The Maliseet are an Algonquian Native American/First Nations people who inhabit the Saint John River valley and its tributaries, between New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine. They were members of the Wabanaki confederacy and have many similarities with the other tribes of that group, particularly the Passamaquoddy whose language is almost identical to theirs.
The Maliseet lived peacefully, except when they had to defend themselves against attack by the Iroquois. When the Europeans arrived, Maliseet greeted them with hospitality and celebration. They accepted Christianity from the Jesuits, although their nomadic lifestyle challenged those in the missions. They were closely allied with the French, and inter-marriage was not uncommon. As a result, they came into conflict with the British settlers during the French and Indian War. Diseases brought by the Europeans and their involvement in this conflict greatly reduced their population, many of whom moved north into Canada when the British were victorious.
Contemporary Maliseet live both in Maine and New Brunswick, with free passage across the border allowing them to maintain contact. While much of Maliseet tradition has been lost, and their lifestyle has been much changed, the culture is not gone. Their language is taught to young people and their traditional tales have been recorded and are available for all to learn from. Traditional basket making flourishes in cooperation with the other Wabanaki tribes, an art that not only provides income but allows contemporary Maliseet to preserve their culture and express their creativity inspired by nature just as their ancestors did before them.
The Maliseet are also known as Wolastoqiyik, Malecite, and in French also as Malécites or Étchemins (the latter referring to a group that formerly might have been distinct but whose descendants are now counted among the Maliseet).
Wolastoqiyik is the proper name for the people and their language. They named themselves after the Wolastoq River, now commonly known as the Saint John River, on which their territory and existence were centered. Wolastoq means “bright river” or “shining river” (“wol-” = good, “-as-” shining, “-toq” = river; “-iyik” = people of). Wolastoqiyik therefore simply means “People of the Bright River” in their native language (LeSourd 2007).
Maliseet is the name by which the Mi’kmaq described them to early Europeans. Maliseet was a Mi’kmaq word meaning “broken talkers” or “lazy speakers” (Trigger and Sturtevant 1979). The Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq languages are fairly closely related, and this name reflected what the Mi’kmaq perceived as a sufficiently different dialect to be a “broken” version of their own language. The Wolastoqiyik language is closest to the Passamaquoddy (almost identical), and related to all the dialects of New England tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy.
The Maliseet occupied the border country between Maine and New Brunswick. Together with other Algonquians in New England, the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot, they formed the Wabanaki Confederacy. The territory of the Maliseet extended through the Northern part of the Saint John River valley from the mouth of the Tobique River to Fredericton, and upward toward the St. Lawrence River and westward into what is now Maine’s Aroostook County. Their neighbors to the south and west were the Penobscot, to the east and southeast with the Mi’kmaq, and to the south were the Passamaquoddy. They lived in deadly conflict with the Iroquois.
Although the Saint John River was mapped by 1558, making it probable that first contact between Europeans and the Maliseet occurred in the sixteenth century, the first recorded meeting is in the account of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage of 1604. Champlain recounted his meeting with Les Etchemons along the banks of the Saint John River, describing beaver-clad natives who greeted them with hospitality and celebration, presenting them with venison and other game, and singing and dancing all night (Hodge 1906).
The first Christian missionary to meet the Maliseet was the Jesuit Pierre Biard, who visited them from his Mi’kmaq territory in 1611-1612. In 1677 another Jesuit, Jean Morain, established a mission for the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq at Riviere du Loup on the St. Lawrence River. However, due to the Maliseet’s nomadic lifestyle, it was necessary for the missionaries to accompany them on their travels (Mooney 1910). A mission was established at Medoctec, in 1688, and re-established in 1701, by Father Joseph Aubery, who stayed in the area for the rest of his life, a period of over 50 years. Under his leadership, the Maliseet were converted to Christianity. Aubery also published significant work on the Abenaki languages, including a French-Abenaki dictionary.
When Fort La Tour was built on the river later in the seventeenth century, the Maliseet obtained the use of metal cooking vessels and tools and were taught the use of firearms. They were closely allied with the French, and inter-marriage was not uncommon. As a result they came into conflict with the British settlers who were at war with the French.
After the British gained control of the area at the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), there were disputes over the land until 1776, when land was assigned the Maliseet. This land consisted mainly of the Tobique River and a small additional tract including Medoctec, their chief settlement. In the Jay Treaty of 1794, the Maliseet were granted free travel between the United States and Canada because their territory spanned both sides of the border.
When the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812, a significant portion of the Maliseet/Passamaquoddy territory was ceded from British Canada to the United States, in what is now northern Maine.
The Maliseet customs and language are very similar to those of the neighboring Passamaquoddy (or Peskotomuhkati), and largely similar to those of the Mi’kmaq and Penobscot tribe. They also shared some land with those peoples. The Maliseet and Passamaquoddy languages are similar enough that they are properly considered slightly different dialects of the same language, and are typically not differentiated for study.
Several French and English words made their way into Maliseet from the earliest European contact. One Maliseet word also made its way into English: “Mus,” or Moose, for the unfamiliar creature the English speakers found in the woods where the Maliseet lived and had no name for in their own language.
