views updated Jun 11 2018



Micmac (pronounced MICK-mack). Also called Mikmaque, Mi’kmaq, Migmagi, Mickmakis, Mikmakiques. The meaning of the name is uncertain; some scholars say it is a word for “allies,” others believe it refers to the present-day Maritime Provinces of Canada. The Micmac call themselves Inu (pronounced EE-noo), a term they now apply to all Native Americans.


The Micmac once thrived in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, including the modern regions of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the Gaspé (pronounced gas-PAY) Peninsula. Until recent years in the United States, the Micmac moved often and formed a scattered, landless community. In the early twenty-first century, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians lived in communities in northern Maine. The Micmac in Canada lived on various reserves or in rural communities.


The Micmac numbered about 4,500 before the Europeans arrived in the 1500s. By 1700, disease had reduced the tribal population to about two thousand. In the 1990s, the population of Micmacs in Canada stood at about fifteen thousand. According to the U.S. Census, 2,726 people identified themselves as Micmac in the United States in 1990. In 1996 registered Micmacs in Canada numbered 19,891, in addition to the 4,500 unregistered people of Micmac origin. In 2000 the U.S. Micmac population totaled 2,739.

Language family

Micmac is a branch of the Algonquian family of languages, and is related to the languages of the Abenaki and Passamaquoddy tribes of New England.

Origins and group affiliations

The Micmac are members of a larger group of tribes called the Wabanaki (pronounced wah-buh-NOK-ee). According to a tribal legend, the Micmac hero and creator Glooskap brought the Micmac out of the earth and taught them how to survive in Canada’s lands by the Atlantic Ocean. Before the Europeans arrived in about 1500, the eight groups that make up the Micmac lived in scattered bands across northeastern and eastern Canada. The early Micmac also visited Anticosti Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, and Labrador, where they battled with Inuit tribes.

The Micmac may have been hunting, fishing, and gathering in their northern region since the time of the last ice age, some ten to twenty thousand years ago. The wandering Micmac were so well adapted to their environment that their culture changed very little before whites arrived in the 1500s.


Early European visitors

Nearly one thousand years ago the legendary Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson (c. 970–c. 1020), son of the discoverer of Greenland, may have landed on Canada’s Atlantic coast and traveled west, setting up a camp in a land he called Vinland in around 1001. A settlement believed to be his was discovered in the 1950s in Newfoundland, Canada, very near traditional Micmac territory.

The history of the Micmac people since the early sixteenth century was closely intertwined with that of the Europeans who arrived about that time. The Europeans came from France, Spain, Portugal, and other places, looking for the abundant fish and furs, especially beaver, found in and around Micmac territory.

Important Dates

1534: French explorer Jacques Cartier meets the Micmac on the Gaspé Peninsula, beginning a long association between the French and the Micmac.

1590: The Micmac force Iroquoian-speaking Natives to leave the Gaspé Peninsula; as a result, the Micmac dominate the fur trade with the French.

1763: By the Treaty of Paris, France gives Great Britain the Canadian Maritime Provinces, including Micmac territory.

1775–83: The Micmac support American colonists in the American Revolution.

1960s: The Micmac begin to recover some economic independence.

1982: The Aroostook Micmac Council is established at Presque Isle, Maine.

1991: The Micmac get federal recognition and $900,000 to buy land.

The beginning of fur trade

In July 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier (pronounced zhock kar-tee-AY; 1491–1557) arrived at the mouth of Canada’s St. Lawrence River. He was on an expedition to find gold and to locate a water passage to the Far East. Finding neither, he did find furs. The Micmac were eager to trade with him. Europeans fell in love with beaver hats, and the Micmac enjoyed the French goods, such as guns, metal kettles, steel tools, cloth, needles, and scissors, that they received in exchange for beaver and other furs. The fur trade dominated French-American relations for the next 250 years.

