Cultural Landscapes

Roger Lewis and Trudy Sable

Since the 1800s, various maps of the seven Mi’kmaw traditional districts (eight with Newfoundland) have been produced. These districts were thought to reflect the governance structure of the Mi’kmaq, with headmen (Saqmaq) representing each district. District maps seen on websites and in publications today, are largely based on the description of these districts by Father Pacifique, a Capuchin Missionary to the Mi’kmaq in the late 19th and early 20th century, and Harry Piers, curator at the Nova Scotia Museum in the early twentieth century. To date there had been little critical analysis done on how and when the boundaries to these districts became mapped, and, more importantly, what these boundaries represented.

Based on the hypotheses put forward by Roger Lewis, Curator of Mi’kmaw Culture and Heritage, Collections and Research Unit, Nova Scotia Museum, Mr. Lewis and Dr. Trudy Sable undertook important and overdue research into the seven traditional districts of the Mi’kmaq (now eight with the addition of Newfoundland). With geomatics expertise from William Jones, and assistance from some of our student researchers (e.g., Justin Lewis and Matt Meuse), we critically re-examined and mapped the delineation of these boundaries from a physiographic and cultural landscape point of view. Our work to date, illustrates that these districts most likely reflect a post-contact, colonial geo-political interests and do not reflect the actual cultural landscapes of the Mi’kmaq as they lived and traveled within them for perhaps thousands of years prior to contact. Rather, we are proposing that these districts were based on natural physiographic features such as watersheds, river systems, climatic conditions, and geological formations that influenced critical land use practices within the various ecosystems throughout Mi’’kma’ki, the land of the Mi’kmaq.

Furthermore, these boundaries were “adjustable” rather than fixed depending on populations of Mi’kmaq at any given time, as well as physiographic and climatic conditions affecting wildlife, fish, and plant populations.

According to Lewis and based on the research, the following districts would most likely have been the naturally existing ones:

  • Kespek (‘end or land’) is comprised of the St. John’s River Valley and the Appalachian Mountain Range of northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé area of Quebec.
  • Epekwitk aq Piktuk (Prince Edward Island – ‘cradled above water’ and (aq) Pictou –‘explosion place’) is comprised of P.E.I. and the lowland area along the Northumberland Strait, and separated from the Shubenacadie District by the Cobequid Highlands and the Pictou and Antigonish Highlands.
  • Sɨpekne’katik/Sɨkɨpne’katik (Shubenacadie – ‘area of wild potato/turnip’) is comprised of the Shubenacadie District and the Minas Basin Coast
  • Kespukwitk (‘end of flow’) includes the area west of the La Have River to Yarmouth/Cape Sable in South/southwestern Nova Scotia.
  • Unama’kik (a variation of the word, Mi’kma’kik meaning ‘Mi’kmaw territory’) Cape Breton
  • Siknikt (‘drainage area’) includes the Miramichi River and the Acadian Coast and Bay of Fundy Region
  • Eskikewa’kik (translation uncertain at this time) comprised of the portion of Atlantic Coastal Region for the western portion of Nova Scotia west of Sheet Harbour to Canso.
  • Ktaqmkuk (‘across the waves/water’) Newfoundland (Bernie Francis translation and transliteration in, Sable and Francis, 2012:11-13)

Through this critical re-examination, we provide a number of maps reflecting the various physical and cultural factors that influenced how the Mi’kmaq realistically related with their environment prior to contact and colonization. We also explored the effects of colonization and settlement of foreigners on the Mi’kmaw lands, and the shift in settlement patterns up to 1870, including the creation of reserve lands. As noted by Lewis, current day communities are still within their traditional districts, but obviously far more restricted in terms of territory for resource use and generally designated to the less productive areas of land within these traditional districts.

Further References:

Lewis, Roger and Trudy Sable.  “Mi’kmakik Teloltipnik L’nuk— How the People Lived in Mi’kmakik.”  In, Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience. Roderick Wilson and Christopher Fletcher, eds.  Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sable, Trudy and Bernie Francis. The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki. Sydney, N.S.: Cape Breton University Press and Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus Publishing, March, 2012