Jan. 16: The Backstory, continued

Link to Lecture Outline for Week 2

Link to January 15: The Backstory [part I]: Natives, Newcomers, and Contact in the North-Eastern North American Atlantic Region to 1500.

III) West meets East: More supportable instances of 1st contact [in ‘Atlantic Canada’]

The ‘Vinland Map.’ “The Vinland map / chart is purportedly a 15th century Mappa Mundi, redrawn from a 13th century original. Drawn with black ink on animal skin, if authentic the map is the first known depiction of the North American coastline, created before Columbus’ 1492 voyage. The upper left caption reads: “By God’s will, after a long voyage from the island of Greenland to the south toward the most distant remaining parts of the western ocean sea, sailing southward amidst the ice, the companions Bjarni and Leif riksson discovered a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines, … which island they named Vinland.” Most scholars and scientists who have studied the map have concluded that it is a fake, probably drawn on old parchment in the 20th century. Update : this map is now thought to be genuine – http://www.newsdaily.com/stories/tre56g583-us-map-america/.” Source: Wikimedia Commons “a freely licensed media file repository.”

a) Norse:

The first contacts between Europeans and Native North Americans most likely occurred in the Arctic, with the arrival of the Norse about AD 1000/1001 on Baffin Island and down the Atlantic coast where they set up what they apparently meant to be permanent settlements — one of which was near what is today known as L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland’s northeastern coast.


L’Anse aux Meadows site, “Authentic Viking recreation.” Source: Wikimedia Commons “a freely licensed media file repository.”


[The link to Memorial University’s Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage article on the Norse supplies a good outline, for additional information you might also want to check out:

  • About University of Manitoba prof Tryggvi Oleson’s Viking/Inuit thesis controversy in 1960’s history circles http://bit.ly/7G3EWQ
  • review of Oleson’s Early Voyages and Northern Approaches (1963) http://bit.ly/52UGaY his thesis: Dorset people (Tunit) and Vikings were ancestors of the Inuit.]



“Linguistic families in Northern America at the time of European contact” Source: Wikimedia Commons “a freely licensed media file repository,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Langs_N.Amer.png.

b) Tunit and Beothuk:

Two of the cultural collectivities native to North America most likely to have witnessed the Norse arrival are known by archeologists as

1) late paleo-Eskimo or Dorset (Tunit) and

2) the Beothuk.

Both have since disappeared (note: ‘extinction’ of a species did not occur, loss of a particular, culturally maintained, holistic body of knowledge did. Possibly the culturally distinctive groups fractured and formed new cultural collectivities through merging with other groups [these people had boats after all, and so could migrate across bodies of water], and/or, possibly individuals, who had been familiar enough with the old cultural norms and traditions to pass them along, died.)

[It is important to remember that the past was not static — change happened then as now, although we tend to think of our own time as one of accelerated change. In the past, in the area we are surveying, there were some pretty pronounced changes though, and people, while they were adapting, also adapted — meaning changed — their technologies, diets, stories, clothing styles, and languages. As well, the individuals who made up a social group changed from generation to generation — these socio-cultural ‘groups’ we are talking about are abstract constructs. In reality there were various individual human beings of differing temperaments and abilities, coming and going, and impinging differently on each others’ lives — and no doubt championing different ideas about what mattered — at different points in time. There was no constant, uniform group.]

i) The Tunit (also spelled Tunnit) culture preceded what archeologists used to refer to as the Thule culture (otherwise known as Inuit), which gradually replaced it. The Tunit and Inuit, like the Norse, migrated during the warming trend that occurred after AD 900 — although while the Norse went north and west, the Tunit and Inuit went north and east from the Bering Strait region.

[One of the mysteries of the Inuit occupation of Arctic Canada involves their relationship(s) with the Tunit. Some contact occurred. Canadian Inuit traditions recount that when their ancestors first arrived, they encountered Tunit, whom they described as a large and gentle race of seal hunters, lacking several elements of Inuit technology. The stories tell of fights between the two groups, and of the Tunit being driven away.

The Tunit people appear to have arrived in Northern Quebec as late as AD 1400, and this is the area last entered by the Inuit. No Inuit sites in Quebec or Labrador have been dated to earlier than AD 1500. By that time the Inuit had completed their occupation of Northern and Arctic Canada — including establishing themselves along Labrador’s northern coast.]

That people native to North America held their own against newcomers from across the Atlantic in pre-firearm days is suggested by the short stay of the Norse: they may have attempted settlement in northern Newfoundland for as long as six decades. [Although the L’Anse aux Meadows site was used for only a short time]

Climate change may have been a factor in the Norse leaving — cooling would likely have been apparent around 1200 [It culminated in the Little Ice Age (LIA). Climatologists and historians find it difficult to agree on either the start or end dates for this period. Some confine the LIA to 1550-1850, lasting from the 14th to the mid-19th centuries, while others prefer a span from the 13th to the 17th centuries.]

