Mi’kmaq Magic, Weather and Medicine

The Mi’kmaq Nation are people at Tufts Cove, Nova Scotia in Canada and their name Mi’kmaq derives from the term nikmaq, meaning “my kin-friends”. They have significant populations in Canada, United States (Maine); Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. Related ethnic groups are the Abenaki, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Mi’kma’ki divided into seven districts and the Taqamgug, the eighth district that includes the entire island of Newfoundland.

First Nations people indigenous to Canada’s Atlantic Provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec as well as the northeastern region of Maine. They call their national territory Mi’kma’ki (or Mi’gma’gi).  Stansbury Hager writings in 1896, tells of magical sides of the Mi’kmaq traditions. Micmac natural history contains many extraordinary species, all of which are credited with equally extraordinary powers. Even the ordinary varieties can accomplish hitherto unsuspected things. For instance, all animals can think and talk, and even transform themselves into women and men, whenever the occasion requires.

The birds used to talk in the same language as humans; they still understand what we say, and communicate with those people who have learned their tongue. Among  ordinary animals the bear is perhaps the most powerful and possesses the greatest magical power. When he lies upon his back, the bear is so strong that they can almost always prevent hunters from finding them. It is probable that this attribute is partly due to walking erect; but owes it chiefly to his annual power of resurrection, and the life in death which characterizes by the winter sleep.

The Chepichcaam is a horned Dragon, sometimes no larger than a worm, sometimes larger than the largest serpent. In one Micmac legend the Dragon coils around a person like a constrictor, and seeks to crush one to death. Dragon can inhabits lakes, and is still sometimes seen by those who can see. The Kookwes are a hairy giant and carries their children in a kind of pouch upon the back. Some Micmacs tell me they think Kookwes must have been a species of monkey, but the pouch at least suggests the opossum.

Mi'kmaq Star with hand burned Mi'kmaq symbols

Another remarkable animal is the Abläumooὰgit or “omen of ill-luck.” This is described as long, thin, black, and supported upon hundreds of short legs, suggesting, therefore, the centipede. When it follows after hunters, everything goes wrong with them; their provisions run short, their weapons get out of order, and no game can be found. Fire will not injure it. The only method of escaping it is by leaving behind an abundance of food and other camping material when you move camp.

The animal, seeing this, concludes that it is useless to try to annoy hunters who are so well equipped. Turning to birds, a very singular power is attributed to Kopkech, the saw-whet, or Canadian owl. Whoso imitates the rasping cry of this bird of evil omen will have his clothing burned before morning, for Kopkech carries a torch, with which he always manages to avenge his outraged dignity.

When we consider beings supposed to be human, we come to the Wiggulaadumooch-k, or little people, whose footsteps may sometimes be heard in the forest on a still day, though they themselves are rarely seen. They are especially strong in magical power, and will sometimes impart this to the Micmac who wins their friendship. Once in a while, in the woods, one will observe stones piled together so as to make a little house. If you move them and go away, when you return you will find them placed just where they were before you touched them. You will also see numerous little footprints, which, if you follow them, will lead you to some hole in a rock, where they will terminate. If you see these little people and associate with them, they will make you small like themselves, but you will not notice the change. You will resume your proper size as soon as you leave them.

One Micmac atookwokun, or old story, relates how, one day long ago, a girl was bathing in a stream, when she perceived a curious object drifting down on the current. It turned out to be a tiny canoe containing an equally tiny man. Much interested in her discovery, she took the canoe and its passenger in her hand and carried them home with her. When her parents saw what she had brought they were frightened, and told her to take her little man back where she had found him and let him go at once.

Mi'kmaq women at Bay St. George, Newfoundland - 1859But she was loathe to part with her discovery, and wept at the thought of it. She took the little man out of the wigwam and spent some time playing with him. Finally, however, she obeyed her parents’ and set him again adrift at the very spot where she had picked him up. Soon the tiny canoe came to a rapid, and seemed in great danger of being swamped. The girl was very much alarmed, and followed after as fast as she could, but the little man guided it skillfully through the dangerous spot into the smooth water beyond. Before he passed out of sight he promised the girl that he would come back again, so every day she went down to the river to look for him.

