Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Amelecite, Etechemin, Malecite, Marisiz, Saint John River Indians, Wδlastδkwiyδk


Identification. The Maliseet are an American Indian group located in New Brunswick and southern Quebec in Canada and northern Maine in the United States. The name "Maliseet" appears to have been given by the neighboring Micmac to whom the Maliseet language sounded like faulty Micmac; the word "Maliseet" may be glossed "lazy, poor or bad speakers." The term the Maliseet use for themselves, Wδlastδkwiyδk," is derived from the name they gave to the St. John River, in the drainage area of which they dwell; it means "people of the St. John River" or, more exactly, "people of the beautiful, good, pleasant river."

Location. The ancestors of the Maliseet (the sixteenthand seventeenth-century Etechemin) occupied not only the St. John River drainage region but also the west shore of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, as well as the rivers flowing into it south to about the sixty-eighth meridian. During the 1600s and 1700s the Etechemin or Maliseet shared use of the south shore of the St. Lawrence River with the Micmac, the Montagnais, and the Abnaki upstream to near Quebec City. Today the Maliseet live primarily in New Brunswick, northern Maine, and southeastern Quebec and form one language group with the Passamaquoddy who live to the south in Maine near the New Brunswick border. The Region is one of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, interspersed with rivers, streams, and interconnected lakes. Intervales along the St. John River provided the opportunity for some horticulture from the late 1600s on. Precipitation is generally abundant throughout the year. In the interior, it is hot and humid in summer, cold and snowy in winter, with less extreme weather along the Bay of Fundy and to a lesser degree along the St. Lawrence.

Demography. In 1612 the Etechemin numbered less than 1,000, and their numbers declined greatly in the 1600s and 1700s, owing to epidemics and the loss of traditional lifeways. Early in the 1970s, 1,812 Maliseets were enumerated on official band lists, representing a steady increase since around 1870. Better employment opportunities attracted Maliseets to southern New England during World War II, although many families have since returned to New Brunswick.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Maliseet speak a language of the eastern subdivision of Algonkian. The Abnaki (Penobscot) of Maine and Quebec (St. Francis Abnaki) speak Languages closest to that of the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy.

History and Cultural Relations

There has been much intermarriage between the Maliseet and the neighboring Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot and, since the early historical period, the French in Maliseet communities in northern New Brunswick and Quebec as well. Elsewhere Maliseet intermarriage with neighboring English-speaking persons has continued since the 1830s. Since White contact, relations among the Maliseet and their Algonkian-speaking neighbors have generally been peaceful. The Mohawk were their traditional enemies. Contact with Europeans dates to at least the mid-sixteenth century, with more or less continuous contact with the French since the seventeenth century. The Maliseet allied with the French against the British, although in the revolutionary war they sided with the British. Because of this support, the Maliseet were granted the first reserve established in Atlantic Canada. With the arrival in New Brunswick of Loyalists from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states in 1783, the Maliseet were displaced from several areas of traditional settlement along the St. John River. Encroachment on other lands by later White settlers led to further problems of access to traditional hunting territories.

When reserves were established, most were too small to accommodate the full range of traditional economic pursuits and the Maliseet were forced into the White economic world, becoming more and more dependent upon income from wage labor and the tourist trade and White products. Today the Maliseet live on six reserves along the St. John River in New Brunswick and off reserve at numerous places in Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick.


In the early historical period settlement patterns varied seasonally. Winters were spent in family hunting bands, composed of a few adult males plus their wives, children, and occasionally other dependent kin; band composition varied from year to year. Each spring, family bands returned to one or more intervales along the St. John River and formed larger fishing, gathering, and horticultural communities. The location of these communities varied in the historical period, but Medoctec is viewed by the Maliseet as their ancient village and Ekwpahak as a second important summer settlement. With the arrival of Roman Catholic priests the Maliseet settled near newly established mission stations, giving rise to St. Basile and Kingsclear as areas of Maliseet concentration.