[see also Andres Pääbo, “Sea-going skin boats and oceanic expansion: The voyages of the whale hunters,” for maps of migrations and illustrations of technology, http://www.paabo.ca/uirala/uini-seagoingskinboats.html.]

ii) The Beothuk were an independent cultural unit that occupied areas of the island of Newfoundland for at least 1000 years before contact, but practically nothing is known about encounters before 1500 — with the Norse for example. Prior to the 16th century they occupied most of Newfoundland in unknown numbers — maybe 1600-2000 (Upton), maybe only 500.


Shanawdithit, “Beothuk drwaings [sic] by Shanawdithit representing a variety of subjects, cups, separs [sic], etc.” c. 1829. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MINKAN no. 2928478.

Beothuk had a hunter-fisher-gatherer society and so were seasonally migratory, alternating between fishing on the coast and hunting caribou in the interior. Self sufficient and self sustaining, they are known to have used technology perfectly suited to the environment. Although resources were scarce they lived off the land and sea for over 1000 years.

The Beothuk have been called the original ‘Red Indians’ because of their practice of painting themselves, their clothing, and their belongings with red ochre. [Though Brazilians were red (using dye-wood and seeds) as well.] The colouring had a practical purpose: red ochre is an insect repellant. Beothuk culture had similarities with groups on the coast of Labrador [Innu] and it appears that at times they shared their space on the island with Tunit groups. They had corn, which indicates a trading [and therefore social] relationship with peoples to the south, as they themselves did not practice agriculture.


Portrait of a 19th century Beothuk woman, by Henrietta Hamilton, a miniature painted in watercolour on ivory, entitled “Demasduit (Mary March),” dated 1819, Newfoundland. A descriptive notation from Library and Archives Canada online reads: “Item consists of a miniature portrait of Demasduit, also known as Mary March, Shendoreth, Waunathoake, by Lady Henrietta Martha Hamilton. Demasduit is reputed to be one of the last members of the now extinct Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland. Demasduit was born in the interior of Newfoundland, possibly in the Exploits River area. First encounters with European settlers and fishermen had been hostile, and later friendly contact with the Beothuks was encouraged and worth potential reward. Altercations continued and in March 1819, a group of fishermen led by John Peyton set out to recover articles stolen from them by the Boethuks the previous fall. Demasduit was captured by them and her husband Nonosbawsut was killed. Her newborn baby was abandoned in the struggle and subsequently died. Brought to St. John’s Newfoundland a few months later, her portrait was painted by Lady Henrietta Hamilton, the wife of the governor of Newfoundland, Sir Charles Hamilton. The governor ordered that she be returned to her people, and several attempts to do so were made from June until December of 1819. Demasduit died of tuberculosis on January 8, 1820 before seeing her home again.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, acc. no. 1977-14-1.

[see also:

  • Ingeborg Marshall, “An unpublished map made by John Cartwright between 1764 and 1773 showing Beothuk Indian settlements and artifacts and allowing a new population estimate,” Ethnohistory (1997): 223-249.
  • Olive Patricia Dickason, The Myth of the Savage, 98-100.]

V) North American Neighbours [of the Beothuk and Tunit, and later, the Inuit]

Ethnologists (who study historic anthropology), have described underlying similarities of First Nations living in the North-Eastern North American region. For example, all these societies appear to have divided labour along gendered lines, and individual family units maintained a high degree of self sufficiency. A sense of communal responsibility ensured that fellow band members were not left without food or shelter.

[Discussion: egalitarian social arrangement vs. hierarchical social arrangement:

– North American model: vulnerable/powerless placed inside of protective circle — termed anarchy/wild

– Western European model: vulnerable at bottom of power pyramid, powerful protected in pinnacle position — termed civilized/domestic]

This is not to say that all First Nations cultures were uniform — in fact the variety of their societies was exceeded only by that of their languages (approximately 2000 over the entire ‘New World’).

First Nations living on the Atlantic Coast from Cape Breton to as far south as Cape Fear belonged to the Algonkian linguistic group (apart from the Inuit). The Algonkian speakers and the Inuit were seasonally migratory (‘nomadic’ but not aimless wanderers), hunters and fishers. All of these people lived within the framework of well developed societies — of varying complexities — that provided for their needs, both as individuals and as social beings.

