Someone Before Us . . .

Since the beginning, Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq have lived and worked in the area now known as Queens County.  While possessing distinct languages and cultures, the two nations share a common physical, intellectual, and spiritual bond with the land.  New Brunswick waters, lands and forests provided an abundance of food, materials and medicines. The vast network of waterways and familiar portage routes provided swift communication for much of the year, uniting aboriginal peoples and allowing contact with neighbouring nations on the North American coast.   Wolastoqiyik settled close to the river Wolastoq; Mi’kmaq along the tidal zones of the eastern shore of New Brunswick. The lakes and rivers at the heart of present-day Queens County created a natural transportation and cultural crossroads.

Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq were expert artisans in woodworking, pottery, canoe building and tool making.  Skilled technologists produced the durable, practical and reliable products needed to maintain their active lifestyle. A strong storytelling tradition provided cultural continuity through the sharing of stories, songs, history, personal experiences and social commentary. By the 19th century, however, European settlement and changing technologies disrupted the traditional way of life for the aboriginal population of New Brunswick.

Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq, from the time of their earliest ancestors, developed a way of life ideally suited to the environment of the Maritime region.  They knew their surroundings well and based their knowledge on lifelong observations.  They were always able to tap the most plentiful species of fish and game, grains and seeds, fruits and vegetables.

Pottery sherds

pottery sherds

Pottery shards, stone tools and implements recovered from the local area evoke an appreciation of day to day life.  Clay pots were used for cooking or for storing food and water.  Arrow and spearheads, axes and scrapers reveal a sophisticated and changing society.  Where the items are found suggest the location of camp or community sites.  Implements used to shape and refine other tools convey a highly skilled and inventive people.  Tools made from non-local stone indicate a vast trading and communication network.   And when people make by hand everything they use, the objects often have the qualities of works of art.

Some of the only decorative work surviving from ancient times is that found on pottery.  Pots made from local clay were enhanced with decoration applied with tools of wood, bone, antler or stone.  The decorating tool might be carved with little teeth or wrapped with cord, pressed into the wet clay, dragged across the surface, or rocked back and forth in a zigzag pattern.  Patterns created changed over time and can identify certain periods.  With European contact came the end of traditional ceramic technology as the fragile clay pots were replaced with more durable ones of metal.

First Nations cultures have long made objects that are practical, meaningful and aesthetically pleasing using a variety of complex techniques.  Each finely worked piece is testimony to knowledge that goes back thousands of years. Europeans brought new materials and new tools, and aboriginal peoples quickly adopted the ones they found useful and attractive. Many of the old skills and crafts survived, however, because they met people’s needs better than European techniques.  From these beautifully detailed objects, it is clear Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq strove for excellence in workmanship and maintained an emotional and spiritual connection with what they made.

Quill work box, c. 1850

Mi’kmaq or Wolastoqiyik, quill work box, c. 1850

First Nations used many ingenious methods to make and decorate household items.  Common examples were curves, geometrical designs or pictures of animals that had special cultural significance for the person making or using them.  From these patterns and designs developed the double-curve motif, which is the most popular form used today.  Clothing was made by women from furs or tanned hides.  Needles could be made from bones with sinew used to sew skins and hides and spruce root for birch bark.  Birch bark was used in making all kinds of containers from cooking pots to plates to boxes and baskets, as well as in wigwam and canoe construction.  Birch bark might be painted or decorated with designs by scraping away the darker underside of the bark to expose the lighter bark underneath.  Weaving materials included reeds, cattails, quills and even moose hair.  First Nations people were weaving with plant fibres long before European contact, but the production of woven splint baskets may have been introduced by the new settlers.  Quill work, a painstaking task, was probably first developed by Mi’kmaq women about the time of European contact, and then later adopted by other aboriginal craftspeople to the west.

Queens County Heritage has a large collection of archaeological and historical objects ranging from stone tools to pottery sherds to basketry and quill work. The items provide insight into the history and life experiences of local First Nations, and demonstrate the creativity and vitality of those that came before us.  For more information on the collection of First Nations objects, visit the Someone Before Us exhibition at the Tilley House or contact us at info@queenscountyheritage.com.

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