With the establishment of reserves in the nineteenth century, and with the arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants and a greater number of priests and Catholic churches, the Maliseet reserve communities acquired a more permanent character. Opportunities both for the sale of crafts and for wage labor in the larger European settlements made the lower St. John River areas as well as the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at Cacouna most attractive. By the early twentieth century most Maliseet families had moved to a reserve. A countertendency, however, had occurred at Woodstock and Tobique where families associated with these reserves moved to northern Maine to be closer to a more predictable employment as day laborers in the potato industry. The aboriginal Maliseet residence was the circular birchbark wigwam, but rectangular dwellings with a pitched roof tended to replace wigwams in the 1800s. More permanent cabins and frame houses became common by the end of the nineteenth century. A lean-to served as a temporary overnight shelter for men on hunting or trapping trips. Today, Maliseet housing represents a wide range of styles and is often indistinguishable from that of their White neighbors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Maliseet were hunters, fishers, and gatherers. In the seventeenth century they adopted some horticulture, particularly maize cultivation, which remained of secondary importance into the twentieth century. Some had gardens where potatoes and other root vegetables were grown for family consumption and a very few had small acreage in oats and wheat. The caribou and moose were the major large game animals taken, with the white-tailed deer replacing the caribou in the early twentieth century. Beavers had always been taken by the Maliseet, but the demands of the fur trade led to scarcity by the end of the eighteenth century. Muskrat, considered a delicacy by the Maliseet, has been a more important food source than the beaver since the nineteenth century. Salmon, bass, and sturgeon were taken with spears when the species made their runs up the St. John River. Eels, smelt, and other smaller fish were taken as well. The Maliseet, unlike the Passamaquoddy, think of themselves as inland hunters and freshwater fishers rather than salt-water and coastal hunters and fishers. The manufacture of crafts, especially splint ash work baskets, birchbark canoes, and snowshoes made by the men and fancy baskets of splint ash and sweet hay made by the women, supplemented income from trapping, guiding, employment on river drives, stevedoring and other day or seasonal labor for nineteenthand early-twentieth-century Maliseet men. Until the 1950s many families worked in the potato harvest for White farmers in northern Maine and New Brunswick each autumn. Increasingly, Maliseet are finding employment both on and off the reserve. A few families, particularly those who make baskets, maintain craft shops at or near their homes. But despite increasing participation in the White economy and government work projects, unemployment remains high even by the standards of the Maritime Provinces.

Industrial Arts. Pottery making was known preHistorically. Carved stone pipes were made by some men until about 1940. Though birchbark containers were formerly made, splint ash basketry supplanted it at the beginning of the nineteenth century and remains an important source of income for some families. Victorian tastes of neighboring White settlers and tourists contributed to the patterns selected by female basket makers. Male basket makers produced more utilitarian objectspotato baskets, clothes hampers, cradles, and, more recently, backpacks and wood baskets. The manufacture of barrels, casks, and firkins was also carried out. Embroidery with moose hair, glass beads, and porcupine quills has long been a tradition of the female craftsperson. Preparation of deerskin for clothing and its decoration with beads has been reintroduced recently.

Trade. Little is known of prehistoric trade with other groups. Shells from the mouth of the St. John River were used in the preparation of wampum. The barter (later sale) of furs with the Europeans for European products began at least as early as the sixteenth century and continued with dwindling significance into the twentieth century.

Division of Labor. Women gathered and prepared food, sewed and repaired clothing, moved camp, constructed the wigwam, fetched the larger game after a kill, cared for the children, and prepared homeopathic medicines. Men were the hunters, fishers, and warriors and almost always the shamans, political leaders, canoe and snowshoe makers, and Religious leaders. Men apparently were the farmers in the early nineteenth century. Today both men and women may be employed, but if one person has the responsibility for care of the home and children, it is the woman.

Land Tenure. Recent research suggests that the traditional view that all land was controlled by the tribe is an over-simplification, especially in peripheral areas where families from other tribes or mixed families were free to use the land so long as it was not contested by Maliseet families. Each autumn families announced whether or not they would be Returning to the spots they had formerly used, with free spots then open to any family.


Kin Groups and Descent. The extended family was the basis of Maliseet social organization. In addition to their European names, many families had nicknames derived from animal names. For example, the Pauls were the "Pikswicik" (people of the pig), and the Sappiers were the "Kahkakuswicik" (people of the crow). Only a few families have a legend and/or a myth that accounts for the origin of the nickname. In most cases membership in these groupings is through the male line. Traditional family nicknames are no longer very important, but at the beginning of the twentieth century they connoted ethnicity. Families carrying the nickname of a nondomesticated animal were regarded as ethnically more Maliseet. Today, membership in a large family unit is Important for gaining band office, since relatives are expected to vote for relatives.

Kinship Terminology. The terms for mother, mother's sister, and father's sister are distinct. Cousin terms, however, follow the Iroquois system, although kin term usage bristles with exceptions. At the present time Maliseet kin terms have largely disappeared unless their references closely parallel English usage.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. At time of contact most marriages were monogamous, although a chief might have had more than one wife. A young man was required to perform bride-service for his future father-in-law for a period of one year. With the acceptance of Catholicism, polygyny disappeared and bride-service fell into decline, although at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Maliseet still felt that a man should live with his wife's parents until at least the birth of the first child. When the government of Canada adopted regulations defining membership of Indian bands in terms of male-centered principles, this temporary matrilocality conflicted with the Government's view that the bride should join her husband's band when they came from different reserves. This patrilocal pattern has weakened ties among a grandmother, her married daughter, and grandchildren in many cases. If divorce occurs today (despite church proscriptions), it usually is restricted either to Maliseet with spouses from outside the Indian Community or to cases in which one spouse has permanently left the native community.

Domestic Unit. Until recently, three-generation families were very common. Despite European norms favoring the two-generation family, a shortage of housing, the presence of unmarried or divorced mothers, and lack of employment opportunities still encourage the formation of three-generation families.

Inheritance. No set patterns for inheritance exist other than that present in the larger non-Indian community.

Socialization. Generally, children were allowed much Freedom. They learned from their mistakes rather than from parental admonition. Education was informal and children acquired the necessary adult skills appropriate to their sex through imitation and practice. The threat of externally sanctioning supernaturals, the equivalent of bogeymen, kept small children away from dangerous places. Contemporary parents sometimes use threats of supernatural punishment following death or punishment by a human agent such as a priest or schoolteacher if the child misbehaves.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Class distinctions were not unknown in Maliseet society at the time of White contact, with chieftainships following certain "chiefly" families. These families intermarried both within and outside the society and had more than their share of strong shamans and good hunters, talents that kept the chieftainship in the family. Old age brought respect for both males and females. Women held important positions as herbalists, midwives, andamong the Maliseets' closest relatives, the Passamaquoddyceremonial positions in the performance of both secular and sacred group rituals. Slaves taken during the colonial period were often White children from southern Maine. Today education is a source of individual and family status differentials. Persons who have completed high school or university, have Permanent employment on or off the reserve, or are elected to or acquire leadership roles in the Indian community are held in high esteem.

Political Organization. At first contact and during the Colonial period, there was a supreme chief for all Maliseet. In the colonial period he was assisted by a subchief. Other leading men were designated captains. Decisions of concern to the entire group were made collectively by the supreme chief, his assistant, and the captains. The positions of chief and subchief were held for life and were ratified by the neighboring Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. Leading men from each of these groups also met to discuss matters of Concern to two or more groups, such as reaching a common position vis-à-vis the colonial governments. As a component group of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Maliseet chiefs and leading men and their families assembled periodically at Caughnawaga, Quebec. Canadian regulations imposed in 1896 mandated three-year terms for chiefs, but the practice of selecting chiefs for life continued well into the twentieth century. In 1967, the Union of New Brunswick Indians was founded, binding ties between the Maliseet and Micmac. The close ties the Maliseet had with the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot in Maine have gradually become secondary to ties with the Micmac in New Brunswick.

Social Control. Informal techniques of social control (gossip, ostracism, withdrawal) were more effective deterrents to asocial behavior than formal ones. Fear of retaliation by witchcraft or sorcery helped maintain order in the Community, especially when the role of shaman as curer was eclipsed by a disapproving Christian church.

Conflict. The role of the Maliseet in colonial disputes Between the French in Acadia and the Massachusetts Bay Colony encouraged Maliseet cohesiveness. Changing fortunes owing to the defeat of their allies and the arrival of Loyalist settlers required the Maliseet to make major adjustments. The cordial relations with the French were replaced by sometimes unsympathetic treatment from the English.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. One of the first groups in North America to lose their aboriginal religion because of missionary activity, the Maliseet have generally retained the teachings of the French Roman Catholic missionary priests of the 1600s and 1700s. In the last decade traditional Plains Indian Religious practices, involving the reintroduction of the sweatlodge, chanting, drumming, and the burning of sweet hay, have been adopted by some families and have acted as an overlay on Christian practices. Kuloskap (Koluskap) was a culture hero and transformer. Some Maliseet see strong Parallels between him and the Christian deity, but insist that Kuloskap was never worshipped. Certainly some syncretism of Religious traditions is present. The universe was populated with numerous other supernaturals that took animal or part human, part animal forms. Most were thought detrimental to the welfare of humans and had to be controlled by Kuloskap. From the end of the nineteenth century various forerunners signaled and still continue to signal death, illness, or other misfortune, much as in the folk traditions of the French and the residents of the British Isles whose beliefs have strongly influenced the Maliseet.

Religious Practitioners. With the introduction of Christianity, the role of the shaman (motewolon ) changed from that of curer to sorcerer, and with further enrichment from European folk tradition by the beginning of the twentieth century, to that of witch. Shamans were traditionally male. Political leaders were invariably motewolon as well. By the Beginning of the 1900s most white witches were thought to be women whose powers were said to be psychic.

Ceremonies. The shamans' curing ceremonies were public and drew observers. Feasts were held on the occasion of Marriage, upon a young man having killed his first game, on the installation of a chief or his assistant, and on other public occasions when Maliseet from divergent regions came together or hosted leaders from neighboring tribes. Christian Ceremonies are important to the present-day Maliseet.

Arts. Traditional dances, formerly performed by adult men and women, are now performed by children and women for Whites and for visitors from neighboring bands and tribes. Drumming and chanting, in some cases from non-Maliseet Indian sources, are being introduced by contemporary traditionalists. On special Christian holidays, Maliseet sing portions of the Mass in the community church service in Maliseet or a related Algonkian language.

Medicine. Herbalists, both male and female, continue to prepare herbal remedies on some reserves. White witches, until recently were thought to be knowledgeable in breaking witchcraft spells, often using iron, sharply pointed objects, or the wood or berries of the mountain ash tree. Traditionally, disrespect for game brought illness or misfortune to the Community, and the shaman through his spirit helpers was thought to be able to exorcise the offended spirit. At present the Maliseet utilize hospitals and medical personnel available in neighboring White communities.

Death and Afterlife. Witches and animal spirits until Recently were held responsible for death as well as illness, a belief that existed alongside accepted Catholic beliefs and practices. In general, death was associated with much ritual and elicited considerable fear. Some traditional Maliseet have introduced modifications to the Catholic funeral, including placing goods with the corpse to be buried, drumming, chanting, and dancing in a circle around the grave. In short, rituals surrounding death have been a major part of Maliseet Religion, from the shamanic rituals of the 1600s through Catholic ritual with an emphasis on singing and praying in an Indian language in the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century to the practice of the new traditionalists with its emphasis on borrowed or rediscovered ritual.


Erickson, Vincent O. (1978). "Maliseet-Passamaquoddy." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 123-136. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Erickson, Vincent O. (1978). "The Micmac Bouin: Three Centuries of Cultural and Semantic Change." Man in the Northeast 15:3-41.

Mechling, William H. (1958-1959). "The Malecite Indians, with Notes on the Micmacs." Anthropologia 7:1-160; 8:161-274.

Wallis, W. D., and Ruth S. Wallis (1957). The Malecite Indians of New Brunswick. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 148. Anthropological Series, no. 40. Ottawa.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Maliseet." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Maliseet." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (November 20, 2017).

"Maliseet." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from


Maliseet: see Malecite.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Maliseet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Maliseet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (November 20, 2017).

"Maliseet." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from