Known as Maliseet to the Europeans, the Welastekwewiyik (also spelled Wolastoqiyik or Welustuk) — whose name means “people of the beautiful river” in their language — have long resided along the Saint John River in New Brunswick and Maine, and the St. Lawrence River in Québec.

Traditional Territory

Welastekwewiyik (Maliseet) traditional territory.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

The Welastekwewiyik have always lived in the Saint John River valley in New Brunswick and Maine, upward toward the St. Lawrence River in Québec and westward into present-day Aroostook County, Maine. The traditional lands and resources of the Welastekwewiyik were bounded by their allies: the Mi'kmaq to the east; and the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot to the west.

The arrival of European settlers in the 1700s and 1800s curtailed the Welastekwewiyik’s agricultural territory on the river. During the 19th century, the colonial government created reserves for the Welastekwewiyik at Oromocto, Fredericton, Kingsclear, Woodstock and Tobique. Since then, Welastekwewiyik bands have filed various land claims, some of which have been recognized by federal and provincial governments, such as the Tobique 1892 land surrender (settled in September 2016) and the Madawaska Maliseet Canadian Pacific Railway Specific Claim (settled in 2008). (See Indigenous Land Claims).

Traditional Life

Historically, the Welastekwewiyik were hunters and fishers, but they eventually also cultivated maize (corn), beans, squash and tobacco. To supplement their diet, women picked nuts, berries and fruits.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Welastekwewiyik lived in wigwams in walled villages and used natural products, such as wood, stone and ceramics to make tools, canoes, weapons and everyday utensils.

Social and Political Organization

Welastekwewiyik tribes were governed by one or more chiefs who sat on a tribal council that also included representatives of each family. As a community, the Welastekwewiyik were also members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, a group of Algonquian-speaking nations. Together, they stood united against the Five (and later Six) Nations Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) that threatened their territory and way of life. The Wabanaki Confederacy is still active today (see Abenaki).

Language

The Welastekwewiyik language (still often referred to as Maliseet or Malecite) is considered part of the Eastern Algonquian language family, which also includes the languages of the Mi'kmaq, Abenaki (in Québec), and Passamaquoddy and Penobscot (in Maine). The Welastekwewiyik and Passamaquoddy languages are very similar, with minor differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and accent; consequently, their languages are often collectively referred to as Maliseet-Passamaquoddy. According to Statistics Canada (2001), there are about 825 Welastekwewiyik speakers in Canada who identify the language as their mother tongue. An active program of scholarship on the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language takes place at the Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centreat the University of New Brunswick in collaboration with the native speakers.

Society and Culture

The Welastekwewiyik have a rich cultural heritage, similar to that of the Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq and Penobscot. Well-known for their artistry including carving, quillwork, beadwork and basket-weaving the Welastekwewiyik have created priceless pieces that speak to their history, spirituality and culture. Drumming is another important element of Welastekwewiyik culture. Used at a variety of ceremonies and celebrations, the music of the drum unites the community.


Kwa'nu'te': Micmac and Maliseet Artists, Catherine Anne Martin & Kimberlee McTaggart, National Film Board of Canada

Religion and Spirituality

Although Christian missionaries converted many Welastekwewiyik peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Welastekwewiyik have retained their Indigenous spirituality. Traditional religious and spiritual customs include smudging (the burning of sweetgrass to cleanse the spirit), healing rituals and rites of passage ceremonies, among others.

Welastekwewiyik origin stories tell the tale of Gici Niwaskw, the “Great Spirit” or Creator. Sometimes referred to as Weli-Niwesqit or Woli-Niwesqit — meaning "Good Spirit" in Maliseet-Passamaquoddy — the Creator is a benevolent and abstract being, who does not directly interact with humans. Like other Algonquian tribes, the Great Spirit in Welastekwewiyik tales is rarely personified, and oral legends did not assign the Creator a gender. While Gici Niwaskw is said to have created the entire world, the details of maintaining and transforming or taming the landscape was given to the cultural hero, Gluskabe.

Gluskabe (Glooscap or Klusklap) figures importantly in many Wabanaki and Welastekwewiyik tales. There are various versions of the story, depending on the nation. According to most Welastekwewiyik tales, Gluskabe is not a god, but a hero and a trickster who had supernatural powers and used them to manipulate the world around it, making it more habitable for the humans. For example, he tempered the winds, tamed wild animals and managed the waters. In some Welastekwewiyik legends, Gluskabe’s older, but physically smaller, brother Mikumwesu accompanies him on his adventures. The stories of Gluskabe and other cultural figures, including his grandmother, evil twin brother and more, have been passed down from generation to generation, often through oral tradition.

Colonial History

Contact with European fishermen and fur traders in the early 17th century developed into a stable relationship which lasted for nearly 100 years (see Fur Trade). Fort La Tour, built on the Saint John River in the early 1600s, became a centre for trade and cultural exchange. Despite devastating population losses to European diseases, the Welastekwewiyik held on to coastal and river locations for hunting, fishing and gathering, and concentrated along river valleys for trapping.

As hostilities between the French and English in Québec and Port-Royal intensified during the mid- to late-1600s, sporadic fighting and raiding increased on the lower Saint John. These conflicts hampered the success of the eastern fur trade. To ease the economic burden during this time, Welastekwewiyik women began to farm and raise crops which previously had been grown only south of Welastekwewiyik territory. Men continued to hunt, though with limited success, but they proved useful military allies to the French against the English during the late 17th and early 18th centuries (see Iroquois Wars). Intermarriage between French settlers and Welastekwewiyik only reinforced their alliance against the English.

In order to encourage better relations, the British Crown signed treaties of peace and friendship with the Maliseet, as well as with the Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy, between 1725 and 1779. The agreements also guaranteed Indigenous right to trade without hindrance, the right to fish and hunt in their customary manner, and the right to receive annual supplies of food, provisions and ammunition from the Crown (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties).

With the gradual cessation of hostilities in the first quarter of the 18th century, and with the beaver supply severely diminished, there was little possibility of a return to traditional lifeways. Traditional Indigenous agriculture on the river was curtailed by the coming of European settlers; all the farmland along the Saint John River, previously occupied by Welastekwewiyik, was taken, thereby displacing the Welastekwewiyik. After years of being pushed off their traditional territories, the Welastekwewiyik were forced onto reserves during the 19th century at Oromocto, Fredericton (St. Mary’s First Nation), Kingsclear, Woodstock and Tobique.

Contemporary Life

The Welastekwewiyik First Nation has six Maritime communities in Canada: Madawaska, Kingsclear, Oromocto, St. Mary's, Tobique and Woodstock. They also have one in Maine: the Houlton Band. However, there is no one organization that represents the Welastekwewiyik politically.

Welastekwewiyik First Nations actively pursue land claims, manage resource allocation (fuel, forestry, fishing and the like), participate in organizations for pan-Indigenous causes and support on-reserve businesses, including retail stores, gaming centres, gas stations and more.