Subject:      what about the Micmac script?
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/06/21
Message-ID:   <5oh9jv$e7g$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.lang,soc.culture.native,

(And other mysteries concerning the Native scripts in the Americas.)

by Yuri Kuchinsky.

An average North American is probably not even aware that quite a
few North American Native tribes currently possess and use writing
systems of their own. At first glance, these scripts will strike
most of us as quite unusual. Their letter shapes are quite unlike
what we would normally know. Recently, I've been researching the
history of some of these scripts around the Americas, and of the
Micmac script in particular.

Micmacs are the Native Americans who are indigenous to the East
Coast of Canada, and the adjacent part of the US. They still inhabit
their tribal lands in Nova Scotia and Quebec.

In many respects, the story of their script is similar to the
stories of other Naive scripts. I'm familiar with a situation such
as this from other tribal histories. "Officially", the Micmac script
was first used in the 17th century by the Catholic missionaries to
the Micmacs. The "official version" of the invention of the script
has it that an early missionary invented the script. Of course a
similar story is given for quite a number of other Native scripts in
North America, the Cherokee, the Ojibwa, the Inuit, and quite a few
others. In all these cases, and in others as well, the missionaries
are always given the credit for the invention of scripts.

But in one respect, the Micmacs are different. What we have for the
Micmacs is quite a unique script consisting of around 5000
characters! This sets the Micmac script apart from most (all?)
others used in North America today. The numbers of letters in other
Native scripts are closer to what we know from the European

Anyway, this is the story as it is given to us for North America.
This is the version accepted universally by academic historians of
such things. Meanwhile, the Natives sometimes try to tell us quite
a different story... Often they claim that the scripts that they use
were used by their ancestors for untold generations before the
Europeans ever come to their lands.

And here, I would like to bring in also a case from South America.
In fact it is the research into a certain Native script of Peru and
Columbia that first got me interested in this subject. Very few
people know about this script. It is called Parejhara, and it is
still understandable to some Natives in the Andes.

Of course the "official version of history" being taught in our
institutions of learning is that South American cultures did not use
a writing system before the Europeans came there. The Incas had the
quipus, a notational system based on multicolored strings and a
variety of knots. It is accepted that the Incas kept financial
records using those quipus. Some scholars also suggest that the
quipus were also used as a sort of a writing/mnemonic system
assisting in memorisation of traditional narratives, and of other
types of information, but little is known about this.

We have plenty of texts written in the Parejhara system. Most of
them are Catholic texts, such as prayers and scriptures. It is a
pretty complex hieroglyphic system. Many of the hieroglyphs are
human figures "waving their hands" in various ways. The positions of
hands, and body postures, are important for the meaning of the
hieroglyphs. We should see right away that there's a certain
parallel here with the Micmacs, because both systems are complex
hieroglyphical systems.

So, as normally given by Church historians, the story of the
Parejhara system is that it was invented by early missionaries to
assist in the education of the Natives. (I have seen a reference to
a similar system apparently used by Catholic missionaries for the
similar purpose in early colonial times in Mexico, but have no
further information about this at the moment. The Inquisition may
have destroyed the evidence at some point.)

Ibarra Grasso did a lot of research in this area, none of it
available in English, to the best of my knowledge. I think he
demonstrated rather conclusively that the Parejhara system was
precolumbian. Apparently, he even found at least one precolumbian
text written using such a system. Also, he documented some other
precolumbian writing systems in the Andes perhaps related to
Parejhara. One of them, "tocapu", is based on a variety of abstract
geometrical patterns/notations on ceramic tiles. These tiles are
then arranged into a large spiral. Also, such tocapu signs are often
woven into textiles. Many textiles with such notations are found in
South America. Such a system of tile and textile "writing" is still
apparently used by the Natives in the Andes. At least it was still
used when Ibarra Grasso investigated these writing systems.

There's very little interest in American Universities in studying
these Native writing systems of the Andes. I'm not aware of any
English language studies, while quite a few exist in the German and
Spanish. The "received version of history" that the Natives were
illiterate before the Europeans came around seems to be accepted by
just about everybody in the English speaking world without a

So, let's get back to the Micmacs. Looking at their tribal art
recently, I was struck by the similar ways in which they and the
Andeans used embroidery and weaving to record information.
Specifically, the wampum belts of the Micmacs -- the beautiful
ceremonial belts worn by tribal dignitaries -- look quite similar to
the belts that were worn by high Inca officials. It is generally
accepted that these belts bearing various geometrical patterns
recorded some important information of ritual and political

Let's now look into the "official version" of the invention of this
complex Micmac hieroglyphic script.

