Mi’kmaw Artistic Expression pre and post European Contact

geographic distribution of various groups of indigenous North American people

Today’s post is the second in a planned series of posts discussing the artistic expression of First Nations peoples, both pre and post European contact.

One thing that is abundantly clear is that contact with European cultural influences occurred much earlier than is generally acknowledged, especially if one takes European to mean any off continent incomers and traders: on the West Coast of Canada, the Haida were more than likely influenced by Japanese and/or Chinese traders inMi"kmaq man and woman - early 19th century showing costume the lucrative sea-otter skin trade long before British explorers arrived in their latitudes in the Pacific, and fur traders arrived by  inland routes from Rupertsland. In the Far North, Inuit were in contact with Greenlanders and Icelandic men who hunted in the summer among the islands of Canada’s north and may also have traded pelts for metal objects with Inuit.


early 19th c watercolour painting - Mi'kmaq women and children

Getting back to the Atlantic Provinces, as early as the first millenium, there were Icelandic people at L’Anse aux Meadows and possibly elsewhere along the eastern seaboard, who described their contact with “skralings” as they called the indigenous peoples, whom they angered by mistrust and violence, and consequently they were no longer safe in their steadings and so gave up the idea of permanent settlement.

Not much later, Basque fishermen were to be found in the summer fishing,  and salting and drying cod in both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and also whaling off those coasts. They set up stations on the shore and worked both on land and sea. The harvest of cod actually continued right up until the collapse of the groundfish stocks some twenty  years ago, and Spanish and Portuguese trawlers still fish cod – with disastrous results on the slowly recovering fish stocks just outside the Canadian 200 mile limit.

The first more or less permanent settlement in what is now Canada was made with the establishment of a French post first on St. Croix Island on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy and then at Port Royal on the Annapolis Basin of the Bay of Fundy on the Nova Scotia side by the year 1604. The Mi’kmaq were welcoming to the French and without their help, that small French group would not have survived.

By 1620, larger groups of French settlers consisting of married couples with children were colonizing the province and again, doing so with the welcome and friendship of the Mi’kmaq people who were regarded by the French as equal partners. Early on, these peoples blended culturally and ethnically, and as can be seen by the above paintings, the Mi’kmaq costume came to resemble that of the French settlers once cloth was available to them.

It was only with the expulsion of the Acadian people that Indians came to be regarded as the enemy by the British and later as the lowest rung on the cultural ladder along with black settlers. The concept of “white man’s burden” has followed colonizing British wherever they went in their bid to establish Empire.


So we see that as early as at least the 1400’s some European influences were changing the First Nations’ peoples way of doing things.

Prior to contact, all tools and objects were made of what the land and an extensive First Nations trading network  could yield – Stone points and blades, a small amount of metal, skin clothing and bedding, and wood for sledges, snowshoes and shelters. Existence was  sophisticated and complex,  and objects and possessions were decorated and designed with an eye to pleasing shapes and patterns.
One of the first artistic expressions consisted of sketches incised on the rocks of waterways and high barren places, and at least several of these appear to have been of European sailing vessels.
Many of these rock carvings are lost beneath the high levels  of flooded waterways in the Kedgemekugic Lake system which has been built over in the last century with hydro dams, but many were documented several years ago when the system was drained for maintenance.
In addition to the rock carvings, the highly decorated ceremonial clothing and the exquisitely engineered and constructed large seagoing canoes, baskets and boxes, sledges and snowshoes  were made and as the Europeans  saw the usefulness and beauty of these items, Mi’kmaq people found a ready source of hard cash by modifying and making these items for other settlers.

birch bark box devorated with dyed porcupine quills - traditional symbols

The potato and apple industries used countless large and well made baskets; hunters and trappers and those who worked in the woods in the winter used their snowshoes; and urban markets benefitted from the summer visits of basket makers and bead and quill work decorators. Many lovely pieces left the country in the
traveling bags of British servicemen going home and entered the market in Europe a century later, having lost their provenance.


Many articles were made that would have had no parallel in pre-contact or early contact days, and I am including pictures of a magazine rack and some table mats that were clearly for the curio trade:

decorative table mats - dyed porcupine quills on birchbark, traditional geometric patterns

The magazine rack is a strong attractive piece:

Magazine rack - wood and dyed porcupine quills sewn to birch bark - probably first half 20th century

Most long established Nova Scotian households today have small sewing baskets, sweetly dyed easter baskets, and split ash gathering baskets. I have all of those items and in addition a lovely split ash basketware doll cradle that I treasure.

