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The Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet ( /ˈmæləˌst/, also spelled Malecite), are an Algonquian-speaking First Nation of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They are the Indigenous people of the Saint John River valley and its tributaries, and their territory extended across the current borders of New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada, and parts of Maine in the United States. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, based in Maine, are the federally recognized tribe of Maliseet people in the United States. Today Maliseet people have also migrated to other parts of the world. Maliseets were river people across the Saint John river



The people called themselves Wolastoqiyik after the Wolastoq River at the heart of their territory. Wolastoq means "Beautiful River". (English colonists later named it as the Saint John River.) Wolastoqiyik means "People of the Beautiful River," in Maliseet. The Maliseet (Malecite) have long been associated with the Saint John River in present-day New Brunswick and Maine. At one time their territory extended as far as the St Lawrence River. Their lands and resources are bounded on the east by the Mi'kmaq, and on the west by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, who also spoke related Algonquian languages.

The term Maliseet is the exonym by which the Mi'kmaq people referred to this group when speaking to early Europeans. Maliseet or Malesse'jik was a Mi'kmaq word meaning "broken talkers", "lazy speakers" or "he speaks badly," by which the Mi'kmaq contrasted the other tribe's language to their own. The Wolastoqiyik and Mi'kmaq languages are closely related but distinctly different. The Europeans met the Mi'kmaq before the Wolastoqiyik, and adopted their term of Malesse'jik (transliterated as Malécite in French) for the people, not understanding that it was not their true name. The later English colonists anglicized this term as Maliseet, in another transliteration of sound.

17th century

At the time of European encounter, the Wolastoqiyik were living in walled villages and practicing horticulture (corn, beans, squash and tobacco). In addition to growing crops, the women gathered and processed fruits, berries, nuts and natural produce. The men contributed by fishing and hunting. Written accounts in the early 17th century, such as those of Samuel de Champlain and Marc LesCarbot, refer to a large Malécite village at the mouth of the Saint John River. Later in the century, sources indicate their headquarters had shifted upriver to Meductic, on the middle reaches of the Saint John River.

The French explorers were the first to establish a fur trade with the Wolastoqiyik, which became important in their territory. Some European goods were desired because they were useful to Wolastoqiyik subsistence and culture. The French Jesuits also established missions where some Wolastoqiyik converted to Catholicism. With years of colonialism, many learned the French language. The French called them Malécite, a transliteration of the Mi'kmaq name for the people.

Local histories depict many encounters with the Iroquois, five powerful nations based south and east of the Great Lakes, and the Montagnais. Contact with European fisher-traders in the early 17th century and with specialized fur traders developed into a stable relationship which lasted for nearly 100 years. Despite devastating population losses to European infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity, these Atlantic First Nations held on to their traditional coastal or river locations for hunting, fishing and gathering, and were concentrated along river valleys for trapping.

Colonial wars

As both the French and English increased the number of their settlers in North America, their competition grew for control of the fur trade and physical territory. In addition, wars were carried out that reflected war in Europe. The lucrative eastern fur trade faltered with the general unrest, as French and English hostilities concentrated in the region between Québec and Port-Royal. Increasing sporadic fighting and raiding also took place on the lower Saint John River.

In this period, Malécite women took over a larger share of the economic burden and began to farm, raising crops which previously had been grown only south of Malécite territory. Men continued to hunt, though with limited success. They became useful allies to the French as support against the English. For a short period during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Malécite warriors were engaged frequently in armed conflict, becoming virtually a military organization.

18th century

With the gradual cessation of hostilities in the first quarter of the 18th century, and with the beaver supply severely diminished, fur trading declined. There was little possibility for the Maliseet to return to their traditional ways of life. Their style of seasonal, shifting agriculture on the river was curtailed by the encroachment of European settlers. All the while, the land was becoming well known to wealthy elites, who took advantage of the quality hunting and sport-fishing spots scattered throughout the province. They took all the farmland along the Saint John River, which was previously occupied by the Maliseet, displacing many Aboriginal people from more than a million and a half acres of prime land.

19th century

The Maliseet practiced some traditional crafts as late as the 19th century, especially building wigwams and birchbark canoes. They had made changes during the previous two centuries while acquiring European metal cutting tools and containers, muskets and alcohol, foods and clothing. In making wood, bark or basketry items, or in guiding, trapping and hunting, the Maliseet identified as engaging in "Indian work."

The Europeans developed potato farming in Maine and New Brunswick, which created a new market and demand for Maliseet baskets and containers. Other Maliseet worked in pulp mills, construction, nursing, teaching and business. With evidence that many Maliseet suffered widespread hunger and were wandering, government officials established the first Indian reserves at The Brothers, Oromocto, Fredericton, Kingsclear, Woodstock, Tobique, Madawaska (pre-1800s), and Cacouna.