Here I'm reading a thin little booklet published in 1910 to
celebrate the 300 years of the Christian mission to the Micmacs. It
is published in 3 languages, French, English, and Micmac (the latter
transliterated into the Latin script).

"Souvenir d'un IIIe centenaire en pays Micmac.
Sist gasgemtelnaganipongegeoei Migoitetemagani oigatigen.
Souvenir of the Micmac tercentenary celebration. 1610-1910." Ste
Anne de Ristigouche. Freres mineurs Capuchins. 1910.

Among other miscellanea, this booklet contains the proceedings of
the official celebrations, including some of the speeches delivered
at the events. The arrogance and the paternalism expressed in some
of these are astounding and grating to our "more sensitized" ear.

Why, of course, this was 1910, the high peak of the British Empire.
This was only 4 years before the gory meatgrinder of the WW1 will
destroy the arrogance of the European coloniser forever. The sort of
a manifest collective insanity that this war represented will dent
the hubris and the optimism of the European, will produce a powerful
world Communist movement, and this in turn will assure the speedy
collapse of European colonialism. Who could have foreseen all that
in 1910?

So they're talking about the Native script at the celebrations. A
certain Rev. D. MacPherson was recorded to have said the following
in his speech:

      In 1866 Father Kauder had a volume printed in Vienna in
      Hieroglyphics. These characters were invented by Father Le
      Clercq, Missionary in Gaspe, (1675 to 1687). He had great
      difficulty in getting the Indians to commit to memory the
      prayers and responses necessary, but Providence came to his
      aid. One day he noticed a boy trace characters on birch bark
      at every word he uttered. The Patlias extended the system. [I
      am not sure who or what is being meant here -- Yuri.] The
      characters are arbitrary ones, although a few are suggestive.
      For example an equilateral triangle represents God. A star
      heaven. (p. 56)

[PS: As I've later found out, "the Patlias" is the name for the 
tribal elders. -- Yuri.]

The first Catholic conversions among the Micmacs took place in 1610,
so there was quite a gap between that date and when the characters
were "invented". But the missions to the Micmacs were repeatedly
disrupted by the wars between the English and the French, as well as
by the post-Reformation Catholic-Protestant rivalries, and the
Jesuits who were there were expelled at least twice.

One thing should be pretty clear from this. The purpose of this
"invention by Father Le Clercq, assisted by a boy" was purely
utilitarian. One can just see the good Reverend trying to drill the
usual required prayers and responses into the Indian youths. The
youths are somehow inattentive, and the work isn't going anywhere.
He tries and tries, but the Natives are not receptive. (With all
that we've learned about these mission schools in Canada in the last
few years, it would have not been at all surprising if corporal
punishment was administered liberally by the good Father. I suspect
the boys in his charge had plenty of "incentive" to learn what they
had to learn.)

So, lo and behold, he sees a boy making quick notes on a piece of
bark. He takes the bark and looks at the unusual symbols up close.
Then he discovers that these symbols seem somehow intelligible to
some other boys and adults. He demands to know more from them. Then
he discovers that the boys will learn the required prayers and
Scripture so much faster if they're allowed to make such notations
to assist them. And so the script is born!

Of course the above is entirely hypothetical, and yet such an
interpretation of the words of Rev. D. MacPherson seems to be
supported by his account.

Also, in a separate article, our booklet gives another and a
somewhat different account of "the invention". It comes as a quote
from the old Catholic Encyclopedia published in New York:

      "The Micmacs are remarkable for the fact that they are the
      only Canadian tribe which ever used hieroglyphs, or ideograms,
      as a means of acquiring religious and secular knowledge. These
      were invented by Father Leclercq, who took the idea from the
      rude signs he one day saw some children draw on birch bark
      with coal, in their attempt to memorize the prayers he had
      just taught them." (p. 69)

So here it looks like more than one boy was involved. These symbols,
although certainly "rude" according to our Catholic missionaries,
were intelligible to quite a few kids, or so it seems...

