MI'KMAW DAILY LIFE
- SHELTER AND IMPLEMENTS

 

SHELTER

The most common shelter used by the Miíkmaq was the wigwam*. There were basically two types: the smaller cone-shaped style, which could hold 10-12 people, and the larger oval variety, which could hold as many as 24 occupants. In both cases, the structure is based on a pole frame, covered with birch bark or, more rarely, hides. Because of the effort required to harvest birchbark, the coverings were usually carried from location to location.

A Mi'kmaw wikuom at Kejimkujik

To construct a conical wigwam, the women would cut 4 or 5 long spruce poles, which were lashed at the top to form the basic frame. A flexible sapling, often striped maple, was then bent into a hoop, which was lashed inside the frame for extra support at the top. Shorter poles were then lashed to the hoop to provide greater strength and support for the covering. The frame was made so that the planned doorway faced away from prevailing winds of the area.

Once the frame was completed, it was covered with pieces of birch bark. The bark was soaked in warm water to make it flexible and resistant to tearing, and holes were punched using an awl made from bone or an animalís tooth. The bark was sewn into place using spruce root, which is very flexible and tremendously strong. They would start at the bottom of the wigwam, at both edges of the doorway, and overlap the pieces as they worked around to the back. They would then begin the next row. In this way, the bark overlapped like shingles to shed both rain and wind. An opening was left at the top for smoke to escape, but a separate collar of bark was made to close up this opening in the event of a storm. Finally, additional short poles were laid against the bark to help keep it in place, and the doorway was covered with a hide.

Inside the wigwam, a rock fireplace stood in the center to provide heat and light. The floor was generally covered with fir boughs, which provided a springy surface for sleeping. In the winter, there would be time enough for the women to decorate the wigwam with various designs of birds, moose, otters and beavers. If additional ventilation was required, short poles would be wedged under the pieces of bark, creating openings to capture the breeze.

Besides the wigwam, other more make-shift structures included lean-tos and snow shelters consisting of hollows covered with fir branches and containing a central fire.

TOOLS AND IMPLEMENTS

The Mi'kmaq worked stone into various tools, including scrapers, points, knife blades, axes and adzes. Stone was either knapped (flaked by controlled pressure) or was pecked (struck with a harder stone and chipped) and ground into the desired shape. Some examples of stone implements are shown below, from various timeframes. They also made extensive use of bone, which is more easily shaped, but does not hold an edge as long.

 

Paleo tools recovered at Debert
(ca 10,000 years old)
Archaic period stone axe
(ca 2500-5000 years old)
Woodland period points
(ca 500-2500 years old)

The Mi'kmaq were also expert basket weavers. They used wood splints pounded from ash logs, which they wove into sturdy but light-weight containers. These baskets, which could be very highly ornamented, were in high demand by Europeans in the 1800s. They also used birchbark and wove rushes to make containers of various types, and even experimented with pottery, which was not easily transported and soon fell out of use. Examples of recent basketry, and some recovered potsherds, are shown below.

 

Modern examples of Mi'kmaq basketry Potsherds recovered from various sites


*The dwelling used by the Mi'kmaq was properly called a wigwam, from the Mi'kmaw word 'wikuom.' However, today in common usage the words wigwam and tepee are used interchangeably, even though the two structures are quite distinct:

  • A wigwam is a dwelling which has a framework made of poles, which may or not be conical (the Mi'kmaq had an oval wigwam for larger families,) and which is covered with bark, or perhaps brush, thatch or woven reeds. The structure is common to the First Nations peoples of the Eastern Woodland region. The structures were generally fairly small, since they were constructed within forest clearings and other restricted spaces, and since the materials were carried from one seasonal site to the next by canoe or by hand.
  • A tepee is a dwelling constructed by the people of the Plains areas. These were similar to conical wigwams, but generally were much larger, since the plains were quite open, and tepees were covered with hides rather than plant materials.

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Updated: 27 Mar 2016 Print Page