Micmac Indians and French Settlement in the Northeast

A second case of ecological transformation in the New World is that of the hunting/gathering/fishing cultures of the Northeast, such as the Abenaki of northern Maine, the St. John's River Malecite, and the Micmac of southeastern Canada, all of whom shared a common culture. The Micmac lived in the area known as the Gaspe peninsula, south of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the St. Lawrence River. Micmac hunting, like that of other cultures in the Northeast, was based primarily on large animals, such as moose, deer, elk, and caribou, sources of both meat and hides. In addition, smaller animals, such as mink, muskrat, and beaver, were trapped for their furs.

Indian spiritual relations with animals derived from intimate everyday encounters. Indian peoples took their tribal clan names from animals, such as bear or deer, and often identified with or assumed the personalities of those animals. Animals were thought to live in separate societies with leaders, as did human hunter-gatherers, with a pale or white animal often thought of as the leader of the animal community. In addition, the animals had spirits, called manitous by the French Jesuits. These animal spirits were believed to communicate not only with the animals themselves, but with their dead ancestors and also with shamans — the spiritual leaders of the Micmac — and other hunting tribes.

The Micmac, like other hunting groups, went through ritual preparations before embarking on the hunt. An animal might appear to them in a dream, or the shaman might determine the time to set out. Or they might see a herd of deer and decide that this was the moment when the deer had come to them as a gift. Sometimes divination techniques were used to determine the direction of the hunt, such as burning the shoulder or a leg bone of an animal and then reading a pathway on the lines revealed on the bone. This act often randomized the hunt, giving animals time to reproduce.

In hunting, Indians believed the animal gave itself up to be killed so the hunter could survive, a process the Jesuits called ordained killing. Deer, for example, were autonomous subjects, in the sense that they were equal or superior to human beings. When a human hunter looked into the eye of a deer, an exchange of understanding occurred, an agreement or contract that this was the moment the deer had chosen to give itself up as a gift to the hunter. In addition to ritual preparations, there was ritual disposal of the remains. Land animals were to be disposed of on land, for example, and water animals were returned to their own watery abode. Mink were to be hung on trees and gutted to show other mink that the fur and meat had actually been used and not wasted. If Indians failed to follow a range of tabooed behaviors — from avoiding menstruating women, to not placing animal skulls properly in trees, to laxity in ritual preparations — drastic consequences might ensue. A species might make itself scarce, a hunter's luck could vanish, a sorcerer might inflict illness, or a family member might suffer an accident.

The fur trade that changed both Indian cultures and the ecology of much of Canada and the northern United States lasted from the 1580s to the late nineteenth century and was made possible by the fecundity of beaver. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) estimated that, in 1600, there were upwards of 50 million beaver in North America. Beaver ponds varied in size from a small pond of several square feet to hundreds of acres surrounded by beaver dams. The resulting beaver ponds created habitats for many birds and animals, including muskrat, otter, and mink, also important in the fur trade. The peculiar fate of the beaver was to have a very soft coat underneath an outer coat of stiff guard hairs. The soft coat hairs had small barbs that would cling to a felt-hat base made from rabbit hair. Thus beaver fur was an ideal pelt from which to make the stylish beaver hats that were in demand in Europe and later in America.

The Micmac encouraged the trade, and as early as 1534 were reported as waving sticks with furs to attract Jacques Cartier's voyagers. They were shrewd bargainers, desiring metal tools in exchange for pelts, realizing the value of metal fishhooks, traps, and guns, along with needles for sewing and kettles for cooking. But since they lacked the technologies to manufacture metal goods for themselves, Indians had to trap more beaver. Under pressure from the trade, beaver — along with lynx, otter, fox, mink, and other fur-bearing animals — rapidly disappeared from the northeastern region. Concurrently, the organically based economy of the Indians, rooted in disposable clothing, shelters, and utensils, began to be superseded by an inorganically based economy, tied to iron implements and other goods imported from Europe.

The advent of European diseases introduced by sailors, fishermen, missionaries, and settlers not only decimated tribal numbers, but also broke down cohesiveness and community. Some environmental historians, such as Calvin Martin, believe that disease initiated the breakdown of Indian spiritual relations with nonhuman nature. Indians broke faith with the animals and engaged in the fur trade. Martin writes: "No longer was [the Micmac] the sensitive fellow-member of a symbolic world; under pressure from disease, European trade, and Christianity, he had apostatized — he had repudiated his role within the ecosystem."4 But Bruce Trigger asserts that it was the desire for European goods that provided the incentive to hunt beaver. "To date," he writes, "there is no hard evidence of major epidemics in the St. Lawrence Valley or southern Ontario during the sixteenth century."5 Among the Micmac, smallpox epidemics began in 1639 and continued almost every decade throughout the seventeenth century. Measles occurred in 1633 and 1658. Historical and archaeological records show that these diseases appeared after the start of the fur trade. But when they did strike, they had an immediate and pronounced impact.

When disease decimated a hunting band, the relationships of trust, practice, and knowledge built up among its members over generations was broken down. As the survivors formed new groups, it was more difficult to hunt cohesively. The fur trade promoted individualism within the tribe and competition among tribes, as middleman tribes were created in the interior. As the trade expanded and dependencies on trade goods increased, some tribes became dominant and others declined in social status. Although Indians maintained a sense of integrity and retained tribal and oral traditions, the overall effect was to give Indian groups greater incentive to deplete animal populations.

The introduction of Christianity also transformed Indian life. The Jesuits were extremely shrewd in the methods they used to challenge native belief systems. Whenever a woman would pray with a priest for a child ill with smallpox or measles and that child survived, shamans would be ridiculed and their power undermined. If a man who was sick asked the priest for help, and was cured, the individual would then agree to convert to Christianity. When shamans themselves became ill, the priest would minister to them, asking them to join him in prayer. If a shaman survived, the priest made him agree to give up his drums, charms, and dances.

Baptism was substituted for Indian rituals, and those who took up the sacraments of baptism, confession, and the Mass were converted to Christianity and taught to read the Bible. In After Columbus (1988), historian James Axtell discusses "The Power of Print in the Eastern Woodlands": "The ability to read and write was awe-inspiring to the Indians largely because it duplicated a spiritual feat that only the greatest shamans could perform, namely, that of reading the mind of a person at a distance____" Indians often developed an extreme respect for the Bible, sent by a seemingly all-powerful God who prevented disease from falling on the priests, who in fact bore immunity.6

To Europeans, the power of writing over oral tradition reflected the supremacy of European culture. The Jesuits and colonists considered Indian stories as mere myths repeated over and over again. They believed alphanumeric literacy, used to record treaties and trading transactions, to be superior to the Indian oral traditions. Literacy allowed Europeans to engage in more powerful, centrally organized economic and political patterns with international ties than was possible among Indian cultures.

In comparing Indian and Western ways of relating to nature, Indians generally considered themselves to be just one among many entities in an animate world, living according to culturally defined canons of respect for other members, while nevertheless developing tools and technologies that allowed them to provide for their own subsistence. Seventeenth-century Europeans, on the other hand, emerging out of feudalism, were beginning to believe in the power of technology to control nature and advance an individual's status in life. The introduction of Christianity, new technologies, and market trading, reinforced by the power of literacy, therefore resulted in a transformed natural environment and Indian culture.

Continue reading here: Plains Indians and the Westward Movement

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  • katie
    Why did the micmac indians deplete beaver when the french came?
    10 years ago