Now, all this was taking place around 1680. What kind of a time was
it? Let's recall... The mass witch hysteria was just dying down in
Europe at that time, but witches were still being executed. (The
last witch was executed in Scotland in 1722.) Not so far from the
Micmac country, down East, along the coast, the notorious Salem
witch hunts and hangings were still to come in 1692. And what was
the best proof of someone being a witch? Why, of course it was some
"magical" symbols and scribbles found in the possession of the
culprit. Such "devilish writings" cost many a person their life in
those days.

Since it was clear to all good missionaries that the Indians
worshipped the Devil in the old days before the Europeans came to
set them straight, it would be quite clear what had to happen with
any "devilish writings" Indians may have had precontact. The story
of the destruction of whole libraries of Mayan and Aztec books by
missionaries is well known.

So here we have the situation as it was in Peru, and in the Gaspe, in
Canada. It was discovered by rank-and-file missionaries in the field that
the work of instructing the Barbarian in the Holy Scriptures could be
advanced significantly if a writing system somehow connected with some
ancient Native notation symbols was used. The work of instruction was
proceeding quite smoothly with the aid of this system, and so the problem
of instructing the Savage was being dealt with quite nicely.

But the next question was, How to present this writing system to
their superiors in Europe and to the European public at large?
Obviously one had to be very careful here. Could the missionaries
really recognize publicly that the system was ancestral, and
invented by the Natives long ago? Potential problems were easy to
foresee here.

"Let's see. The system was ancient and used in Devil worship?
Interesting", the Inquisitor said... Here, it's obvious that a
missionary could easily end up as a human torch for all his

But even if we disregard the above important consideration, there
are still others. Were the missionaries and the colonizers generally
interested in giving the Natives credit for their cultural
achievements of any sort? Very doubtful. Would they have been averse
to taking credit where they didn't deserve it? Why not?

So here we go. The missionary is already using the system. The
Lord's Work is being done, the Natives are learning the white man's
religion. "No harm is being done in any way at all to anybody, but
only benefits are being derived from this strange Barbarian
scribble", the missionary thinks to himself. He may have had his
suspicions about this strange and irregular "scrawl" at first, but
"How can it be bad if the Gospel is being proclaimed?" But the next
big question was, How to explain the script to the world at large?
Give the Natives credit? And face some potentially very heavy
consequences? Or take the credit for inventing the script, and
receive a warm pat on the back from his superiors and a promotion?
What's the likely outcome here?

And what about the Natives now? How would _they_ have viewed such an
appropriation of their ancestral writing system? Well, I suppose,
the intellectuals among them, whose job it was to preserve the
ancestral system to start with, would not have minded in the end
that their system will be preserved in a Christian context. After
all, the alternative would have probably been to lose the old system
completely... And also, perhaps, to lose their own lives? Quite a
few Native Mayan scribes were executed by the Inquisition. How did
the secret of Mayan writing get lost in the first place?

So the above historical sketch should indicate pretty clearly my
belief that Fr. Leclercq did not invent the Micmac script. The very
idea of the good father inventing a 5000 character script in order
to teach Native boys how to say their prayers should appear as not a
little strange to any truly objective observer to start with...

Of course the bigger question here will be, If we will assume that
the Micmac script was ancient, what about the other scripts in North
America? The discussion of the Cherokee script has been happening in
these newsgroups for a while. It is not inconceivable that this
script was also ancestral to the Cherokees. The words of Traveller
Bird should be given a hearing.

I will not generalize any further at this point. The work of
considering the age of other Native scripts should be done for each
one separately in full consideration of the historical background
for its purported invention by the missionaries.

Another very important consideration must be brought up here.
Namely, what role exactly does writing play in different cultures?
Of course we are used to our alphabet that is wide open for all to
learn to read and to write. The Mayan writing was everywhere on
their public monuments, as well as in the books. It was also a
"wide-open writing system."