Before contact with the Europeans, the traditional culture of the Maliseet was semi-nomadic and generally involved traveling downstream on their rivers in the spring, and back upstream in the autumn. They combined the hunter-gatherer lifestyle with agriculture. When they had finished traveling downstream in the spring, they congregated in larger groups near the ocean, and planted crops, largely of corn (maize), beans, and squash. In the autumn, after the harvest, they traveled back upstream, taking provisions, and spreading out in smaller groups into the larger countryside to hunt game during the winter. They used snowshoes or birch bark canoes for traveling (Ives 1998). Fishing was also a major source of resources throughout the year.
The Maliseet lived in a loosely structure band society, consisting of a number of families who traveled and lived together (Ives 1998). They lived in wigwams, light conical structures made of poles covered with the bark of birch trees.
Unlike most other Algonquians, the Maliseet wore hoods made from beaver skin to shield their heads from the cold winter winds. They liked to gamble, tossing pieces of stone, metal, or wood and catching them in dishes made from bark (Waldman 2006).
The Maliseet like other Algonquin people, shared a belief in Midewiwin (also spelled Midewin). With the arrival of the French, the Maliseet were converted to Christianity, but many still practiced Midewiwin or co-practice Christianity and Midewiwin.
Their traditional belief is spiritual in nature, describing both supernatural power and the possessor of such power. Their religious ceremonies are led by shamans, called Medeoulin, who possess spiritual power, similar to European witches. However, this power is not necessarily good or evil, but can be used for either (Ives 1998).
Mythological tales tell of Kluskap, the “transformer,” the Wabanaki culture hero. He is not a god, he came after the creation of the world and his contribution was to transform the world so that it would be more habitable for human beings. Kluskap appears to possess the power of medeulin, and many of the tales contain supernatural elements. There are tales of how he released the waters by killing the giant frog Aglebemu, how he tamed the winds, and defeated monsters (Ives 1998).
Maliseet, like other peoples of the region, are excellent basket makers. They use local materials such as brown ash, sweetgrass, and birch trees native to Maine to produce items both functional and decorative. This long practiced craft illustrates much of the Maliseet connection to nature, with animals and other things of creation providing inspiration for their designs.
Today, within New Brunswick, Canada, approximately 3,000 Maliseets currently live within the Madawaska, Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear, Saint Mary’s, and Oromocto First Nations.
In the United States, in the early 1970s, some Maliseet and members of other tribes not living on recognized reservations banded together to form the Association of Aroostook Indians, which eventually allowed them access to federal and state programs. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians (HBMI) has been federally recognized since October of 1980. Traditionally hunters and gatherers in the Saint John River basin, the Houlton Band now live on land bordering the Meduxnekeag River, a tributary of the Saint John. The Meduxnekeag river is prized for its brook and brown trout populations. This area provides a critical link in preserving tribal practices, traditions, and history.
There are about 650 remaining native speakers of Maliseet and about 1,000 of Passamaquoddy, living on both sides of the border between New Brunswick and Maine; most are older, although some young people have begun studying and retaining the language, and the numbers of speakers is seen to have potentially stabilized. An active program of scholarship on the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language takes place at the Mi’kmaq – Maliseet Institute at the University of New Brunswick, in collaboration with the native speakers, particularly David Francis Sr., a Passamaquoddy elder living in Sipayik, Maine. The Institute actively aims at helping Native American students master their native languages. Linguist Philip LeSourd has done extensive research on the language. His bilingual publication Tales from Maliseet Country (2007) presents the transcripts and translations of recordings made by linguist Karl Teeter in 1963. These range from stories of shamans and spiritual occurrences, through historical narratives, fictional yarns, to personal accounts of reservation life and subsistence activities.
Today, the birch bark canoes are in museums, the wigwams sold as tourist attractions, and the Maliseet live like Europeans, wearing their clothes, eating their food, and practicing their religion. But there are some aspects of their culture that have not died, and may not. Beyond efforts to teach the language and salvage the traditional tales, the art of basketry has continued and is alive among many craftspeople today, providing both income and a continuity of their culture.
In 1992, the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (MIBA) was formed to support and promote the traditional craft of basketmaking among the Maliseet and other Wabanaki tribes. Artists such as Aron Griffith and Fred Tomah feel a responsibility to maintain tribal craft traditions. Griffith makes dolls and boxes from the bark of birch trees in the traditional way, drawing his inspiration from nature with designs representing animals and plants found in the forests of Maine. Describing his Katahdin Smoke Signal Basket, Fred Tomah writes: “The four tribes of the Wabanaki consider Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain—where the sun first rises on the land, a sacred place. In homage to Katahdin, the basket derives its name.” Griffith and Tomah use traditional materials such as brown ash and sweetgrass to make functional and decorative pieces, as do other contemporary artisans from the Maliseet and related tribes. Their designs, such as Tomah’s Katahdin Arctic Butterfly Basket featured in the Smithsonian Institution, have inspired artists, anthropologists, and the general public alike with their beauty and uniqueness.