Maliseet; Native Americans

A few years ago I had this one friend, I could have sworn he was a black-haired Italian. Well, one day I asked him what he was and he told me he was a Maliseet. I, of course, had no idea what a Maliseet was. He told me that the Maliseet was a Native American tribe. Curious that I had never heard of this tribe of Native Americans through my Geography or History classes in High school I became intrigued and decided to do research on the history of my friend.

Before Europeans stepped foot on North America, the Maliseets, pronounced MAL-uh-seet, lived along much of what today is considered the New England eastern border line between the U.S. and Canada. I thought that this fact was funny, because my friend always hated the cold and now lives in Florida, USA. After the Jay Treaty in 1974 the Maliseets were free to cross either border in North America because their villages spanned both the U.S and Canada.

The word Maliseet means “talks imperfectly” in Mi’kmaq, the native tongue of a neighboring tribe. When the Maliseet’s are speaking their own language they call themselves Wolastoqiyik in reference to the river running through their homeland. I find it funny that my friend can not even pronounce these words. At least he pronounces them as awkwardly as I do.

The nation of Maliseet was part of the Wabanaki Confederacy that held in control much of New England and the Canadian Maritimes. The Maliseet themselves originally come from the area between Maine and New Brunswick. They lived on both sides of the border because for them there was no border, until Europeans named Canada and The U.S countries. Today, most Maliseets live on the Canadian side of the border in Quebec and New Brunswick. However there is still one band that lives in Maine. My friend’s cousins are part of that band.

Like most American Indian tribes, the Maliseet live on reservations,which they own and which they have control over, within Canada and the US . Maliseet Indians in the United States call their community a "tribe." In Canada, they call themselves "First Nations." Each Maliseet tribe or First Nation has its own government, laws, police, and other services, just like a small country, however the Canadian and US governments still consider them citizens and control some of their decisions. The leader of a tribe is called "sakom" in the Maliseet language, which is translated as "governor" in Maine and "chief" in Canada. The sakom used to be chosen by tribal council members, but today he or she is popularly elected just like our governors.

In New Brunswick and Maine the Maliseets speak English. In Quebec most of them speak French. Don’t all Quebecers speak French? Some of the elder Maliseets in New Brunswick still speak their native Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language. (Two tribes, the Maliseet and the Passamaquoddy, speak the same language with different accents, just like Americans and Canadians both speak English, eh?) Some young Maliseet people are trying to learn it now too. The Maliseet language is very songlike and has complicated verbs with many parts. If you'd like to try a few Maliseet words, "tan kahk" is a friendly way of saying hello and "woliwon" means "thank you."

The Maliseets never lived in tepees. They lived in small round buildings called wigwams. Today, they only build a wigwam for fun or to connect with their past. Most Maliseets live in modern houses and apartment buildings.

The Maliseet weren’t your typical Native Americans with feathered headdresses like the Siouxor your typical Hollywood Native Americans. Sometimes they wore a headband with a feather in it or a beaded cap. They also had a distinctive kind of hood which looked a little like a fancy nun's headdress, and moccasins for their feet. They weren’t known for painting their faces; war paint. Most of the men and women wore their hair long; the women wore long dresses with detachable sleeves, and men wore breechcloths with leather pant legs fastened on. In colonial times, the Maliseets modified some European fashions such as blouses and jackets, however they decorated them with fancy beadwork to make them look more appealing to themselves. Today, some Maliseet people still wear moccasins or beaded clothing, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths.

In Canada, there is an unending conflict between natives and non-natives about Indian fishing, hunting, and logging rights. The Maliseet and Mi'kmaq people of New Brunswick have been at the core of this debate. In 1999, the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet Indians that the government treaties with their tribes gave them the right to hunt, fish, and cut trees on their fixed lands. This ruling was very unpopular with non-native fishermen, hunters, and loggers, who were used to having those harvests for themselves and didn't want to share them with the Indians. There was tension and hostility, with white New Brunswickers destroying Mi'kmaq and Maliseet fishing gear and burning a holy site. Ultimately, the situation calmed down, but many Mi'kmaq and Maliseet are still angry with their white neighbors, and issues of treaty rights and sovereignty are still touchy ones in New Brunswick.

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