Government of New Brunswick

Extracts from Maliseet &Mi’kmaq:
First Nations of the Maritimes by Robert Leavitt

Early European visitors to the Maritime region wrote with great interest about the things Mi'kmaq and Maliseets made and the techniques they used.

The Indians acquired and manufactured the necessities of life without metal tools, gunpowder, cloth, glass or milled lumber.

Instead, they made use of stone and clay and virtually every part of plants and animals: roots, bark and wood; skin, bone, ivory, antler, shell, hair, fur, feathers, quills and sinew.

The only metal available for use was naturally occurring copper, which was too soft for blades but could be worked into such items as fish-hooks or pounded thin and rolled up to make rings and beads.

The arrangement of beads in some burials indicates that they were embroidered on the edges of hoods or collars or strung on necklaces and bracelets.

Early European visitors, who saw people at work or heard about the "old ways" of making things, reported Maliseet and Mi'kmaq crafts as they were practised around the time of contact. Their writings and drawings describe the manufacture of jewellery and the decoration of clothing, wigwam-walls and household containers.

Denys, Lescarbot and LeClercq mentioned animal shapes and lace-like patterns as the designs used by the Indians at the time of contact.

Europeans, of course, brought their own styles of embroidery, decorated pottery and jewellery with them.

The work of each group had an influence on the other's, and it was not long before the Maliseets and Mi'kmaqs incorporated the motifs in their work.

Especially popular were geometric designs, drawn with mathematical instruments, and floral pattens consisting of interconnecting flowers, leaves, buds and tendrils. From these patterns and aboriginal designs developed the double-curve motif, which is the most popular form used today.

Europeans also brought with them a new technology, and different materials for tools, weapons, clothing and decoration. The Mi'kmaqs and Maliseets quickly adopted those materials and skills that they recognized as improvements.

Ready-made iron implements, including blades and firearms, were clearly superior to stone blades and points in performance, durability and convenience. Iron and copper kettles were easier to use than cooking vessels made from birchbark or hollowed out in fallen logs. These "modern conveniences" allowed people more time for other pursuits, including craftwork.

Some of these pursuits became a source of income as the fur trade caused game populations to decline and European settlement limited access to the fisheries.

Glass beads and silk ribbons encouraged innovations in design and decoration. As soon as they began to obtain them, the Maliseets and Mi'kmaqs used these materials to decorate materials to decorate clothing, which itself was changing in style as ready-made cloth replaced skins and furs. Scissors and metal needles made possible other new forms of decoration, such as moose hair embroidery and ribbon applique.

The Mi'kmaq and Maliseets did not adopt all European materials and artifacts. Although their way of life changed dramatically during the 1500s, they continued to require clothing and equipment appropriate for travelling, hunting, fishing and trapping.

During the contact period, and up to the present day, a number of the decorative techniques of the Indians became popular with European collectors and other customers. Etched birchbark and embroidery using dyed porcupine quills, wampum and moose-hair were especially sought after.

Artists added glass beads, silk ribbons and European dyes; and they applied them to European items such as boxes, purses, tea-cosies, picture frames, sewing baskets and furniture.

Many non-Indians living in Canada adopted Indian designs for their own decorative work and learned to do the quillwork and moose-hair embroidery.

Mi'kmaq and Maliseet craftspeople also manufactured things they themselves had never used before. Farming equipment, in particular, was in high demand.

Mi'kmaq and Maliseet craftspeople also manufactured things they themselves had never used before. Farming equipment, in particular, was in high demand.

Well into the 1900s, they were producing butter tubs, barrels, scale baskets, and potato baskets.

But the idea of making things for sale or barter, rather than only for their own use, may not have been a new one. In fact, the Europeans stumbled into a thriving trade network, the Mi'kmaqs and Maliseets having taken trade items to the interior of the continent long before the newcomers themselves were seen there.

Today, the utilitarian needs of Natives and non-Natives are met almost entirely by machine made products.

Yet Maliseet and Mi'kmaq craftspeople continue to provide equipment, such as canoe paddles, baskets and snowshoes, for everyday tasks. They practise the decorative arts of their ancestors, too. Some of these have been handed down in an unbroken chain of teaching from pre-contact times; others, like porcupine quillwork, have been revived in recent years. These techniques are another way- like the oral tradition, spirituality and adaptations to the environment- in which peoples express and define their identity.