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ETHNONYMS: Gaspesians (Quebec Micmac), Mikmaw, Migmagi, Mickmakiques, Souriquois (Nova Scotia Micmac), Tarrantines


Identification. The Micmac are a Canadian Indian group living in eastern Canada. The name "Micmac" is from the Micmac Mi:'maq, the plural form of Mi:k'mawaj, "one of high ability," a word derived from Mi"k'amwesu, the name of a legendary forest dweller with supernatural power.

Location. At the time of contact, the Micmac occupied what is now eastern New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. In historic times, the Micmac colonized Newfoundland. Presently, Micmac also migrate in significant numbers from their Canadian reserves to cities and towns in Ontario, Quebec, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey; they often spend years or decades in these places before returning to the reserves, often to retire.

Demography. In 1972, the number of registered Micmac was 9,805, with 1,943 in Quebec, 2,645 in New Brunswick, 4,769 in Nova Scotia, and 448 in Prince Edward Island. There is also a small number of Micmac in Newfoundland who have only recently been legally registered as Indians. Owing to natural increase, the Micmac population has been growing rapidly; by 1985, the Nova Scotia figure alone had reached 6,781.

Linguistic Affiliation. Micmac belongs to the Eastern Algonkian branch of the Algonkian division of the Algonkian-Ritwan family. The 3 major dialects are the Nova Scotia, the New Brunswick, and the Quebec.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicate that the Micmac arrived in eastern Canada from the north. The Micmac were perhaps the first American Indian people on the North American continent to be contacted, first by the Vikings and then by John Cabot in 1497. First colonized by the French, the Micmac were converted to Catholicism by the Jesuits beginning in 1611. A traditional enemy was the Maliseet, called the Ejemin, with whom the Micmac frequently fought. Alongside their French allies, the Micmac defeated and incorporated another traditional enemy, the Beothuk of Newfoundland. Later, along with the other members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Penobscot Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet) and the French, the Micmac fought the British and their allies the Iroquois. Following the French defeat, the Micmac military leadership and many other Micmac went to Cape Breton Island, which remained French until 1763. During the American Revolution, the Micmac allied themselves with the Americans. After that war, the Micmac became itinerant peddlers, and the British established Indian reserves at traditional Micmac meeting places.


Just before 1900 the Micmac began to become sedentary. Prior to this time, they were migratory hunter/gatherers and itinerant peddlers of baskets and axe handles. Although Reserves had been established since the late eighteenth century, they were temporary meeting places rather than permanent settlements until the turn of the twentieth century. By that time, railroads obviated the need to migrate to sell handicrafts. There are presently twenty-nine inhabited reservesthirteen in Nova Scotia, nine in New Brunswick, four in Quebec, two in Prince Edward Island, and one in Newfoundland. Three of these reserves have populations of two thousand people or more, but several have fewer than one hundred.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Micmac hunted caribou, moose, deer, and bear primarily. They fished for cod, eel, clams, oysters, lobster, smelt, salmon, trout, and other fish. They gathered berries and wild potatoes. In the early contact period, the fur trade was very important. European trade provided metal tools, which improved hunting and fishing, but European efforts to make fanners of the Micmac failed. Only the potato was a successful introduction; potatoes provided valuable food in the winter, and raising them did not interfere with other activities. Most Micmac cash income has come from wage labor and the sale of handicrafts and fish. There have recently been numerous failed attempts by the federal government to develop manufacturing industries. Micmac have owned and operated gift shops, convenience stores, garages, and logging and construction companies, which have done well for the most part. Presently, welfare and work projects are the major sources of income on most reserves; on a few, many of the men travel to cities to work in construction or factories.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included stone toolmaking, woodworking, bone and antler working, skin and leatherwork, and the construction of bark housing, cookware, containers, and canoes. The major items of manufacture in the later postcontact period were ash-splint baskets, axe handles, and butter tubs. Presently, only a few people still produce baskets.

Trade. There is archeological and historical evidence of precontact and contact-era trade with peoples to the west and the south. The Micmac were among the first to engage in the fur trade with the Europeans, and consequently they depleted their stock of fur-bearing animals early. Later they peddled baskets and axe handles. They also caught and sold fish and in some places hunted porpoises for oil, which was sold. When temporarily settled, they traded butter tubs to nearby stores for food and manufactured items. Trading activities essentially ceased when welfare payments were increased in the 1950s.

