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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff


(August 10, 2005)

Mi’kmaw Hieroglyphs

by Sandy Balcom

The Mi’kmaw prayer book on display in the de la Plagne house naturally raises visitor interest and curiosity.Written in hieroglyphs or komqwejwi’kasikl, the book illustrates the “first script developed and used in North America (excluding Mexico) for a native language”. (Schmidt and Marshall, 1995, p. 4) Mi’kmaw hieroglyphs predate the Cherokee syllabary by at least 144 years. This syllabary has often been viewed as North America’s earliest aboriginal writing system.

The Mi’kmaw hieroglyphic system consists of symbols (glyphs) that are read from left to write. Each glyph is formed from one or more graphemes, these include the main stem of the word, as well as suffixes and prefixes that can modify the meaning of the individual word represented by the glyph. The system is relatively complex as there are some 2,700 graphemes available for the reader of hieroglyphs. By comparison, there are approximately 4,000 individual characters that the average adult reader of Chinese needs to know.

In their book Mi’kmaq Hieroglyphic Prayers (1995), David Schmidt, a linguistic anthropologist, and Murdena Marshall, an elder from Eskasoni, conclude that the hieroglyphs represent a true written language. That is to say, an experienced reader of the hieroglyphs can understand a text that has not seen before. This distinguishes the hieroglyphs from simpler mnemonic devices that are used as aids to the memory. Such devices assist only in reading previously memorized texts and cannot be used to send a message that the reader has not previously seen.

Mi’kmaw oral tradition speaks of the use of hieroglyphs on maps and for tribal records in pre-contact times. Early European reports confirm the use of pictographs by the Mi’kmaq and other Wabenaki peoples. Beginning in the late 1670s with Recollet Chrestien LeClerq, French missionaries “developed” hieroglyphic systems of writing for religious materials that were widely adopted by the Mi’kmaq. (Schmidt and Marshall, 1995, pp. 4-12) The full nature of this development by the missionaries is not known and requires further research.

François Nukintuk was a Mi’kmaw who wrote with hieroglyphs who may have visited Louisbourg. Abbé Maillard wrote his name N8gin’tok. Nukintuk twice recorded religious debates between an Anglican and a Catholic. Based on Nukintuk’s detailed records, Maillard was able to recreate parts of the discussions verbatim. The discussions took place at Petit Degrat around 1737 and three years later at Port Toulouse.