Once she was picking berries with several companions, when she observed a dozen little canoes coming up the river. The foremost canoe was occupied by her former captive, the head chief. The little people quickly landed, and cooked a meal there. Then they told the girls that they would take them across the stream in their canoes, if they wished to go. But the girls only laughed at the little people, for how could they cross in canoes that they could carry in the palms of their hands? The little people coaxed, but the girls only laughed again.

At length the chief asked his former captor to step in his canoe. Willing to humor him, she did so. Lo and behold, the instant she put foot in it, both canoe and chief grew as large as any ordinary canoe and chief. But to her companions she seemed to have grown small. Presently she persuaded them to enter the other canoes, and when they did so their experience was the same as hers. The little people then paddled the whole party across the stream, and as soon as the girls stepped ashore the canoes and their occupants seemed to shrink back to their former size.

Where there are dwarfs there are giants, also, as a matter of course. Such is the Chenoo, a terrible frost giant, with heart of ice; and there are other less objectionable varieties. Spirits, too, are numerous. Some dwell on large rocks in the forest, and must be propitiated by offerings of food, etc., when you pass. Some busy themselves chopping down trees, and you can often hear the sound of their invisible axes and see the tree fall, but very seldom see them. This variety is called the Wegooaskunoogwegit. They also will grant any request to one who sees it or even to one who merely jumps over the tree immediately after it falls!

Others, again, surround the solitary traveler, and play all kinds of pranks upon him, such as frightening the moose he is hunting, or driving away the fish. These spirits sometimes reveal themselves to people, and can be controlled by booöin. One pretty legend relates how such a being appeared to a hunter in the woods and became his wife, but disappeared again when he quitted the forest. Being once propitiated and brought under control, these beings will perform for their master many feats beyond human ability.

So far as I have heard, magic powers may be obtained in three ways:

It may be imparted by the little people, as already mentioned, or by the discovery of a certain mystical herb, of which more hereafter. But generally, when a Micmac wishes to gain this power, he or she must, while keeping the object a secret, go into the woods alone and dwell there. Camp must be constructed to shelter two, and in all the equipment, they must likewise provide for two. Even at meals they must set apart an equal share for an expected visitor.

At length, one will find the food already cooked, upon when returning to camp, and soon after they will begin to observe a faint and shadowy being flitting in and out of the wigwam. Gradually they will see this being more and more clearly, until it grows as plainly visible as any person. Then the two become friends and companions, and the Micmac will receive the gift of magic power. Thenceforth, one can understand the language of animals and birds, and converse with them; and assume any shape of bird, or fish; and can walk through fire without being burned, through water without being drowned, through the earth without being suffocated; or can translate the self through the air with the quickness of thought.

Moreover, one can become the elements, to say nothing of walking upon the surface of the water, or sitting upon it with legs crossed. Indeed, the power of these magicians / sorcerers are thought to be almost limitless, these are the powers only given to birth shamans, not ordinary members.

Niniskamijinaqik Ancestral Images The Mi'kmaq in Art and Photography 4

Booöin appears to be the general name for magic power and all possessors of it; but the one who does master it, therein is known as a Megumoowèsoo, while a less powerful magicians / sorcerers is a Bisanatkwetch. These magicians / sorcerers are said to be much less numerous and powerful now than of old, but there are still, according to my Micmac informants, several Megumoowèsoos dwelling on the summits of high hills and mountains in the almost unexplored region around Cape North, Island of Cape Breton.

For these beings, it seems, are equally fond of solitude and of high places. Even ordinary people or magicians / sorcerers can discover lost articles, and cause almost anything to disappear. By taking any household article in their hands they can describe its owner, and discover both his present whereabouts and what he is doing (what seers can do). But only the megumoowèsoo knows the future which makes her or him a shaman. The prophetic powers extend forward seven years and sometimes more.

The original megumoowèsoo was distinguished by a single red feather, jeegown, which one would wear on the head. The earliest Micmac Sorcerers are said to have received their power from him, hence the name of the tribe, Megumawaach. Snakes were his only food. He had seven sons, and, according to one tradition, Glooscap, the youngest of these, inherited the magical power. Individual feats of magic are related in great variety, some ascribed to people still living, some even as witnessed by the speaker. Many were attributed to James Paul, who died recently. When Wobik, or White-Eyes, a very reprehensible old Micmac, pretended to be converted, the priests took away his medicine bag and threw it into the sea. But the next morning, they say, it was under his head as usual, and it returned to its place as often as they removed it.