Given the background in skilled production of artisanal objects, artistic expression paralleled it’s 20th century development in the rest of the Atlantic provinces population – Schools of Art and Design, crafts programmes as a form of outreach to rural people in general and specifically to help bring an infusion of cash into poorer areas; and encouragement of drawing, painting and sketching in public schools opened a new form of expression that until that point had been difficult for other than middle class urban people to access. With this rise in interest in artistic expression, Mi’kmaq people, too, began to move into the area of fine art.

I will briefly mention three Mi’kmaq  artists: Alan Syliboy, Leonard Paul and  Roger Simon. They are the Mi’kmaq artists that come to mind most readily, but a whole new generation of artists is growing up throughout  Mi’kmaqi, on both sides of the border. Just Googling Mi’kmaq artist will bring you sources to explore further.
Meanwhile, click on the links below, which will bring you to works by Simon, Paul and Syliboy:
Reading through the websites you will see similarities and differences among the three men and their approach to fitting their artistic expression into their lives as aboriginal artists.
Simon, who hailed from the Big Cove area of New Brunswick and comes from a large and prominent family who have contributed to their community and the greater community of Canada, clearly was  influenced by European artists such as Gaugin and by his education in the formal setting of the School for Art and Design in Fredericton New Brunswick:

Roger Simon - Morning Offering

Simon’s paintings frequently depict clearly Aboriginal peoples in a strong but serene setting. Simon died far too young at the age of 46, cutting short his artistic development  which would have likely brought him to national prominence.
Alan Syliboy is an artist, film maker and musician who still works out of his native Nova Scotia and moves through a greater nationwide artistic environment while maintaining his focus as first and foremost a Mi’kmaq artist but one whose message of humanity is immediately clear and pertinent to all. Recently, he contributed a major work to the Antigonish People’s Place Project Public Library on Main Street in Antigonish:

Alan Syliby - mural - antigonish library "The Dream Canoe" 2011

The Library opens on June 26 at noon and there will be a guided tour of the artwork incorporated in it.

The above clipping is of the article which was in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on Friday. The initial take on this mural is a group of rural kids playing in the water on a summer’s day. On closer examination, you see that they are aboriginal children and Syliboy tells us the mural is inspired from a snapshot made on a mid-80’s visit to the Afton Reserve near Antigonish. And then you begin to look at other details and see a turtle – North America in Aboriginal mythology is called Turtle Island – there are eels – a traditional source of hunted and fished food, a whale decorated with figures and designs from Mi’kmaq traditions, and above the kids in the canoe on the waterside rock ledge are  pictographs similar to those found on rock faces as described in my text above.
Syliboy has done again what he does so well – he has made the human experience understandable to any of us who as kids were allowed to play independently in rural areas, and has focussed it through the lens of the First Nations experience without losing his non-native audience.
Finally, and unfortunately I am unable to find any usable online sources of Mr. Paul’s paintings, so I refer you to  his  website where especially I’d like you to view “Ready to Go” – the point being that Leonard Paul was very much a product of European artistic traditions coupled with the strong influence on Atlantic Canadian artists developing in the late 70’s and early 80’s, of the Magic Realism school practiced by Alex Colville, Tom Forrestal, and many many more at that time.
I recall frequently seeing a painting of an historic subject which hangs in the School of Divinity on the Acadia University campus – it is a painting – portrait if you will – of Henry Alline who was the spiritual leader of the Great Awakening or the New Light movement in the original 13 colonies (plus Nova Scotia)  of British North America in the mid 1760’s – he travelled all over British North America of that time, but the view of him on horseback is clearly recognisable as located in the Gaspereau Valley behind Acadia University and is clearly strongly influenced by magic realism.
Leonard Paul has continued to follow this style of painting, honing and developing it as clearly Canadian, but not recognisably First Nations. He lives now in western Canada.
From time to time, RedKettle will continue to have in his inventory work by Alan Syliboy and other maritime artists.
Until next time, if interested in discussing any of RedKettle’s inventory, please contact  mich@redkettle.com
Have a great week – Mich and Janet

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