Right at the start, let's talk about the term 'hieroglyphics,' which is used so commonly to refer to the Mi'kmaw written symbology. The word is defined as 'figure of an object standing for a word, syllable or sound, as used in ancient Egyptian and other writing..." (Concise Oxford Dictionary, Seventh Edition.) The term hieroglyph is therefore inappropriate, since it refers to a one-to-one correlation between a glyph and a word, syllable or sound. More importantly, the word's association with Egyptian writing leads to a misinterpretation of what Mi'kmaw symbols represent. A more appropriate term is 'ideogram', defined as a "...character symbolizing idea of a thing without expressing the sequence of sounds in its name." With ideograms, each character represents a concept, which may be orally expressed with one or many words.

So where did these ideograms come from? Some argue that European missionaries must have invented the system in its entirety, because pre-contact Aboriginal people are perceived as being illiterate. In most cases, though, the missionaries created a phonetic representation of an aboriginal language using the Roman characters they are familiar with, as did Silas Rand. Why, then, in cases where the people have a tradition of a written language, did the missionaries 'invent' a system of odd symbols that are not based on anything European?

In fact, the existence of the Mi'kmaw ideograms and their development as a teaching tool was documented by the missionaries of the day. The timeline goes something like this:

In 1652, Father Gabriel Druillettes, a Jesuit missionary to the Abenaki, reports seeing the Mi'kmaq use ideograms to record lessons in the "Jesuit Relations" of that year:

"Some of them wrote out their lessons in their own manner. They made use of a small piece of charcoal instead of a pen, and a piece of bark instead of paper. Their characters are novel, and so individual that one could not know or understand the writing of the other; that is to say, that they made use of certain marks according to their own ideas as of a local memory to preserve the points and the articles and the maxims which they had remembered. They carried away this paper with them to study in the repose of the night."

In 1677 Father Chrétien Le Clercq, a Franciscan Récollet, made note in his journals of observing Mi'kmaq children taking notes using charcoal and birch bark as he was teaching them prayers. Seeing this as an opportunity for more effective teaching, Father Le Clercq, an accomplished linguist, learned the ideogrammatic system, and expanded it with Mi'kmaw-esque symbols to express Judeo-Christian concepts that had no representation in the Mi'kmaw symbology. In 1691 he published "Nouvelle relation de la Gaspésie" in Paris, wherein he discusses his development of this writing system:

"... our Lord inspired me with the idea of them the second year of my mission, when being much embarrassed as to the method by which I should teach the Indians to pray to God, I notice that some children were making marks with charcoal upon birch-bark, and were counting these with the finger very accurately at each word of prayers which they pronounced. This made me believe that by giving them some formulary, which would aid their memory by definite characters, I should advance much more quickly than by teaching them through the method of making them repeat a number of times that which I said to them. They preserve these instructive papers with so much care, and they have for them so particular an esteem, that they keep them very neatly in little cases of birch-bark bedecked with wampum, with beadwork, and with porcupine quills."

In 1738, l'Abbé Pierre-Antoine-Simon Maillard (French Seminary of Foreign Missions) also worked out the Mi'kmaw symbols, and published a grammar of the language. It appears that his work was independent of Le Clercq's, and Maillard devoted 8 years to the task.

In 1791, Midshipman John Thomson of HMS Fly collected a copy of the Lord's Prayer and The Apostle's Creed in Mi'kmaw ideograms, done on birch bark, from Mi'kmaw people in Newfoundland. He sent these items to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society of London, and they are now held by the British Museum. His cover letter read:

His Majesty's Sloop Fly, Plymouth Sound, 13th November '91


I beg leave herewith enclosed to send you the Lord's Prair & Creed, written by the Native Indians of Newfoundland, which they did it with a stick made in the shape of a pen. The Creed marked Number One, the Prair No. 2. I beg leave, Sir, to observe it the Roman Catholic Prair & Creed, as the Frenchmen have intermarried with those Indians.

I have the honor to be Sir,
Your very humble servant
John Thomson, Midshipman


[To] Sir Joseph Banks


I this day had the Honor of your favour, and beg leave in reply to Acquaint you that it was wright by those Indians; and Sir they have amongst them a Schoolmaster to instruct their children in Wright and read, and on my making a Penn for them they prefer'd the Stick. There is in every family a large Book made out of the Bark of the Birch tree written I should suppose Century back. If these informations is of any Service, it will give much Pleasure. I beg to observe, I offered any price for one of these Books, but they would not part with them upon any account... I have the Honor to be Sir,

Your most obedient
John Thomson

Source: British Library, Add. ms. 11038, fo. 13-16.

Midshipman John Thomson's ideogrammatic prayers (click for larger views)

In 1857, Father Eugene Vetromile (Society of Jesuits), well-versed in the languages, publishes his "Indian Good Book." (1) In 1866, he also publishes "The Abenakis", wherein he discusses existence of written manuscripts held by medicine people:

"Several Indians possessed (in the time of the first French missions) in their wigwams, a kind of library, composed of stones and of pieces of bark, and the medicine men had large manuscripts of these peculiar characters, which they read over the sick persons... The Indians assert that by these signs they could express any idea with every modification, just as we do with our writings."

