Maliseet Indians

The Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet Indians are an Algonquian-speaking First Nation of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They are the Indigenous people of the Saint John River valley and its tributaries, and their territory extended across the current borders of New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada, and parts of Maine in the United States.

Wolastoqiyik means “People of the Beautiful River,” in Maliseet. The Maliseet (Malecite) have long been associated with the Saint John River in present-day New Brunswick and Maine. At one time their territory extended as far as the St Lawrence River.

Their lands and resources are bounded on the east by the Mi’kmaq, and on the west by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, who also spoke related Algonquian languages.

Maliseet or Malesse’jik was a Mi’kmaq word meaning “broken talkers”, “lazy speakers” or “he speaks badly,” by which the Mi’kmaq contrasted the other tribe’s language to their own. The Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq languages are closely related but distinctly different.

17th century Maliseet

At the time of European encounter, the Wolastoqiyik were living in walled villages and practicing horticulture (corn, beans, squash and tobacco). In addition to growing crops, the women gathered and processed fruits, berries, nuts and natural produce.

The men contributed by fishing and hunting.

Written accounts in the early 17th century, such as those of Samuel de Champlain and Marc LesCarbot, refer to a large Malécite village at the mouth of the Saint John River.

Later in the century, sources indicate their headquarters had shifted upriver to Meductic, on the middle reaches of the Saint John River.

The French explorers were the first to establish a fur trade with the Maliseet, which became important in their territory.  The French Jesuits also established missions where some Maliseet converted to Catholicism.

With years of colonialism, many learned the French language. The French called them Malécite, a transliteration of the Mi’kmaq name for the people.

Local histories depict many encounters with the Iroquois, five powerful nations based south and east of the Great Lakes, and the Montagnais.

Contact with European fisher-traders in the early 17th century and with specialized fur traders developed into a stable relationship which lasted for nearly 100 years.

Despite devastating population losses to European infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity, these Atlantic tribes held on to their traditional coastal or river locations for hunting, fishing and gathering, and were concentrated along river valleys for trapping.

Maliseset in the Colonial wars

As both the French and English increased the number of their settlers in North America, their competition grew for control of the fur trade and physical territory.

The lucrative eastern fur trade faltered with the general unrest, as French and English hostilities concentrated in the region between Québec and Port-Royal.

In addition, wars were carried out that reflected war in Europe. Increasing sporadic fighting and raiding also took place on the lower Saint John River.

In this period, Malécite women took over a larger share of the economic burden and began to farm, raising crops which previously had been grown only south of Malécite territory.

Men continued to hunt, though with limited success. They became useful allies to the French as support against the English. For a short period during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Malécite warriors were engaged frequently in armed conflict, becoming virtually a military organization.

18th century Maliseet

With the gradual cessation of hostilities in the first quarter of the 18th century, and with the beaver supply severely diminished, fur trading declined. There was little possibility for the Maliseet to return to their traditional ways of life.

Their style of seasonal, shifting agriculture on the river was curtailed by the encroachment of European settlers. All the while, the land was becoming well known to wealthy elites, who took advantage of the quality hunting and sport-fishing spots scattered throughout the province.

They took all the farmland along the Saint John River, which was previously occupied by the Maliseet, displacing many Aboriginal people from more than a million and a half acres of prime land.

19th century Maliseet

The Maliseet practiced some traditional crafts as late as the 19th century, especially building wigwams and birchbark canoes. They had made changes during the previous two centuries while acquiring European metal cutting tools and containers, muskets and alcohol, foods and clothing.

In making wood, bark or basketry items, or in guiding, trapping and hunting, the Maliseet identified as engaging in “Indian work.”

The Europeans developed potato farming in Maine and New Brunswick, which created a new market and demand for Maliseet baskets and containers. Other Maliseet worked in pulp mills, construction, nursing, teaching and business.

With evidence that many Maliseet suffered widespread hunger and were wandering, government officials established the first Indian reserves at The Brothers, Oromocto, Fredericton, Kingsclear, Woodstock, Tobique, Madawaska (pre-1800s), and Cacouna.

20th century Maliseet

The Maliseet of New Brunswick struggled with problems of unemployment and poverty common to Aboriginal people elsewhere in Canada, but they have evolved a sophisticated system of decision making and resource allocation, especially at Tobique.

They support community enterprises in economic development, scouting and sports. Some are successful in middle and higher education and have important trade and professional standings; individuals and families are prominent in Aboriginal and women’s rights; and others serve in provincial and federal native organizations, in government and in community development.

There were 4,659 registered Maliseet in 1996.

Maliseet Culture

The customs and language of the Maliseet are very similar to those of the neighboring Passamaquoddy (or Peskotomuhkati). They are also close to those of the Algonquian-speaking Mi’kmaq and Penobscot tribes.

The Wolastoqiyik differed from the Mi’kmaq by pursuing a partial agrarian economy. They also overlapped territory with neighboring peoples.

The Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy languages are similar enough that linguists consider them slightly different dialects of the same language.

There have been centuries of intermarriage between the Maliseet and European colonists and settlers.

Surnames associated with Maliseet ancestry include: Denis, Sabattis, Gabriel, Saulis, Atwin, Launière, Athanase, Nicholas, Brière, Bear, Ginnish, Solis, Vaillancourt, Wallace, Paul, Polchies, Tomah, Sappier, Perley, Aubin, Francis, Sacobie, Nash, Meuse. Also included are DeVoe, DesVaux, DeVou, DeVost, DeVot, and DeVeau.

Maliseet Tribes Today:

Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians (Maine) Approximately 600.

In New Brunswick, approximately 3,000 Maliseet live within the Madawaska, Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear, Saint Mary’s and Oromocto First Nations.

Viger First Nation in Quebec (About 1200)