marine resources and moved inland in the fall and winter to hunt animals with harpoons, snares, and bows and arrows they made.

Mi’kmaq built birch-bark canoes for short voyages through rivers and lakes as well as sea-going vessels that were large enough to carry their families and their possessions long distances. Mi’kmaw settlements were scattered about the bays and rivers for easier transportation access by canoe, which is where they first encountered European travellers arriving to Mi’kma’ki.

Colonial Contact in Mi’kma’ki: The Arrival of the French Acadians

By the late 1500s, the Portuguese and French began arriving to Mi’kma’ki by ship, resulting in contact with Mi’kmaq living on the coast. Due to the Mi’kmaw belief that land cannot be owned or possessed by anyone, the French (later known as Acadians) settled here in 1605 with permission from the Mi’kmaq. Chief Membertou was the Kji-Saqmaw (Grand Chief) at this time. Without his willingness to share Mi’kmaw knowledge and resources, the Acadians would not have survived the winters. They relied heavily on trade of animal pelts from the Mi’kmaq for objects like metal pots that they told the Mi’kmaq were costly and rare. Although the Mi’kmaq shared their skills and customs, participation in Mi’kmaw culture was not mandatory for the French. Meanwhile, Mi’kmaw children were forced to attend French schools and learn Acadian culture.

In 1610, French missionaries arrived to catholicize and baptize the Mi’kmaq. European baptism and marriage being encouraged sadly minimized the strength of Mi’kmaw communities. The monogamous European marital system resulted in a drastic population loss for Mi’kmaq, especially when the French introduced many diseases to the Mi’kmaq. Additionally, once a Mi’kmaw was baptized, they could no longer participate in Mi’kmaw ceremonies or burial tradition. 

Colonial Contact in Mi’kma’ki: The Arrival of the British

When the British began attempting to settle in Mi’kma’ki in the 1620s, conflict erupted between the French Acadians and British. The French encouraged the Mi’kmaq to help them and attack the British. However, the French were still overwhelmed by the British, which lead to them signing a treaty in 1713 giving most of Mi’kma’ki/Acadie to the British even though the land was not theirs and they had promised to protect the land from bureaucratic ownership. Many Acadians left after the treaty was signed, leaving the Mi’kmaq to deal with the British.

Britain’s first attempt to develop a relationship with the Mi’kmaq came with the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1726. In these treaties, the Mi’kmaq did not surrender rights to land or resources. The treaties included the ability to ‘possess lands,’ but not own them. The idea of possessing land had been understood by the French who did not desire exclusive rights to land and shared the land with the Mi’kmaq. The British never seemed to understand this idea of possessing land without owning it and continued to claim the land as theirs. 

Later in 1744, conflicts between the British and French continued and the New England colonies pushed the British government to develop settlements in mainland Nova Scotia to ensure the land would not be given back to France. 

K’jipukyuk is Lost: The Genocide Begins

Despite the peaceful protests of the Mi’kmaq, the British government went ahead with plans to develop a new naval centre at K’jipukyuk (present day Halifax) in 1749. Before contact, the Mi’kmaq used K’jipukyuk as a site for trading, ceremonies, ocean access, and hunting. The Mi’kmaq considered the “Founding of Halifax” a breach of The Peace and Friendship Treaties. 

Hoping to secure control over lands and reconfirm loyalty to the British Crown, Nova Scotia’s Governor Edward Cornwallis invited the Wabanaki Nations to sign a new treaty in 1749. However, most Mi’kmaw leaders refused as a protest of the settlement at K’jipukyuk earlier that year. Since the Mi’kmaq were not interested in signing any land ownership of Mi’kma’ki to the Crown, Governor Cornwallis began to advocate the genocide of Mi’kmaq. The Edward Cornwallis Scalping Proclamation of 1749 resulted in the British government paying ten guineas for a Mi’kmaw prisoner or for the scalp of a Mi’kmaw, including children. Ten guineas is approximately $3,805 CAD today. Cornwallis had budgeted £39,000 for the first year, but he spent £174,000. Today in Canada, this equates to over-spending by $51 million.

The British Settlement at E’se’katik

While the genocide continued, the British government began recruiting British subjects to settle in E’se’katik (Lunenburg) in order to force out the Mi’kmaq and French Catholic Acadians living on the resourceful coastal land. The British recruited “Foreign Protestants”, primarily farmers who could grow food to feed Halifax, and offered them free land. Protestants were chosen since their beliefs aligned more with the British Anglican faith rather than the Catholic French Acadians. For more information, see the yellow exhibit panels in the Mahone Bay Museum.

The British hoped their settlement would force the Mi’kmaq and Acadians to leave. When that did not work, the British deported the Acadians in 1755 and burned their homes. Some Acadians remained thanks to help from the Mi’kmaq. However, the British outnumbered the Mi’kmaq and were able to continue claiming the land as theirs and eventually displaced the Mi’kmaq to small areas of land set aside for reservations, and forced Mi’kmaw children into residential schools. For more information, see our local Mi’kmaw Exhibit panel in the Mahone Bay Museum.

Thankfully, the Mi’kmaq have survived, are recovering their lost culture and language, and are still here today.

For information on the history of the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, please download our 5 page “Introduction to the History of Mi’kmaq” that provides more details here: Mi’kmaw Exhibit 2022 Mahone Bay Museum