Division of Labor. In early historical times, men hunted, trapped, fished, moved their families, made wooden and bone tools, wigwams and canoes, and carried on warfare. Political and ritual activities were also primarily performed by men. Women brought water and firewood, prepared skins and made clothing, cooked, made bark containers, cared for the children, and retrieved game that the men had killed. In later postcontact times, men cut and split the wood used in baskets, and women wove it. Women also did most of the selling of baskets. Men would work as laborers on nearby farms, and women as domestic laborers. In contemporary times, women keep house while men work at casual labor as lumberjacks and carpenters. The governing of the bands is still largely a male task.

Land Tenure. At contact, Micmac were mobile, though some leaders regulated hunting territories within their sphere of control. After this, Whites slowly took control of the lands, until it became necessary to create reserves, and Whites encroached on many of these. Reserve land is vested in the Crown in right of the dominion, with Indians holding a beneficial interest. Band members may lawfully possess lots on Reserves, if so approved by the band's council and the minister of Indian affairs.


Kin Groups and Descent. The only universal functioning kin group was and is the nuclear family, although two-generation and three-generation families occasionally function as a temporary unit. Nuclear families related by kinship or marriage often cooperate in mutual ventures, at least temporarily.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kinship terminology is cognatic, reflecting generation and gender. Presently, Micmac terms have taken the meanings of English terms, and Micmac terms that make distinctions not present in the English system are rarely used. Distinctions in English that are not present in Micmac are largely ignored.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, it is likely that cross-cousin Marriage was preferred; polygyny was acceptable. A groom would have to perform bride-service during a probationary period. Nowadays, Micmac follow Roman Catholic rules of prohibition; ideally one should never marry kin of any degree of relatedness. Until 1970 or so, parents would often arrange Marriages or persuade their offspring to marry their boyfriends or girlfriends. Neolocal residence was and is the norm, though now that the Micmac are sedentary, newlywed couples usually live on the husband's reserve, often near his parents' house.

Domestic Unit. The traditional domestic unit was the Nuclear family, though it sometimes included an aged parent or grandparent as well. Today this is still true. Increased illegitimacy, however, has led to households of one mother and her children, and the raising of children by their mothers' mothers. Also a shortage of housing has resulted in many young married couples living with parents.

Inheritance. Traditionally, real property played no part in inheritance, and personal items were buried with their owner. Since the end of the nineteenth century, at least, the wishes of the decedent concerning the disposition of personal and real property have been respected. Presently, a few Micmac use wills, which are usually executed by the Department of Indian Affairs, according to the provisions of the Indian Act.

Socialization. Parents and other family members treat children tolerantly and provide love and support under nearly all circumstances. It is frequently left to people outside of the family to admonish children when they misbehave. Parents teach their children by having them assist them in their own tasks and by example. Formal education is not highly valued, and few children complete high school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In early postcontact times, men held superior status, though women had equality and greater Status in some respects. Elder men and women were sought for their advice and approval. Presently, ability with the English language and success off the reserve or in business brings the most prestige. Although men have lost status since they ceased subsistence hunting and fishing, they still hold the bulk of political and domestic authority. As in early postContact times, identification as a member of an extended family is of central importance. There are no economic classes. Micmac are organized by the federal government into bands; usually, one reserve is assigned to each band.

Political Organization. The traditional saqmaw (sachem or sagamore), translated by the Micmac as "chief," was actually a headman or big man who ruled a particular area demarcated by bays or rivers. His power came from his position in a large, wealthy, well-allied family and sometimes as well from his ability to instill fear in his followers through sorcery. His activities included the redistribution of wealth, the leading of war parties, the conclusion of agreements with other chiefs, other Indian peoples, and colonial governments, and the adjudication of intragroup civil disputes. Preponderantly, chiefs gave their positions to their sons. There is evidence that Micmac individuals and nuclear families were often quite mobile, not always remaining within the territory of a single chief. After the end of the colonial wars, the British banished most Roman Catholic priests from the region, and the prime duty of the chiefs became to lead prayer and speak on Religious subjects. From the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, traditional chiefs were replaced one by one with chiefs elected under the provisions of the Indian Act; the last traditional chiefs to be replaced were the Members of the Grand Council, a unified body of chiefs who governed the Micmac of Cape Breton Island, the traditional Micmac "head district." The Grand Council survives, but has lost real authority. The Indian Act chiefs, and the councilors who assist them, are democratically elected and work as employees of the Department of Indian Affairs primarily as Bureaucratic administrators of government aid.

Social Control. Ostracism remains the most important form of social control. In cases of serious wrongdoing, it Usually results in the offender leaving the community for months or years. Otherwise, the saqmaw lectured wrongdoers and, in later times, brought them to the police. Today, Micmac Police officers control criminal behavior. Revenge has Traditionally played a great role in social control, and the threat of revenge serves to circumscribe the offender's social circle.