Another marvel is said to have occurred many years ago near the pretty shore of Greenpoint, opposite Digby. Here, before a group of his companions, a Micmac, suddenly giving a terrible shout, danced in a most astonishing way, for at each step he drove his leg into the solid earth up to his knees. The footprint steps remained until a few years ago in earth on which oxen make no impression, so Abram Glode, a very reliable Micmac, tells me. This dance seems to have occurred in several localities; it is mentioned by Leland.

There are a few articles possessing magic power in themselves. Such is the divining pipe, in which blood will appear whenever any of its owner’s friends or relatives are murdered; the woltes, or dish filled with water and used for divination; the wand or stick which Coolpijote, ruler of the seasons, gives to those who turn him over. Glooscap also had a magic bell, spesoon, to which tiny tinkling shells or bits of metal were attached. This, when loaned to men, made them irresistible as lovers.

Niniskamijinaqik Ancestral Images The Mi'kmaq in Art and Photography 2Perhaps the most interesting part of Micmac magic is connected with the mystic and medicinal herbs. Seven of these boiled together in water constitute a magical healing potion of great potency. The ingredients of this are:

Alum bark (wikpӗ) bark
Hornbeam (owӗlikch) bark
Beeches (sooömooseel) bark
Wild willow (elemojeechmokse) bark
Wild black cherry (wāgwŏnŭminokse) bark
Ground hemlock (kastuk) root
Red spruce (kowotmonokse) root.

All these ingredients must be gathered in the Autumn, otherwise the mixture will be worthless. Moreover, they must be gathered in the order given. The bark of the first five is used, and the roots of the last two. The trunk of every tree is divided into four sections supposed to face the sun between sunrise, at dawn, noon, sunset, and midnight. In the forenoon one should cut the bark from the direction of sunrise as far as the direction of the sun at noon, but no farther. This is the most propitious quarter, hence medicine gathered from it will yield the best results.

In the afternoon cut from the noon point to the sunset point. This quarter is propitious, though less so. Bark gathered from the other two quarters or from the right quarter at the wrong time is at least useless, often poisonous. For the sunlight purifies the sides it touches, but the shadow is hostile to life. The roots should extend from the trunk towards the propitious side.

This medicine is used both externally and internally. There is another, the most powerful of all known in Micmac materia medica. This consists of a mixture of seven such compounds as the one just described. It therefore contains forty-nine ingredients. I will omit them at present. The association of the ubiquitous Micmac number seven with healing power, light and shadow, the seasons and the cardinal points, brings us into contact with mythology of world-wide distribution, in which terrestrial health, order, harmony are dependent on like ideas associated symbolically with the sun and other heavenly bodies.

Magic herbs associated with like ideas appear among several southern tribes, but, so far, I have not been able to find them farther north. In the Navajo Mountain Chant, the Great Spirit commands one to take four sprays from different parts of a tree. These form a magic potion. The Hopis of Tusayan, according to Dr. Fewkes, used in a charm six plants of the colors of the cardinal points. Among the Zuni, the “seven-hued lilies of Te-net-sa-li” were held in high esteem for medicinal virtues, but it was necessary to gather them at a certain time.

In Ireland, healing herbs must be gathered at the proper time of the moon. The British Druids, or their successors, are said to have exalted the virtues of a magic potion made by boiling together five plants gathered “with due observation of planetary hours.” A few drops were administered to those seeking initiation, and enabled them to see all futurity. In the Chaldean Deluge Legends the herbs are cut by sevens; Izdubar is purified seven times; one herb is held sacred to Nusku, the noonday sun, and the shadow of another is called unpropitious.

Doll, Mi'kmaqBut perhaps the most interesting of Micmac magical herbs is that known as Mededeskooi, or, as the Micmacs translate it, “rattling plant,” because its three leaves strike each other constantly with a sound like that of the rattlesnake. I have not been able to identify the plant, nor can I positively assert that it really exists. I have met but one Micmac who claimed to have seen it, and generally the Micmacs are reluctant to talk about it, because of its highly mystical associations.

