The Wigwam as an International Phenomenon
The wigwam appears to have a very ancient history that goes across continents. When you study the history of Neolithic Europe and even Africa, you come across excavation reports that describe finding small circular structures that were probably circles of poles arranged in conical fashion and covered with bark or skins.
Although similar in outline, as it has evolved in the Maritime Region, the wigwam is not to be confused with the tipi of the Western Plains Indians. They too were constructed out of sapling poles but covered with skins instead of bark. In both instances the poles seem to have been folded up for transport, something especially vital in the Prairies. The tipi had smoke flaps at the top of the structure while the wigwam, from the earliest images, seemed to have an open top for the smoke to escape through the bound tops of the sapling poles.
Across North America similar structures respond to the name “wigwam” which, from the time of British contact, seems to have become synonymous with any kind of aboriginal structure, some of which were dome-shaped rather than conical. The subject is a specialised one and made more difficult by the specific names given to these structures by the various tribes in their different languages. It is difficult to find reference material on the subject other than in early travel accounts where observant visitors described the aboriginal homes in some detail.
The wigwam as we know it in our region seems to have been known in Classical times. The ancient Scythians, who flourished from the 7th to 3rd centuries in the Steppes of Central Asia, were nomadic people whose sole focus was the horse. They were famous all through antiquity for their exceptional horsemanship. There is archaeological evidence (Simpson, pp. 155-156) that not only did they have portable structures called yurts but they also had structures identical to wigwams, which they covered with birch bark or animal hides, and which were also portable. This tradition survived more than two thousand years and as recently as 1926, when this photograph was taken in the Altai region, they were still in use among the nomadic peoples (Simpson p. 156).
The wigwam seems to have been used throughout the Mi’kmaq period, beginning in our region about 3,000 years ago. Tuck (pp. 49-51) describes the discovery by Sanger and Davis in Passamaquoddy Bay of oval house sites, wigwams, 3 x 4 metres in area that were sunken into the ground about 50 centimetres. Similar arrangements had been discovered in other places years before which led the archaeologists to believe that this was common practice in the region. Perhaps it was especially effective in winter, eliminating the draft that would seep in from wigwams sitting on the ground.
Early photographs in the region show recent wigwams in a summer setting, sitting on the ground like these in a detail of a photo by Paul-Emile Miot. (Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada – PA-194632). It is believed to have been taken near Sydney, Cape Breton Island.
How were wigwams used by the Mi’kmaq?
There are two paintings from the first half of the Nineteenth Century, which I used in a previous post on the appearance of the Mi’kmaq which give us an idea of what the inside of a wigwam looked like. The opening was made wider by the artist so that the maximum view of the inside could be included. The one on the left shows more of what might have gone on in such a space, with a woman is working sitting next to a fire over which a pot is steaming. That must have been a very common sight.
There is another detail from a painting that shows in some detail what is going on inside a wigwam and the spill-over of domestic activity into the space outside. It is taken from an oil painting of Halifax Harbour by George Thresher done in the 1840s. The original is in the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and is displayed at Government House in Charlottetown.
It was impossible to get a better image of this detail because of the glare in the room, but a woman is clearly seen inside the wigwam working on a basket while other members of the family are outside cooking the day’s catch over an open fire. It is a very engaging scene, isolated in the lower left corner from the hustle, bustle and noise of what is going on in the harbour.
There are two photographs of Island Mi’kmaq which we may consider to be the earliest ever taken. It is probable that they are the work of Henry Cundall, a local entrepreneur, surveyor and amateur photographer. The nearest Mi’kmaq Reservation to Charlottetown in circa 1860 when these photos were taken, was just across the harbour at Rocky Point. There is still a Reservation there today. Day trips – a form of early tourism – were not uncommon as the beau monde of Charlottetown went over to look at the exotic displays that awaited them.
