THE AGE OF EARLY CONTACT
With the Beothuks and the Inuit, the Micmacs share whatever distinction there is in having been the first to be "discovered
by the Europeans". For the Micmac, the contact apparently began with the exploration of Cape Breton by the French
Bretons in the early fifteen hundreds.
At first sight there must have been mutual curiosity about each other's appearance - the European with his different style of dress and the Micmac with his loin cloth, buckskin leggings, mocassins, leather bracelet, shell earrings, and necklace. How did the French European dress?
At this time the Micmac had his own civilization - a system of government, education, economy, social order, religion and language. Proud was the Micmac then as he is proud today when he states in the Introduction of the Nova Scotia Aboriginal Rights Position Paper:
" Prior to the coming of the European immigrants, our ancestors exercised all the prerogatives of nationhood. We had our land and our own system of land holding. We made and enforced our own laws in our own ways. The various tribal nations dealt with one another according to accepted codes. We respected our distinctive languages. We practiced our own religious beliefs and customs. We developed our own set of cultural habits and practices according to our particular circumstances. We, in fact, had our own social, political, economic, educational, and property systems. We exercised the rights and prerogatives of a nation and existed as a nation.
It was as a nation our forefathers dealt with the European immigrants. It is as nations we exist today . It is our desire to continue to exist as a nation of Micmacs."
At the time of the first contact, the Micmac nation belonged in a strong Wapna'ki Confederacy which included tribes like the Malecite (north west New Brunswick), the Passamaquoddy (Maine), the Penobscot (Maine), the Abenaki (Quebec) and the Wowenock (New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire). All belonged to the great Algonquin family which occupied, for the most part, territories east of the St.Lawrence River, the Adirondacks and the Appalachians.
All these tribes respected the territory occupied by the Micmac, who divided it into seven hunting and fishing districts. This area now corresponds to Nova Scotia. Prince Edward Island, eastern part of New Brunswick and southern Gaspe.
Wunama'kik is now Cape Breton Island, which in the eyes of the Micmac, represented the "head" and the rest of Nova Scotia, the "torso", or the body.Many historians called it the "foggy land" after the Micmac word for (u'n).Some present day language experts tend to call it, "the land of Wunam."The identity of "Wunam" remains a mystery.
Piwktuk (where explosives are made) and Epekwitk (lying in the water) represented areas of Pictou and Prince Edward Island, respectively.
Eskikewa'kik (skin dressers territory) stretched from Guysborough to Halifax counties.
Sipekne'katik (ground nut place) extended over the counties of Halifax, Lunenburg, Kings, Hants, and Colchester.
Kespukwitk covered the countries of Queens, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Digby, and Annapolis.
Siknikt included Cumberland and the New Brunswick counties of Westmoreland, Albert, Kent, St.John, and Queens.
Kespek (the last land) was the district north of the Richibucto, its allied rivers and parts of Gaspe which were not occupied by the Iroquois (Kwetejk).
B. POLITICAL STRUCTURE
(a) Role of the Chief in the Micmac Society
There were three main types of chief: 1) the local chief ; 2) the District Chief ; and 3) the Grand Chief.
(1) The Local Chief looked after the immediate affairs of the summer village inhabitants of the district. He presided over the "Council of Elders" which was the governing body of that village. Family heads or representatives made up the council of elders. The Local Chief provided dogs for the chase, canoes for transportation provisions for hunting expeditions and emergency food supplies in times of need.
(2) Each of the seven Micmac Districts had a chief (Saqamaw) who, like all Chiefs, was usually the eldest son of some powerful family group. He received much of his power from the size of his family. To maintain a large family, the Chief took several wives.There appeared to be no jealousy among them because it was considered an honor to be a chief's wife.
The District Chief presided over the Council of Local Chief's within his domain. The Council met usually in spring or autumn to resolve such issues as peace, truce, and war. Decisions in the Council were reached by consensus, or in other words, an agreement by all. Young men who had not yet killed their first moose, and women and children had no say in the Council.
(3) When the Micmac wished to deal with issues affecting the whole nation, a Grand Council consisting of all District Chiefs and their families would be convened by a Grand Chief, who was a District Chief designated by the Grand Council to be its chief spokesman.
For many years Chief Membertou served as Grand Chief, at the time when the French colony was being established at Port Royal. On June 24, 1610 at Port Royal. Membertou became the first Micmac to be baptized into Catholic religion. Lescarbot described him to be at least a hundred years old at his conversion. He had "...sufficient power to harangue, advise and lead them to war, to render justice to one who has a grievance, and like matters. He does not impose taxes upon the people, but if there are profits from the chase he has a share of them, without being obliged to take part in it." His powers as a prophet gave him the reputation as the strongest Sagamore or Chief in the country.
Besides assigning hunting and fishing territories to the Chiefs and their families, the Grand Council ratified treaties of friendship with other tribes, and later with the Colonial government of Nova Scotia.
The Micmacs were friendly with the French in their struggles with the English. Led by the French Missionary, Abbe Le Loutre, they constantly harrassed the English and the Acadian settlers. The British Colonial Government sought to end the Micmac hostilities and the French influence on them by entering into "treaties of friendship" in 1725, 1728, 1749, 1752, and 1760. In return for the promise to " bury the hatchet", the Micmacs were guaranteed that their basic rights to hunting, fishing, and fowling territories would not be affected. For example, the treaty of 1725 established trading houses to encourage Anglo-Micmac trade. At no time did the Chiefs sign treaties which gave up their traditional use and occupancy of these lands.
A favorite Grand Council meeting place was Frazer's Point near Trenton, Nova Scotia. Gatherings at Middle River Point in Pictou County, were discontinued when a vessel with smallpox was sent there to be quarantined. Grand Council meetings today are religious in nature and are held annually in July on Chapel Island, near the village of St.Peters.
(b) Qualities of a Good Chief
In the contact and pre-contact period, the three chiefs were selected by family lines; in other words, chieftaincy was inherited.
Local Chiefs were chosen by the "Council of Elders".
District Chiefs were selected by the Local Chiefs in an assembly called " the Council of Chiefs".
Grand Chiefs of the whole Micmac nation were appointed by the District Chiefs which made up the "Grand Council".
In all cases, the exercise may have been only routine because chieftaincy, by tradition, was passed on to the eldest son of the former chef. The eldest son, however, had to be worthy to become the chief; otherwise, some other male in the same family group would receive the title.
The qualities that the Micmac sought in their Chief were comparable to those we seek in our present -day leaders. The Chief must have possessed these characteristics.