A Mi’kmaw History
Step back in time...
Welcome to one of Canada’s most unique places – a park of great natural beauty that echoes with the footsteps of ancient history.
While Kejimkujik has been a popular national park for more than four decades, its importance to the Mi’kmaw people is based on millennia of ancestral history. For many centuries, this particular part of Nova Scotia where Kejimkujik now lies was a place of encampments, fish weirs, hunting territories, portages, trails, and burial grounds.
A cultural landscape is a geographic area that includes both cultural and natural resources associated with a historic event or group of people. The cultural landscape at Kejimkujik attests to the presence of the Mi’kmaq since time immemorial, and the presence of the petroglyphs lends a silent voice to the lives of those who made their home in this area.
Kejimkujik is a national historic site and the land is the keeper of the stories and the memories of the Mi’kmaq of long ago. Here the rivers tell of the canoes that passed this way and many shoreline areas tell of the camps built for millennia by the early Mi’kmaw. Even the rocks along the lakeshores have stories upon them.
The Early People
Mi'kmaq man and wigwam © Parks Canada
The earliest known traces of human occupancy in Atlantic Canada date back more than ten thousand years. Evidence of this is found in Debert, Nova Scotia. We refer to these people as ‘Palaeoindians,’ the Saqiwe’k L’nuk. They came into the Maritimes around the end of the last great ice age, following large game animals such as the caribou as they expanded into the land revealed by the retreating glaciers.
The earliest evidence of people in the Kejimkujik area dates to about 3000-4000 years ago. This time period is called the Late Archaic, the Mu Awsami Saqiwe’k. Exciting new discoveries along the Mersey River, south of Kejimkujik, indicate that earlier Archaic people used these waterways as much as 6000 years ago. Here they lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place as they followed the cycle of the seasons in search of food and resources. Over the millennia they developed the distinctive culture, traditions, and language of today’s Mi’kmaq.
The Stopping Place
Mi'kmaw people and traditional canoes © Parks Canada
With its abundance of caribou, moose, freshwater fish, and other staple foods, the Kejimkujik area made an ideal living site for part of the year. Other parts of the year were spent at the coasts gathering saltwater fish and shellfish. The Mi’kmaq used the complex system of rivers and lakes as they traveled between the south and north coasts, with Kejimkujik a regular stop at the center of the network.
Mi'kmaq artifacts © Parks Canada
Fishing weir site © Parks Canada
Because the Mi’kmaq lived in harmony with nature, they left very little imprint on the land. However, careful research has uncovered the remains of seasonal camps, burial grounds, fish weirs, portages, and trails, whose traces are still present throughout Kejimkujik. In all, over 60 sites have been identified in this area, dating between the Late Archaic and Colonial periods. Numerous artifacts have also been recovered from within the national park and national historic site. All of these provide vital clues to the nature of the cultural landscape of the area.
History Written in Stone
Mi'kmaq petroglyphs © Parks Canada
The most noticeable traces left by the early Mi’kmaq are the engravings they created in the glacially polished slate outcrops found at several locations around lakeshores. Referred to as ‘petroglyphs’ (carvings in stone), these images are an invaluable resource for understanding the history and lives of the Mi’kmaw ancestors. There are over 500 individual petroglyphs within Kejimkujik National Historic Site, making it one of the largest collection of such images in eastern North America. These petroglyphs are a unique and important component in the cultural landscape.
Petroglyph image of peaked hat © Parks Canada
Perhaps some of the most important images portray men and women wearing the traditional clothing of the time. In some cases, these images show highly detailed double-curve designs decorating the clothing. Foremost among these images is the unique peaked hat traditionally worn by Mi’kmaw women. Over 60 petroglyphs depict these peaked hats, suggesting the importance of women in Mi’kmaw society.
Petroglyph image of porpoise hunt by canoe © Parks Canada
Several culturally unique images depict the distinctive Mi’kmaw ocean-going canoe. Built with raised sides, and sometimes rigged with a small sail, this type of canoe was designed for use at sea, and it is seen in several petroglyphs in pursuit of porpoises and other large mammals in the ocean. Another remarkable group of images bear the signatures of the artists written in Mi’kmaw script. While theirs was primarily an oral culture, Mi’kmaw Elders tell of a seldom used written language, and the Kejimkujik petroglyphs provide some of the only surviving examples.