Life patterns were at least partly conditioned by the means of subsistence. Fish was the primary means of subsistence, although moose, bear, beaver, and caribou were important game, and in the spring and fall, so were geese and ducks. Fishing was a low-prestige occupation as First Nations peoples considered that anyone could do it. Hunting, on the other hand, they believed demanded greater skill and knowledge of the forces that affected life — including unseen, unpredictable, or supernatural forces. Thus, hunters had a superior social status. In regions of semi-sedentary settlement where agriculture was a primary means of subsistence, warriors — rather than hunters — had superior social prestige (they protected territory and enabled moves into new areas when soil fertility fell).

Body painting and tattooing were widespread practices. Patterns expressed individual taste, served as personal identification and group affiliation, and as records of achievement.

Snow shoes, toboggans pulled by a head strap, and craft for traveling over water were also common to all groups.

Reciprocity was a marked cultural attribute. Basic to this reciprocity was exchange, which had the character of gift-giving as much as of trade in the European sense. Besides being economic, reciprocal exchanges had magical, social, religious, political, judicial, and moral aspects [which Europeans had difficulty appreciating].

a) Innu:

Alexander Henderson, photograph, “Montagnais making bark canoe,” dated ca. 1863. Source: Alexander Henderson/Library and Archives Canada/PA-149709.

Another prominent, culturally distinct group was the Innu: an Algonkian speaking people, formerly known as the Naskapi and Montignais (usually hyphenated, either name first), and, further west, also known as Cree. According to their own traditions, the Innu had been pushed into Labrador’s sub-arctic lands by the Iroquois before the Europeans had arrived. They too were seasonal migrants. At summer gatherings their community might swell to include as many as 1500 people. The Naskapi [Innu groups farthest North] wore clothing that was tailored similar to the Inuit, with whom they fought for territorial control/resource access. The Montignais [Innu to the south] fought for the same with the Iroquois. At the time of contact, in combination, the Naskapi-Montignais have been estimated to number 5000 individuals, but some scholars argue there were more.

b) Mi’kmaq:



Klaus Mueller, map, “The Mi’kmaq.” Source:  Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The Mi’kmaq (also spelled Miqmaq, Mikmaq, and Mi’mkaq) were another seasonally migratory Algonkian group that arrived from the west approximately 10,000 years ago to inhabit lands they called Megumaage (Mi’kma’ki). The territory included all of what is now Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, the north shore of New Brunswick and inland to the Saint John River watershed, eastern Maine, and may have periodically encroached on Newfoundland — while making forays to the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well as St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Micmac Indian Encampment by a River,” dated ca. 1801. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1981-55-80 Bushnell Collection.

Their socio-political structure was unique (among the groups we are considering) in that it maintained an agricultural way of life in a non-agricultural environment. Each district had a chief (keptan, or sagmaw/sagamore) presiding as a local authority who governed together with s council of elders, and was a delegate to the Grand Council Sante’ Mawiomi. The Sante’ Mawiomi determined where families might hunt, fish, and set up camps. It also managed relations with other Nations. For example, the Mi’kmaq were members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, a loose coalition that included neighbouring Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki.

They have also been referred to as Mickmac (also spelled Micmac). At various times they were known as: Cape Sable Indians, Gaspesian, Gaspesien, or Micmac of Gaspé, Matueswiskitchinuuk (Malecite for ‘Porcupine Indians’), Shonack (Beothuk for ‘Bad Indians’), Souriquois (by the early French), Tarranteen/Tarrantine (by the British, and may have meant ‘traders’), Toudamine (by Cartier), and Acadian.


Jacques Grasset de Saint-Saveur, hand coloured etching and aquatint, “ Femme Accadienne,” dated 1757-1810. Source: Library and Archives Canada / Bibilothèque et Archives Canada (R9266-3487) Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.


Jacques Grasset de Saint-Saveur, hand coloured etching and aquatint, “ Homme Acadien,” dated 1796-1804. Source: Library and Archives Canada / Bibilothèque et Archives Canada (R9266-3486) Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

If population levels are an indication, they managed the best of all coastal peoples. Estimates of the pre-contact Mi’kmaq population inhabiting the homeland vary between 3000 and 50,000, with common estimates ranging from 6000 to 20,000.

The Mi’kmaq were the dominant nation in the Canadian Maritimes, but in most ways, other than language, they were similar to the Maliseet in New Brunswick and the Abenaki of northern New England. The main difference in lifestyle was that the Abenaki were able to place a greater emphasis on agriculture because of a more southerly location. The Mi’kmaq had a tradition of having once been agriculturalists, but at the time of contact confines their farming to the production of tobacco, because, for the most part, they were too far north to grow corn. They were, however, skilled hunter-gatherers with a heavy emphasis on fishing and harvesting sea mammals — 90% 0f their diet. For this reason, the Mi’kmaq were renowned as skilled canoeists. Constructed from birch bark, their distinctive hump-backed design was not only light but sea worthy.