But it is certainly strongly suggestive of the Pasaw, or rattlesnake root, of the Creeks, already referred to, which occupies the same pre-eminence, and gives its name to the whole magic decoction used at initiations. The Micmacs describe the plant closely  resembling the wild turnip. It stands about knee high, with leaves about eight inches long, like those of the poplar. Its root is the size of one’s fist, and the stalk is surrounded by numerous brownish yellow balls as large as buckshot. Others describe the plant as being much smaller.

Stephen Bartlett, who thinks he saw the plant, buried some of the yellow balls, but next morning they and the plant had disappeared. As Stephen admits, however, that he did not go through any of the ceremonies necessary in approaching the plant, he is considered a doubtful authority, even by himself. To find the plant, one must first hear the bird called Cooasoonech (“dwelling in old logs”) singing in an interval in the forest, otherwise the plant is invisible.

This bird is brown and very small, but is chosen chief of all the birds because she is quickest and can hide in the smallest holes. She is sometimes called booöin, “the magician,” from his aptitude for quick disappearance, and his ability to fly through fire without being injured. When she sings, one should follow her at once, although, like the mystic songster and through the forest depths, leaving one at last lost and forlorn. But the fortunate one will at length hear the rattling leaves of the magic plant as they approaches it, then the plant itself will soon be seen.

Now the plant is inhabited by the spirit of a rattlesnake, which comes forth as they near the plant, and circles around it. One must pick up the serpent, which will then disappear without harming. These tests of perseverance, self-control, and courage are all I have heard, but there may be others. The plant must be divided in four portions, of which three may be taken, but one must be left standing. The three parts are scraped and steeped and a portion worn about the person. Some say that, divided in seven parts, this medicine will cure seven diseases, but the great majority believe that it will cure any disease and gratify any wish.

The rattlesnake which accompanies the plant brings it at once into touch with the mysteries in all parts of the globe. The same species is associated by the Micmacs with a dance which they used to perform only at night. This dance was mystical in a marked degree, and was connected with the Pleiades.

Niniskamijinaqik Ancestral Images The Mi'kmaq in Art and Photography 1

Weather & Seasons in Micmac Mythology
Pierrot Clemeau, a famous Micmac story-teller, asserts that the tribe has always been able to control its weather supply by the appropriate use of certain legends. Directions are as follows: To bring rain or warm weather, talk of whales, or relate a legend describing the migration of the birds and the alternations of the seasons, such is the curious confusion of cause and effect.

Several other legends will produce like results, and in general any discussion of old times has a tendency to cause wet weather. To bring cold or dry weather, among several legends that of Umtil, or fair Weather, is especially efficacious. When we turn to Micmac thunder legends, we meet with some more familiar features. The thunders are seven flying rattlesnakes who dwell in the west under a mountain seven miles high. They cause the thunder by crying to each other, and rattling their tails as they fly across the sky. For every now and then they mount to the top of the mountain in the west, put on a magic cloak called Minoos, and start out through the air hunting serpents, which with frogs formed their only food.

Their sight is so strong that they can perceive the serpents hiding in the ground under trees. Then they leap upon their victims, cutting them into pieces, and we see the flash of the lightning. Having quickly collected their prey, they return to their homes on the third or seventh day. In the latter period they pass over the entire world. Thus we find among the Micmacs the same Cloud Serpent (or Dragon) which is so conspicuous in the mythology of the southern tribes, but here it plays a subordinate role. This myth seems to have been generally known among the Algonquin tribes and among the Iroquois and Shawnees. As for Micmac weather proverbs, I have learned three:

If the stars appear closer together than usual, there will be a storm.
If partridge feathers grow long, there will be a severe winter.
When fireflies first appear, birch bark will peel well.

Mi'kmaq Tribe Symbols - Mi'kmaq Star bag

Mi'kmaq means my kin-friends

Source: Written by Stansbury Hager in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1896, entitled Micmac Magic and Medicine. It tells of magical creatures and remedies, and attempts to relate these Mi’kmaq traditions to other American native cultures. Via the blog at http://JohnWood1946.wordpress.com

3 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s