Also in 1866, Father Vetromile persuades seminary friend and missionary neighbor Rev. Christian Kauder, a Redemptorist, to publish a collection of prayers, songs and catechisms in the Mi'kmaw ideograms, entitled "Buch das gute." (2) The publication of Rev. Kauder was in three parts: Catechism, 144 pages; religious reflections, 109 pages; and hymnal, 208 pages. On careful examination of the symbols, one can distinguish between some of the original Mi'kmaw symbols, each of which represented mnemonically a whole sentence or verse, and a large number of arbitrary designs that have been added to express ideas and words which were not Native American. For example, the symbol for Niskam (God) is a triangle, representing the holy trinity, and three other ideograms incorporating the triangle are used to represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Many odd curlicues were incorporated with the symbols, intended to represent the peculiarities of the Mi'kmaw grammar as understood by Rev. Kauder. An example from this document is reproduced below. The book was re-released in 1921 by the Micmac Messenger organization. 

Finally, in 1921, Father Pacifique (Henri Buisson d’Valigny,) a Capuchin missionary who was extremely well-respected by the Mi'kmaq, publishes "Manual of Prayers, Introductions, Problems, and Hymns in Micmac Ideograms" in Restigouche, Quebec. While this document has earned Father Pacifique the reputation of having invented the writing system, it is in fact a re-issue of Kauder's book in French. Pacifique was apparently taught to read the symbols in 1900 by Peter Paul Denny Sr. at Chapel Island, NS. However, to his credit it should be noted that Father Pacifique did develop his own orthography, which is still in use in New Brunswick, and he also published many books for the Mi'kmaq, including an extensive grammar in 1939.

So what happened to the ideograms? Apparently, a written language was not that useful to the Mi'kmaq, being a primarily oral culture. Various sources have said that the Mi'kmaq would occasionally leave notes in a marker beside a trail for followers, or record information for future reference. However, the ideograms were not a major part of their life, and consequently the knowledge of their use has been lost with assimilation.

It should be mentioned that there are also knowledgeable people within the Mi'kmaq community that do not believe in a pre-existing writing system. Dr Bernie Francis, an acknowledged expert on the subject of the Mi'kmaw language and co-creator of the Smith-Francis orthography, does not believe a workable, wide-spread writing system was used prior to the arrival of Europeans. In his own words:

"Cartier’s arrival with his crew in 1534 do not make a startling discovery in that these 'Indians' have their own writing system. Champlain’s arrival in 1606 with his crew make no mention of it either to any degree that I know of.

"Of course, our people were writing, but it wasn’t a 'writing system.' Our people wrote rudimentary marks/symbols as memory aids for themselves when learning something new. However, they could not pass on these marks to someone else for their reading pleasure. The missionaries stated that.

"Our people not only did not have, but did not NEED a 'writing system.' All one needs to do is to check on the comments that were made about our memories. If anyone wishes to boast about our people of the past then boast about their phenomenal memories and NOT a non-existent writing system."


Late addition: I have recently come across a website by Richard Flavin, an independent scholar and researcher from Salem, MA. In an article entitled "Mi'kmaq Shorthand" he describes finding images of some form of writing on paper strips that had been used as bookmarks in a 19th-century Catholic prayer book that was written in Mi'kmaw ideograms. His research into these mysterious strips suggested that someone may have used a shorthand system to record something in the Mi'kmaw language. From there he discusses the development of several shorthand systems.

While reading this article, I noticed similarities between the Mi'kmaw ideograms found in Kauder's Bible and the symbols used in some of the shorthand systems, particularly those developed by John Byrom, Samuel Taylor, and Théodore-Pierre Bertin. The similarities in style are remarkable, and in my mind one of these systems (or another like them) may well be the source of many of the ideograms through which the missionaries added Christian and European concepts to the Mi'kmaw written language. It is a reasonable idea:  Récollet and Jesuit missionaries of the time tended to be well-educated, and could easily have been aware of shorthand. If so, why not use such a system to create new ideograms for the Mi'kmaq, rather than invent symbols from scratch? The symbols would then have been easy for the missionaries to remember and interpret, and at the same time a huge creative effort would have been simplified.

Difficult to prove, but a fascinating theory!


The Holy Trinity in Mi'kmaw ideograms




Holy Spirit

Religious texts in Mi'kmaw ideograms
(Click for larger view)
Click for larger picture... Click for larger picture... Click for larger picture...
Vetromile's translation of the Lord's Prayer
with Mi'kmaw text and English transliteration
Cover page of the Kauder bible "Das Vater-Unser" (The Lord's Prayer)
from the Kauder bible



1 - "Indian Good Book, Made by Eugene Vetromile, S.J., Indian Patriarch, For The Benefit of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, St. John's, Micmac and Other Tribes of the Abnaki Indians" (New York)

2 - "BUCH das gute, enthaltend den Katechismus, Betrachtung, Gesang. Die kaiserliche wie auch königliche Buchdruckerei hat es gedruckt in der kaiserlichen Stadt Wien in Österreich 1866". (The Good (sic) BOOK, Containing the Catechism, Reflections, Hymns. It Was Printed by the Imperial and Royal Printing Office in the Imperial City of Vienna in Austria 1866.) )

Mi'kmaw Writing - Orthographies >>>

Updated: 10 Apr 2020 Print Page