October 18, 1996 Halifax Herald

"Micmac" not offensive term to Mi'kmaq

When recently asked by a white friend if I found the term "Micmac" demeaning, I responded, “No!” The rationalization for my negative reply is this: The title has been around for more than 320 years and has for centuries been freely used, and still is, as a self-description by many of our own people; plus, it has never been implied by anyone that the word has some hidden degrading meaning.

What is the term derived from? It is an English translation of a word the Mi'kmaq used to identify themselves. And as the pronunciation is quite different from the word “Mi'kmaq,” I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the first inhabitants of eastern Canada had a name for themselves which comes closer to being pronounced "Micmac" than "Mi'kmaq."

I mention this because almost all the old documents, many of which were written by individuals who were quite proficient in the Mi'kmaq tongue, have used the term in one fashion or another. However, many who could not speak the tongue really mashed the word; the one I got the biggest kick out of was "Mick Mack."

I'll share with you this gem from a story which Marion Robertson, a Nova Scotia historical author, wrote about the first recording of the name ‘Micmac.’ The title of her book, published by the Nova Scotian Museum in 1965, is Red Earth: Tales of the Micmac, with an introduction to their customs and beliefs."

"The Micmacs were known by the early French settlers as the Souriquois, ‘the salt water men’ according to Roth in Acadia and the Acadians, to distinguish them from the Iroquois who inhabited the fresh water country. The name ‘Micmac’ was first recorded in a memoir by de La Chesnaye in 1676. Professor Ganong in a footnote to the word ‘megamingo,’ earth, as used by Marc Lescarbot remarked ‘that it is altogether probable that in this word lies the origin of the name Micmac.’

“As suggested in this paper on the customs and beliefs of the Micmacs it would seem that ‘megumaagee,’ the name used by the Micmacs, or the Megumawaach as they called themselves, for their land, is from the words ‘megwaak,’‘red,’ and ‘makumegek,’ ‘on the earth,’ or as Rand recorded ‘red on the earth’ megakumegek ‘red ground,’ ‘red earth.’

“The Micmacs, then, must have thought of themselves as the Red Earth People or the People of the Red Earth.

“Others seeking a meaning for the word Micmac have suggested that it is from ‘nigumaach,’ ‘my brother, my friend,’ a word that was also used as a term of endearment by a husband for his wife...

“Still another explanation for the word Micmac suggested by Stansbury Hagar in ‘Micmac Magic and Medicine’ is that the word megumawaach is from megumoowesoo, the name of the Micmacs' legendary master magicians, from whom the earliest Micmac wizards are said to have received their power."

Based upon my knowledge of the subject, the term "Micmac" is not offensive. But here is a term which is offensive, when it is used as means to identify our continental origins: "aboriginal." The dictionary defines “aboriginal” as meaning "belonging to," or, if you want, "indigenous." That's fine when discussing origins of a people or, for that matter, even of weeds, but there is no continent called "Aborige" to produce "Aboriginals." To me, because it can be applied even to weeds, the term aboriginal has replaced the old degrading terms that were once commonly used by Europeans to identify us: "heathens" and "savages."

There is no need to use such a term to identify us; we, the Peoples of the Americas, are Americans. However, we can't use the term "American" when identifying ourselves because the name has been appropriated by the citizens of a country which, to this day, hasn't found a name of its own to identify its citizens with, the U.S.A. Therefore, in order to distinguish ourselves from them, we have no alternative but to call ourselves Native Americans.

So why, then, has Canada christened us “aboriginal” instead of using a term which recognizes our continental origins? The answer may lie in the fact that many whites still harbour a systemic racist view of us as being of uncivilized origins, and not as a people rooted in civilization. If this is not the case, then why are the Europeans, who are the aboriginal peoples of Europe, called “Europeans,” and not “aboriginals!” As a matter of fact, only in Canada and Australia, where indigenous populations have been brutally displaced, is the term "aboriginal" widely used to identify them.

I do hope most non-Natives now accept that we are the children of great civilizations which passed down, from ancient times, valued names for our people: Mi'kmaq (Micmac), Mohawk, Maliseet, and so on. Please call us by these names, or use the following terms when talking about us collectively: First Nations Peoples, "Native Americans or even "Amerindians; or as some prefer to be called in other countries of the Americas, Native American Indians.

Personally, I've become so turned off with the term “aboriginal” that I've taken "We Were Not the Savages," which was still selling well, out of print for revision. When the book revision has been completed, and a publisher has been found, the new edition will use the term "aboriginal" only in a context which identifies rights to lands, fishing, hunting etc. Native Americans will be identified by the names mentioned.

Daniel N. Paul


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