Most people are completely unfamiliar with the concept of a writing
system that is "secret", i.e. the access to which is strictly
regulated and protected by social taboos. The use of such a "secret"
system of writing would also have been strictly regulated. In other
words, the writing would not have been used in public monuments, for
instance. To provide more background about such a "secret writing
system" will demand much space. And the subject itself is, and has
to be, rather difficult and obscure because of its own nature. So I
will refer anyone interested in this to look up the word "ogham" in
some reference volume. The Keltic druids were using such a system of
writing. We don't know nearly enough about this, certainly, but
basic outlines of such systems seem clear. I would suggest that one
major reason why Native writing systems may have been misunderstood
and ignored by the Europeans, is that the use of writing in Native
societies may have been similar to the way the Kelts used their
writing. There are good indications that similar taboos were in force
among the Incas.

Native Cuna script in Panama also has to be mentioned here. Cuna
script seems quite similar to Parejhara script. It is also a
hieroglyphic script featuring quite a few human body postures and
gestures. It is almost certainly precolumbian. Very few people know
about it, and very little work has been done on this subject
recently. Both Cuna and Parejhara scripts demonstrate that most
likely other Natives in the Americas besides the Mayans and the
Aztecs had writing before Columbus.


I believe the Micmac script was precolumbian. Possible parallels with
other scripts in the Americas and around the world should be considered.
Investigation demonstrated that other little known Native writing systems
in the Americas were also precolumbian. The blind arrogance of colonialism
is manifest in the way the history of this complex script has been written
down and accepted even to this day. Questions should be asked about
whether or not other Native scripts in North America may be precolumbian.


I have compiled the following bibliography dealing with little known
Native writing systems in the Americas:

Souvenir d'un IIIe centenaire en pays Micmac. Sist
gasgemtelnaganipongegeoei Migoitetemagani oigatigen. Souvenir of the
Micmac tercentenary celebration. 1610-1901. Ste Anne de Ristigouche Freres
mineurs Capuchins, 1910.

[The following two items are especially relevant. The first item deals
specifically with Parejhara writing.]

Ibarra Grasso, Dick Edgar. La escritura indígena andina. [La Paz,
     Bolivia] Biblioteca Paceña 1953.

Ibarra Grasso, Dick Edgar. Argentina indigena y prehistoria americana.
     Buenos Aires Tipográfica Editora Argentina 1967.

Ibarra Grasso, Dick Edgar. En busca de la verdad en la historia
     incaica. [Argentina?]: Editorial Fundación Ross, [1989].

Busto Duthurburu, Jose Antonio del. Peru Pre-Incaico. Lima Editorial
     Universo [1969?]. [Discusses ancient Andean writing.]

[The following item, and anything else by her, are especially relevant to
ancient writing in the Andes.]

Jara, Victoria de la. Introducción al estudio de la escritura de los
     inkas. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo de
     la Educación, 1975.

[The following is relevant to Andean "textile writing".]

Scharlau, Birgit. Qellqay: Mündliche Kultur und Schrifttradition bei
     Indianern Lateinamerikas. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1986.

Keplinger, Klaus. Das Shevátari: eine vergessene Schrift aus dem
     peruanischen Urwald. Innsbruck: Österreichischer Studien Verlag,

[The following item should be a must for German readers. It contains more
recent bibliography.]

Prada Ramirez, Fernando. Der Tanz um den Buchstaben: die semantischen
     Systeme des 16. Jahrhunderts in den Anden. Regensburg: S.
     Roderer, 1994.

Totten, Norman, 1985, _Documentary Evidence for Writing in the Pre-Inca
Andes_, in Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications 13:63-66

Carter, George, and Case, James, ON CUNA WRITING, in EPIGRAPHIC

Picture-writings and other documents. 1st AMS ed. -. New York: AMS
     Press, 1979. [A very good item for Cuna writing. This is a reprint
     of the 1928 volume published in Sweden.]

[The following two items discuss quipus and mention only very briefly
other kinds of symbolic representation in precolumbian Andes. But this is
the only relevant info available in English (outside of the ESOP stuff) as
far as I know.]

Kenneth J. Andrien, ed, U. of California Press, 1991. [R. Tom Zuidema, on
p. 151, writes the following: "Tucapus -- square and mostly abstract
signs, used on Inca textiles and in other media -- were part of a
complicated system of graphic communication". He adds little to the above]

THE INCA, by Tom Cummins, in WRITING WITHOUT WORDS, Elizabeth Hill
Boone, ed, Duke U. Press, 1994.

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
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