The A. W. Mitchell Photos
There is a series of photographs taken of the Mi’kmaq at Rocky Point by the photographer Albert W. Mitchell. He was born on 12 June 1868, the son of Nathaniel and Hannah Mitchell of Charlottetown, and died on 11 April 1906. Throughout his life he worked at Prowse Brothers. He was an ardent Methodist and an important member of Odd Fellows. He is best remembered for a very significant collection of over 200 photographs and 20 glass plate negatives covering those things in Charlottetown and area that caught his fancy. He flourished between 1895 and 1910. Among his favourite subjects were the Mi’kmaq of Rocky Point. This article by Jim Hornby tells you what is known about Mitchell.
and this page from the Provincial Archives describes the Mitchell collection held in the Archives.
Among Mitchell’s photographs are larger views of the Reservation that give us an idea of the spatial relationships between the family wigwams.
Mitchell was also interested in showing individuals, just standing before their wigwams or seated on the ground working on their baskets for which there was a large market.
This dignified matriarch in front of her home has always appealed to viewers and was even produced as a postcard to sell to tourists.
Look at her large “Phrygian” headdress with all its elaborate embroidery and bead work!
Mitchell’s photos do not only provide us with views of Mi’kmaq life in general, but they chronicle a major change in wigwam architecture which seems to have taken place at the turn of the century. In the photo below you will notice that the wigwams are no longer round, no longer cone-shaped, but have turned into little pyramids with four straight sides tapering to the apex! As you examine Mitchell photos you realise that nearly all the wigwams at the Reservation have undergone this very major architectural change from cone to pyramid. What was the reason for this?
I believe strongly that it was evidence that, in their minds, the Mi’kmaq wanted their homes to appear more and more like those of the British Colonial authorities. This not fancy or wishful thinking on my part.
One of Mitchell’s photos – the most important of all, I think – tells all. The Mi’kmaq were being assimilated and were prepared to abandon their traditional home, thousands of years old, to live in structures that related directly to the British settlers of the Island.
Take this little house for example. It is only as tall as a wigwam because that is all the vertical space that their folk memory requires them to have. However now the circle (or square) of poles is abandoned and replaced by a braced frame construction, just the way the houses of the population of the Island were built. It is raised off the ground, has a door and windows flanking it. It is almost a parody of a Georgian central plan cottage. It is clad with whatever materials are at hand. The family sits in front of it. Are they happy at the momentous architectural change they have wrought that, at one stroke, destroys millennia of the traditional wigwam?
I find this photograph deeply distressing and depressing as it celebrates the death of cultural continuity and the readiness to adopt the domestic ways of their controllers.
The earliest wishes of the missionaries and administrators that the Mi’kmaq adopt European ways and become “civilised” are coming true. The Mi’kmaq will rush in droves to live in Western frame houses.
More Evidence of the Rise of Civilisation among the Mi’kmaq
In the Summerside Journal of 1 August 1899 an unknown reporter wrote this very glowing and informative article on the state of affairs on Lennox Island, documenting the MicMacs steady rise to Civilisation. I am grateful to Georges Arsenault for bringing this to my attention a number of years ago. It illustrates perfectly the architectural intention of the photo above that the aboriginals should leave wigwams to become a memory and move into Western spaces. After all, it was a major step on the road to civilisation.
I think that this article is important enough to warrant its complete inclusion. Assimilation is well on its way:
This secluded spot forms one of the most charming of the many isles that surround our island home. Here the poor Micmac, when forced to withdraw from his then quiet retreat on the mainland, was obliged to seek refuge, and here, in his own peculiar way, shut out from the busy world around him, he still lives and seems to find life as enjoyable as many who consider themselves in a higher and more promising position. It is very wonderful, too, the improvement he has made in the quiet little home which God has given him. I know it is a prevailing opinion among us that the Micmac does not always avail himself of the opportunity of earning his own living. Though this may be true in some cases, it is almost impossible for any person to visit the island at this season and not be obliged to think differently. Considering the natural propensities of the Micmac, and the perhaps rather isolated position in which he is placed (apart from and above all aid received from Government) I think in the same length of time he has made as much progress on his island as the white man has on the one which he considers the gem of the North Temperate Zone. I do not say the same progress, but I do say the same in proportion to circumstances.