20th century

The Maliseet of New Brunswick struggled with problems of unemployment and poverty common to Aboriginal people elsewhere in Canada, but they have evolved a sophisticated system of decision making and resource allocation, especially at Tobique. They support community enterprises in economic development, scouting and sports. Some are successful in middle and higher education and have important trade and professional standings; individuals and families are prominent in Aboriginal and women's rights; and others serve in provincial and federal native organizations, in government and in community development. There were 4659 registered Maliseet in 1996.


The customs and language of the Maliseet are very similar to those of the neighboring Passamaquoddy (or Peskotomuhkati). They are also close to those of the Algonquian-speaking Mi'kmaq and Penobscot tribes.

The Wolastoqiyik differed from the Mi'kmaq by pursuing a partial agrarian economy. They also overlapped territory with neighboring peoples. The Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy languages are similar enough that linguists consider them slightly different dialects of the same language. Typically they are not differentiated for study.

Two traditional Maliseet songs: a dance song and a love song, were collected by Natalie Curtis and published in 1907. As transcribed by Curtis, the love song demonstrates a meter cycle of seven bars and switches between major and minor tonality.

Current situation

Today, within New Brunswick, approximately 3,000 Maliseet live within the Madawaska, Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear, Saint Mary's and Oromocto First Nations. There are also 600 in the Houlton Band in Maine, and 1200 in the Viger First Nation in Quebec. The Brothers is a reserve made up of two islands in the Kennebecasis River; they are uninhabited but available for hunting and fishing. An unknown number of 'off-reserve' Wolastoqiyik live in other parts of the world.

About 650 native speakers of Maliseet remain, and about 500 of Passamaquoddy, living on both sides of the border between New Brunswick and Maine. Most are older, although some young people have begun studying and preserving the language. An active program of scholarship on the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language takes place at the Mi'kmaq - Maliseet Institute at the University of New Brunswick, in collaboration with the native speakers. David Francis Sr., a Passamaquoddy elder living in Sipayik, Maine, has been an important resource for the program. The Institute has the goal of helping Native American students master their native languages. The linguist Philip LeSourd has done extensive research on the language.

The Houlton Band of Maliseet was given a nonvoting seat in the Maine Legislature, starting with the 126th Legislature in 2013. Henry John Bear was elected by his people to this seat.

There have been centuries of intermarriage between the Maliseet and European colonists and settlers. Surnames associated with Maliseet ancestry include: Denis, Sabattis, Gabriel, Saulis, Atwin, Launière, Athanase, Nicholas, Brière, Bear, Ginnish, Solis, Vaillancourt, Wallace, Paul, Polchies, Tomah, Sappier, Perley, Aubin, Francis, Sacobie, Nash, Meuse. Also included are DeVoe, DesVaux, DeVou, DeVost, DeVot, DeVeau.

Notable Maliseet

  • Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, a Maliseet activist, is known for challenging discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act in Canada, which deprived Aboriginal or Indigenous women of their status when they married non-Aboriginals. It imposed a patriarchal idea of descent and identity on peoples who traditionally had matrilineal kinship systems, whereby children belonged to the mother's people and took their social status from her family. Nicholas was instrumental in bringing the case before the United Nations Human Rights Commission and lobbying for the 1985 legislation which reinstated some rights of First Nation women and their children in Canada via Bill C31. Retaining Aboriginal status for future generations is still an issue for Maliseet and all Aboriginal groups. Nicholas was appointed to the Canadian Senate September 21, 2005
  • Graydon Nicholas was named the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, Canada, in September 2009, a Viceregal position in which he acts as the Queen's representative in the province.
  • Peter Lewis Paul was a Maliseet oral historian (1902-1989) who lived on the Woodstock Reserve (N.B.) on the Saint John River. Raised by his grandparents Newell Polchies and his wife, and known as Wapeyit piyel, Paul was renowned for his knowledge of traditional ways. He shared information with numerous academic linguists, ethnohistorians, and anthropologists. The recipient of many honors, he was awarded a Centennial Medal in 1969, received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of New Brunswick, and the Order of Canada in 1987.
  • Gabriel Acquin was the founder of the Reserve created in 1867, which is now part of St. Mary's First Nation.
  • David Slagger represented the Maliseet people to the Maine House of Representatives
  • Brenda Perley was elected as the first woman chief within Tobique First Nations.
  • Maps

    Maps showing the approximate locations of areas occupied by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (from north to south):


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