Maliseet (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Maliseettmp2012_thumb, or Malicite, probably a Micmac word for "lazy speakers" or "broken talkers." The tribe may have derived from people of Passamaquoddy (maritime) and Natick (inland) extraction. Together with the Passamaquoddy they have also been known as the Etchemin tribe. See also Abenaki; Micmac; Passamaquoddy.

Location The Maliseet traditionally lived along the Saint John River drainage in present-day New Brunswick, Canada, as well as in northeastern Maine. Today, Maliseets live on and near reserves in extreme southeast Canada, including the Gaspe, as well as in nearby and regional cities and towns.

Population With the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet numbered about 1,000 in the early seventeenth century. In the early 1990s, the Malecites of Viger (Malecite First Nation) (Quebec) had a population of 425 out of a total Maliseet population of around 3,000.

Language Maliseets and Passamaquoddys spoke dialects of the same Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History The Maliseet people may have come to their historical territory from the southwest, where they probably had contact with the Ohio Mound Builders in ancient times. They may also have been united with the Passamaquoddy in the distant past. Their first contact with non-natives probably occurred in the early seventeenth century when they met Samuel de Champlain, although they may have encountered fishermen from northern and western Europe as much as a century earlier.

A growing involvement in the French fur trade led to a parallel dependence on items of non-native manufacture. The people also accepted Catholic missionaries in the seventeenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Maliseet population declined sharply as a result of disease, abuse of alcohol, and loss of land. They joined the pro-French Abenaki Confederacy in the mid-eighteenth century. They also sided with the French in the colonial wars and intermarried with them.

By the late eighteenth century, British settlers had pushed the Maliseet out of many of their best subsistence areas, and the traditional annual round of subsistence activities had been seriously disrupted. Reserves were established from 1876 on, although the Maliseet resisted a sedentary lifestyle for a long time. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, many Maliseets worked as loggers, stevedores, craftspeople, guides, and farm laborers. Logging and potato farming transformed the region in the 1870s. Local Maliseets, such as the several families who roamed around Houlton, Maine, also worked as house cleaners and in the mills, made baskets, and hunted, fished, and gathered foods where possible.

In the twentieth century, some old communities were abandoned, as many people congregated in a few reservations or moved off the reservations altogether. Along with other landless Indians, Maliseets formed the Association of Aroostook Indians in 1970.

Religion Guardian spirits gave people the ability to protect subsistence areas from trespass. They also gave shamans the power to cure, which they did by chanting, blowing, and possibly sucking. Sweat lodges and dances were associated with spiritual power.

Government Skilled hunters generally provided local leadership. In the seventeenth century there was a supreme hereditary chief who lived at the main village. In general, leadership was more formalized under the confederacy, with graduated civil offices and a war chief. The Maliseets were part of the Abenaki Confederacy from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid- to late nineteenth century, when the confederacy ceased to exist.

Customs The people came together in large villages in summer and dispersed into small hunting camps in winter. They preferred football, a kicking game, to lacrosse. They also played any number of dice gambling games. Herb doctors could be men or women.

Men served their prospective in-laws for at least a year before marriage. During this period, the woman made the man’s clothing and footgear. Weddings were marked by feasting, oratory, and the formal recognition of the groom’s ancestry. At least in the historical period, sexual mores were strict, and divorce was rare. Children were generally treated gently and with a high degree of freedom, at least when compared with the early French in the area. Boys could sit in council with the older men after killing their first moose. When death was expected, it was sometimes hastened by pouring cold water on the victim, who may also have been buried alive.

Dwellings Some summer villages were palisaded. They included multi- and single-family dwellings. The former were conical, pole-frame wigwams covered with birch bark; the latter, as well as council houses, were rectangular log-frame structures with birch-bark roofs. Council houses could hold up to 100 people.

Diet Farming, especially corn, was the key economic activity. Harvested corn was either stored or taken on the winter hunts. Men hunted inland animals such as moose, bear, otter, and muskrat. They also fished for salmon, bass, and sturgeon. This, with wild grapes and roots gathered by the women, made up most of the summer diet. Women also gathered fiddlehead ferns in early spring.

Key Technology Corn was stored in bark-lined pits. Various birch-bark items included canoes, containers, baskets, dishes, and boxes, some of which were decorated with porcupine quills. Cordage came from spruce roots or cedar bark. The crooked knife was an important woodworking tool. Men summoned moose with a birch-bark calling instrument. Musical instruments included boards (for beating time), drums, rattles, flageolets, and flutes.

Trade Although part of a wide-ranging network, Maliseets traded mainly among local groups. They exported corn and birch-bark products, mainly to people living to the south.

Notable Arts Many items were decorated with porcupine-quill embroidery. Maliseets made excellent ash-splint baskets and beadwork in the historical era.

Transportation Men made lightweight canoes of birch bark, moose hide, or spruce bark. They also made snowshoes.

Dress The basic dress was breechclouts for men, dresses for women, and moccasins. Furs and heavy skins were used in cold weather. Beaverskin caps protected people’s heads from the cold. There were also temporary raincoats made of birch bark.

War and Weapons War chiefs may have predated the historical era. This position was never inherited or elected. The war chief had responsibility for attracting followers for a raid. Weapons included the bow and arrow and the spear.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Houlton, Maine, had a population of around 550 in the early 1990s. At the same time, its land base was around 800 acres. It is governed by an elected tribal council.

Canadian Maliseets had a population in the early 1990s of about 2,500. New Brunswick communities include Oromocto, Devon (St. Mary’s), Kingsclear (Pilick), Woodstock, Tobique, and St. Basile (Madawaska First Nation). Nobody lives on the Quebec reserves of Whitworth (173 hectares) and Cacouna (.17 hectares), but Quebec Maliseets are members of the Malecite First Nation (Viger). Canadian Maliseets are organized into a number of nonprofit corporations.

Economy Unemployment seldom dipped below 50 percent in the early to mid-1990s. The band provides some jobs, primarily in administration, economic development, and housing projects. There is seasonal work with potatoes and blueberries.

Legal Status The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Canadian bands listed under "Government/Reservations" are federally and provincially recognized.

Daily Life State of Maine services date from 1973. Although the Houlton Band receives numerous benefits as a party to the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, such as cash, land, and access to federal services, many unaffiliated Maliseet families remain without services or recognition. Facilities in Houlton include a new tribal center. Maliseets and Passamaquoddys have long enjoyed close relations and continue to intermarry. Canadian Maliseets have largely assimilated into French society. Few people outside of New Brunswick speak the native language fluently. The Tobique Reservation operates its own school as well as shops selling locally made arts and crafts. The Wabanaki Aboriginal Music Festival is held there over Labor Day weekend. Saint-Anne Day is celebrated in July.

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