Thirty years ago, with the exception of one or two patches, the wild forest here reigned supreme. All Lennox Island could boast of were two houses. The rest of the tribe lived in camps made from the bark of the white birch, but many a change has taken place since then. Now the clear field and the cultivated farm everywhere meet the eye, and every farmer has his own house and barn. There are on the island at present over thirty houses, and only one camp. Four new houses are in course of erection, under the superintendence of M. P. Francis, who is generally thought to be the best carpenter on the island. All the farms are nicely fenced with spruce poles, which are found on the respective farms. There is, too, a very neat little church, which is kept in a very fashionable style, and the church grounds are enclosed by a substantial board fence.
One of the most enterprising farmers is Mr. John Copage, who, when visited, was busy cutting his hay, which consisted of timothy and clover in such a heavy crop that it was far better than most of the P.E.I. farmers could think of, and all that the best of them could desire. Mr. Copage has fifteen acres of land and has sown this year thirty bushels of oats, two of wheat, and six of potatoes. He has also a very nice orchard to which he has added one dozen imported apple trees and one dozen currant trees. He has also a nice house and barn, two horses, spring tooth harrow, jaunting sleigh and robe, and many other of the necessary farming implements.
The next farmer visited was Mr. P. G. Francis, who is married to Maria Blacquier of Egmont Bay. The result of this union is two half-breeds, which Mr. Francis says (and I think all agree) are well worthy of admiration. His farm is about the oldest on the island, being in part the old homestead of the Francis family, and containing sixty-three acres. Crop sown this year consists of the following: four bushels of oats, two of wheat, eight of potatoes, and a quarter of an acre of turnips. He has a very fine orchard for which he has imported a number of apple and currant trees. He has a very nice house and barn, five head of cattle, three sheep, and a number of fowls. Mr. Francis is only a beginner, and being a very industrious man, of a kind and genial disposition, is sure to succeed.
The next farmer of importance is Mr. Joseph Francis, the chief of the Micmacs, who also does a good business at fishing. His crop this year, though not so good as last, has a very promising appearance. His wheat is extra good, some parts of the field having an average height of four feet. The potato crop, too, is good. He planted twelve bushels. There is also an orchard on the farm with imported apple and currant trees. Mr. Francis has two cattle and a number of fowls, and is in a fair way of reaching the position of a good farmer.
The farm adjoining is owned by Peter Francis, whose crop this year consists of wheat, some of which measures four feet, potatoes, and a very neat little garden. He has also a large fat ox, which would likely be a prey to some of our butchers, could they make it convenient to see him.
Next comes that very popular man, Peter Mitchell, who never neglects visiting his white friends. Peter too has a good crop and seems to feel very thankful for it. It includes oats, wheat, potatoes, a fine field of upland hay, and an orchard with imported trees. His garden is extra fine, some of the pea stalks measuring seven feet in height.
The next worthy of mention is Thomas Thomas, whose crop comprises oats, wheat and potatoes. His place looks very well. He has one horse, two cattle, and a nice house and barn. There are many others worthy of mention, but my report has already reached sufficient length.
There is something else though that I must refer to. I think the visiting of the Island by the Superintendent, Mr. Arsenault, is done in a very partial manner. I find that last year only those who are well off and have no need of any support were visited, while the very poor ones were entirely neglected. One house I visited containing two families was in a very dilapidated condition indeed. The husbands had gone away drinking, one of whom had (the women said), been arrested by the Summerside police for misbehavior. These families were in almost a starving situation, and both of the women having large families were unable to go out to get anything to eat. I don’t say the husbands should receive any aid, but do think that these poor creatures not in the blame should receive some help, or be attended to in a better way than at present. – Com.
I wish to thank the PEI Museum at the Public Archives for allowing me to use this collection of Mitchell photos which I photographed before they were recorded into the Provincial Collection.
Denys, Nicolas, Concerning the ways of the Indians: Their Customs, Dress, Methods Of Hunting And Fishing and their Amusements , The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, 1979.
Hornby, Jim, “A. W. Mitchell, Photographer,” The Island Magazine, No. 12 Fall/Winter 1982.
Simpson, St. John, Scythians, Warriors of Ancient Siberia, British Museum catalogue, Thames and Hudson, 2017.
Summerside Journal of 1 August 1899.
Tuck, James A., Maritime Provinces Prehistory, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995.