According to Mi’kmaq tradition, they were not surprised at the arrival of Europeans. A traditional story predating contact told of a spiritual being who travelled across the Atlantic and discovered another continent, and told of blue-eyed people who would disrupt the lives of the Mi’kmaq. Another legend held that an old woman had had a vision of an island, with tall trees with people in them, floating towards their lands. Thus, they were predisposed to expect arrivals, to meet the sailing ships, and to consider them to be a predestined or prophesied addition to the Mi’kmaq world and their experience.

They readily engaged in trade and were not averse to incorporating new technologies or people into their culture [they became sailors of European built ships, for example. The cultural and social exchanges went both ways. For instance, the word ‘toboggan’ is borrowed directly from the Mi’kmaq ‘taba’gan.’]

c) Abenaki:


Nikater, map, “Tribal territories of Eastern Abenaki tribes.” Source: Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Nikater, map, “Tribal territories of Western Abenaki tribes.” Source: Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.



Abenaki (or as they called themselves, the Wabenaki), was a collective name (Algonkian word meaning ‘people of the dawn land’ or ‘those living at the sunrise’), for various groups of loosely related Algonkian speaking people neighbouring the Mi’kmaq.

The Abenaki called their homeland Ndakinna, meaning ‘our land.’

They included the Sokokis on the middle and upper Connecticut River, the Cowasuck farther upriver, the Missiquois on the northern shore of Lake Champlain, the Penncook of New Hampshire’s Merrimack Valley, the Pigwacket in the White Mountains, the Androscoggins of Western Maine, and the Penonscot, Norridgewock, Wavenock, and Kennebeck (Canibas) farther east. [also Arosagunitcook and Pentagouet]

Abenaki were also known in French as Abenaquis, Oubenaquis, or sometimes, if their exact affiliation was not known, as Loops (a slang term applied to Mahicans in particular, but Aboriginal peoples in general). Initially, the English called them Tarranteen along with the Mi’kmaq. They were also at times called Anagonges (Iroquois), Aquannaque (Huron), Bashaba, Gannongagehronnon (Mohawk), Moassones, Maweshenook, Narankamigdok, Natsagana (Caughnawaga), Obunego, Onagunga, Opanango, Owenagunges, Owenunga, and Skacewanilom (Iroquois).

Their pre-contact population has been estimated to have been about 10,000.

For the most part they were seasonally migratory hunter-gatherers and fishers, although where conditions allowed they grew cornm beans, and squash — sometimes in extensive sites of over 250 acres. Related family groups would congregate for spring fishing or planting, late summer harvesting, and winter ceremonies. They would establish semi-sedentary towns or villages in summer, but these would often disappear when they dispersed into hunting territories in the fall.

The Abenaki political and social structure was fuid and flexible. Abenaki is actually a geographic and linguistic (rather than political) grouping. The family band was the core social unit; leaders were usually heads of lineages, but leadership positions seem to have depended on ability, and to have involved obligations to followers as much as it conferred any authority over them.

All told, pre-contact population figures may have been as high as 40,000.

d) Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot:


Nikater, map, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy. Source: Wikimedia Commons file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, GNU Free Documentation License“.


Nikater, map, showing Penobscot territory. Source: Wikimedia Commons file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, GNU Free Documentation License“.


Additional Algonkian speaking groups that had connections with the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki were the Maliseet (or Malecites), the Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. They inhabited Maine and western New Brunswick. They lived in kinship groups that divided and merged easily. They spoke closely related languages or dialects, although today anthropologists generally group the Passamaquoddy with the Maliseet and the Penobscot with the Abenaki.

e) Iroquois:


Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur with engraver Mixelle jeune, hand coloured etching and aquatint on laid paper, “Homme et Femme Iroquois (Iroquois Man and Woman),” dated 1796-1804. Source: Library and Archives Canada / Bibilothèque et Archives Canada (R9266-3483) Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

The Iroquoian peoples (a linquistic classification), appeared seasonally on the coast for fishing. They lived for most of the year along the St. Lawrence in semi-sedentary towns such as Stadacona and Hochelaga.


R. A. Nonenmacher, map, “Iroquois Five-Nations map c.1650.” Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

R. A. Nonenmacher, map, “Iroquois 6 Nations map c1720.” Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Further afield, there were also the Five Nations of the Finger Lakes and the Hudson River region, and the Huron, Tionontati (Petun), Neutral, and Erie of the Great Lakes region. The Iroquois (self-named the Haudenosaunee) were effectively surrounded by Algonkian speakers.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.