The Mi’kmaq were hunter-gatherers, and were semi-nomadic in that they routinely moved between summer fishing villages near the coast to winter camps inland. The single-family winter hunting camps were scattered, but during the spring and summer, Mi’kmaq families joined others to form villages. They would travel between the same areas for a few years, until their knowledge of the land told them that resources were becoming less abundant. At this time they would seek another area, to allow the land they had been using to recover. By spreading out the impact in this way, no one area became seriously depleted.
Even though there was a certain amount of definition of roles by gender, the Mi’kmaw lifestyle was marked by cooperation between the members of the community. The primary role of the men was to hunt and fish, and to be the protectors of the group. The women gathered plant resources and maintained the camps, and were the lifegivers and caregivers. However, there was a great deal of sharing of these tasks that crossed gender lines. For example, if a family was camped by a river, and the men were away from camp for several days on a hunt, the women were quite capable of fishing to support the families until the men returned. Petroglyphs at Kejimkujik show men and women fishing together.
MAKING A LIVING
In the spring the Mi’kmaq gathered their belongings and moved to the coastal areas, relying on the resources of the sea, rivers, and streams for their livelihood. In addition to the abundant resources of the sea, the encampments were also more visible, so that they could be found more easily by family and friends who would be traveling the shores and getting together for the summer months. The increased visibility also allowed them to keep watch for passers-by, and for possible raids by neighbouring tribes. Also, by staying at the seashores the Mi’kmaq enjoyed relief from the mosquitoes and blackflies, which were kept away by the sea winds.
The summer was a time of plenty. The Mi’kmaq gathered clams and shellfish at the shore, and fished for salmon and other fish in the rivers and streams. They would also use their canoes to hunt porpoises and small whales, and were adept at hunting fowl. For this reason, the Mi’kmaq were famous for their skill with a canoe. Constructed from birch bark, their distinctive design incorporated a square-rigged sail and high gunwales, making it capable of crossing open water.
During the summer the Mi’kmaq also harvested wild fruits, berries, roots and other plant materials. These were used for food, for medicines, and as materials for weaving, cordage, and other uses. Some food plants were enjoyed fresh, and some were dried and set aside for the winter.
In late summer and early fall, the people would begin to make their way inland along the waterways, seeking the shelter of the forests for the winter months. As they journeyed, they would take advantage of the spawning runs of fish by building complex weirs across the rivers, which enabled them to catch large amounts of eels and other fish.
As winter came on, the Mi’kmaq established their winter camps and turned to hunting large mammals such as bear, moose and caribou. While these large animals were their primary food source, smaller animals were also harvested. They hunted with bows and arrows and lances, or trapped animals with snares or various deadfall traps. In deep snow the Mi’kmaw hunters had an advantage, since the heavy animals were slowed down by snowdrifts, while the hunters were able to move about easily using snowshoes, sleds, and toboggans. The English word “toboggan” is borrowed directly from the Mi’kmaw word topa’kun.
By observing the natural changes around them, the Mi’kmaq were able to determine periods of time. A year was the major cycle, divided into days, moons and seasons. Solstices and equinoxes were recognized, with the winter solstice marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
There were four seasons in a year: