Maliseet - Economy



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 objects—potato 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.


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