A 400-year-old gourd that Grand Chief Membertou gave to his French godfather has returned to Nova Scotia.

Roger Lewis, curator for ethnology at Halifax's Museum of Natural History, said the gourd is a drinking vessel — much like a modern army canteen.

It dates to the early 1600s, when Samuel de Champlain's French expedition arrived in Mi'kma'ki to start the first European settlement.

The settlers relied heavily on their friendship with Mi'kmaq people to survive. That friendship was cemented when Membertou and his family were baptized.

'Fluke' rediscovery

Lewis said Membertou gave the drinking vessel as a gift to the French.

"At the time in 1610 when he was baptized, he presented this gourd to his godfather, Charles Robin, who eventually took it back to France and at that time it was decorated in three different stages," he said Tuesday.

The illustrations mix French and Mi'kmaq culture. Lewis said finding it again was "a bit of a fluke."

Katie Cottreau-Robins, curator of archaeology at the museum, happened upon a photo of the gourd in a book and tracked it down to a Quebec museum.

"I'd never seen it before. She'd never seen it," Lewis said.

Roger Lewis stands beside the gourd, part of the museum's Mi'kmaq exhibitions.

Roger Lewis stands beside the gourd, which is temporarily part of the museum's Mi'kmaq exhibitions. (CBC)

They arranged to borrow it for the summer. Lewis is likely one of the first Mi'kmaq people to hold it since it left Membertou's hands.

"It was quite an honour to hold it," said Lewis.

"It gives you kind of a feeling of chills to hold something that old — the only artifact known to exist tied directly to Chief Membertou. It was overwhelming."

The Port Royal settlement was established in 1605 with the help of the Mi'kmaq community in the area, particularly Membertou. When the French settlers returned to France in 1607, Membertou and his people cared for their homes.

When the French returned in 1610, they found the habitation as they had left it. As part of the bonds between the two peoples, Membertou and 20 of his family members were baptized into the Christian faith.

"It speaks to the relationship to the French and the Mi'kmaq here in Mi'kma'ki in the early days, and the value of the friendship that the Mi'kmaq had with the French," Lewis said.

The gourd will be at the museum until October. It will then return to the Musée Stewart in Montreal.