“Someone Before Us” — The Mi’kmaq Imprint on the Tantramar

On the surface very little remains of the Mi’kmaq presence on the Tantramar. This is unfortunate, because they recognized, as did all those who followed them, the strategic importance of what is today the Isthmus of Chignecto.

For purposes of government, the Mi’kmaq divided the Maritime Provinces into seven districts, each with its own chief and council. One of these, Siknikt (to which the place name Chignecto may be traced), included roughly Cumberland, Westmorland and part of Albert counties. Unlike their close relatives the Maliseet, the Mi’kmaq weren’t primarily interested in agriculture; rather their emphasis was on hunting and fishing.

Two of their main settlements were on ridges that bisect the Tantramar; while a third was located, farther away, on the Petitcodiac River. The Mi’kmaq settlement, Goesomaligeg, was established on Fort Beausejour Ridge and Tatamalg or Tantama, on the Sackville Ridge.

It has been suggested by Dr. John Clarence Webster that the latter place name may have inspired the French to apply their word Tintamarre as a designation for the marsh now called Tantramar. Today, the only evidence of these settlements occurs when arrowheads and stone implements are occasionally unearthed.

One of the most important contributions of the Mi’kmaq was their role as guides and aides to the first French explorers. They were good geographers with a respect for both land and environment. The Mi’kmaq ranged widely during the spring, summer and autumn months, retreating to the forested inland during the winter.

Their major means of transportation was the birch bark canoe. It was common for them to travel vast distances using navigable rivers and well worn portage routes. Each summer many would cross the Northumberland Strait to sample the abundance of lobster and other shellfish, and to revel in the warm waters that surrounded Abegweit — their name for contemporary PEI.

A major Mi’kmaq legacy is found in surviving place names; many of which have out lasted not only time, but a variety of translations. In addition to those already mentioned other regional place names of Mi’kmaq origin are: Tidnish, Minudie, Missaguash River, Aboushagan Road, Midgic, Memramcook and Shemogue.

The Mi’kmaq were also generous in sharing their knowledge of native plants and medicinal lore including the therapeutic use of the sweat lodge. Some further examples: The bark and leaves of the witch hazel produced a lotion for cooling and soothing the skin, fir balsam was used as a poultice for sores, a syrup of the wild onion healed sore throats, broken bones were carefully reset in large pads of moss, while the cure for scurvy (boiling spruce bark and needles) saved many European lives.

Thirty years ago, in 1968, Dr. George Frederick Clarke published a study of the first people of New Brunswick entitled Someone Before Us. Although a dentist by profession, Dr. Clarke earned a reputation as an archaeologist and local historian. Readers wishing further detail concerning the Mi’kmaq /Maliseet contribution to New Brunswick culture are advised to dip into this book. A more recent work is by Daniel N. Paul — We Were Not The Savages. Published in 1993, it provides a historical overview of the region from the Mi’kmaq viewpoint.

As Paul concludes: [They]… were and are a great people. To be a descendant of this noble race, who displayed an indomitable will to survive in spite of the incredible odds against them, fills me with pride. I am in awe whenever I think of their tremendous courage in overcoming the dauntless obstacles placed in their path.