Conflict. Politically, divisiveness occurs along geographic-linguistic lines. The Union of Nova Scotia Indians, created by the federal government, is often split into two factions: one lives on Cape Breton and speaks Micmac; the other lives on the mainland and most of its members do not speak Micmac. The Union of New Brunswick Indians often experiences schisms along Micmac-Maliseet lines. These disputes are Usually over allocations of federal funds and Micmac representation to the federal government. There are also rivalries Between bands, usually played out among young adults in organized sporting events and occasionally in fights. In matters of love, some women will occasionally fight over men, though men almost never fight over women. Most violence involves alcohol. When interpersonal conflict occurs, the extended family functions as a group to ostracize the outsider or to exact revenge.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Micmac had two major deities, Khimintu (Manitou) the creator, and Glooscap, a legendary hero of supernatural power who taught and protected the Micmac; only the former was an object of worship. (Kji)Mintu became the term for the Christian devil when the Micmac converted to Catholicism, and Glooscap presently awaits to appear to the Micmac when they are most in need. Micmac religious belief is highly syncretic, and other non-Christian supernatural beings also live on in tandem with Christian belief. These include Kukwes, a giant cannibal, Wiklatmuj, little forest people, Jenu, northern ice giants, and the Kinap, a person of extraordinary or supernatural ability, among others.

Religious Practitioners. The literature records no priests. There were and are, however, male and female sorcerers who used supernatural power to their own advantage. The sorcerer, puoin, traditionally healed or injured, and a male puoin used his powers to make himself or other men leaders. Presently, sorcerers use their powers primarily to bring misfortune or injury to others.

Ceremonies. Presently, Roman Catholic ceremonies are most important. In addition to the common ceremonies, the Micmac celebrate the feast day of St. Ann, the Micmac patron saint, at several central locations throughout their Territory. During most of the last 350 years, when priests were Usually unavailable, funerals and weddings were held during the St. Ann's Mission, a celebration of several days ending with the St. Ann's Day Mass.

Arts. Historically, the material arts have been important, including the incision of designs in birchbark baskets, the dyeing and weaving of porcupine quills in birchbark, as well as the sewing of Micmac motifs on clothing, especially the characteristic double-curve motif. Presently, Indian music, some Micmac and some not, is making a resurgence. A few painters, employing Indian motifs, have had much commercial success.

Medicine. In aboriginal culture, disease was attributed to the influence of malevolent spirits, which were removed by a puoin by blowing or sucking, and using medicinal herbs. The puoin was well paid for his or her services. Today, Canadian clinical treatment and prayer are the first lines of defense, and traditional herbal medicines are used when clinical treatment fails. Abortion is not acceptable to the Micmac. Recently, Micmac-oriented drug and alcohol treatment has become available.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, the Micmac believed that all things have souls, and that human beings have two types of souls, one connected with the body and one that held the life of the individual. At death, both souls were affected, the body soul perishing and the life soul becoming a skate:kmuj, which traveled to the land of the souls. The souls of grave goods traveled with the human soul to assist it in the afterlife. Presently, the house of the deceased must be inhabited until burial in order to prevent the skate:kmuj from Returning to it, and Micmac believe that to see a skate:kmuj signals one's own impending death. Catholic beliefs now exist syncretistically with Micmac beliefs.


Bock, Philip K. (1966). The Micmac Indians of Restigouche: History and Contemporary Description. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 213, Anthropological Series, no. 77. Ottawa.

Bock, Philip K. (1978). "Micmac." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 109-122. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Hoffman, Bernard G. (1955). "The Historical Ethnography of the Micmac of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley.

Upton, Leslie F. S. (1979). Micmacs and Colonists: Indian-White Retenons in the Maritimes, 1713-1867. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Wallis, Wilson D., and Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1955). The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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"Micmac." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 20 Nov. 2017 <>.

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Micmac, Native North Americans whose language belongs to the Algonquian branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). They inhabit Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, and Maine. French missionaries came into contact with them in the early 17th cent., and the Micmacs were allies of the French throughout the history of New France. Contact with Europeans did not have the usual effect of tribal disintegration, and the Micmacs still thrive, though their culture has changed radically. Many are Roman Catholics. The Micmacs are expert canoeists, and, although their economy once centered on fishing and hunting, they now derive their income primarily from agriculture. In 1990 there were over 15,000 Micmac in Canada. Another 2,700 Micmac live in the United States, the only federally recognized band being the Aroostook in Maine.

See W. D. and R. S. Wallis, The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada (1955); J. F. Pratson, Land of the Four Directions (1970).

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Micmac Algonquian-speaking tribe of Native North Americans, once inhabiting Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. They were probably the first Native Americans to meet the early European explorers. About 4,000 still live in the north-eastern area.

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