Cartier tried and failed to establish settlements in Micmac lands, mostly because of the hostility of the neighboring Iroquois (see entry), who also wanted a trading relationship with the French. In time, however, the Micmac drove the Iroquois out of the area. Cartier eventually returned to France. Because of religious wars at home, the French did not return to the Gaspé Peninsula to resume trade with the Micmac for 75 years.

The Micmac in New France

In 1604 the king of France granted control over the fur trade in the St. Lawrence River area to a French nobleman. The French called the area New France. They founded the colony of Port Royal on the coast of present-day Nova Scotia in what was then Micmac territory. Around 1610 priests from the Society of Jesus (known as Jesuits) came from France to convert the Natives to the Roman Catholic religion. A local Micmac chief was baptized and took the French name Henri Membertou (pronounced on-REE mem-ber-TOO). He was the first Native American baptized in New France. Membertou helped the French make the colony a success. In turn, they offered his people trading opportunities and French grain to use during the difficult months of winter.

The same year Membertou was baptized, the Micmac chief Panounias (pronounced pa-NOO-nee-us) became the guide and protector of French soldier and explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635). In the spring of 1605 Panounias and Champlain traveled south into Abenaki (see entry) land, looking for places to set up a trading post and colony. Violence erupted between the Micmac and Abenaki, and in 1606 several Micmac, including Panounias, were killed. In 1607, seeking revenge, Henri Membertou led a group of Micmac bands to raid an Abenaki village. With their superior French weapons, the Micmac killed ten Abenaki; the rest fled. Soon the Micmac increased their power in the area and started more favorable trading relationships with local farmers.

Europeans bring war and disease

In addition to goods and technology, Europeans brought deadly diseases. Between the time of Cartier’s initial contact and the return of the French some seventy-five years later, the Micmac population dropped from an estimated 4,500 to around 3,000. European fishermen brought smallpox, throat infections, and intestinal diseases. The Micmac had little or no resistance to these diseases. Some tribe members, introduced to alcohol by the Europeans, became alcoholics and died prematurely. Because of these problems and, with many warriors killed in battle, the Micmac population continued to drop well into the eighteenth century.

The Micmac remained close allies of the French throughout more than a century of intermittent wars with Great Britain over lands in present-day Canada. Micmac soldiers fought alongside French and Canadian soldiers in early wars during the seventeenth century until the French and Indian War (1754–63; war fought in North America between England and France involving some Native Americans as allies of the French).

The British take Canada

In 1760 the British, led by General James Wolfe (1727–1759), seized the city of Quebec, Canada. When Montreal fell the following year, the British took control of New France, including Micmac territories. In 1763, Great Britain received Canada and the Maritime Provinces from the French as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War. The Micmac lost a strong ally and trading partner when France withdrew from their territory.

At this time British colonists, looking for land to farm, arrived in the Maritime Provinces. During the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists’ fight for independence from England) the Micmac favored the Americans, perhaps hoping that overthrowing the British would restore French rule. After 1781 the British government granted land in Micmac territory to colonists who had lost their own lands farther south as a result of their loyalty to Great Britain during the American Revolution. During the War of 1812 (1812–15; a conflict between the British and American armies) the Micmac remained neutral.

Micmac in Canada

Over time, the British government restricted the Micmac land and movements. Through a series of treaties, the Micmac were moved onto smaller reserves (the Canadian term for reservations) in their original territories. During the mid- to late nineteenth century, some Micmac who lived in the United States crossed the border into Canada to find work. By the early 1900s, many of these people had become permanent residents at Indian reserves or in small Canadian towns.

The economy of the Canadian Micmac declined during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as their traditional way of life broke down. Micmac men took jobs in shipyards and railroads or as lumbermen and loggers. The jobs were low paying and usually temporary. Commercial hunting of marine animals as a source of oil ended for the Micmac when petroleum products replaced porpoise and whale oil as a source of machine oil. Some Micmac joined the Canadian Army during World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) and World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan).

During the 1960s the Micmac in Canada began to recover some economic independence. Many men discovered they liked construction work on high-rise buildings, work that paid well and satisfied their need for steady employment. Micmac women trained as nurses, teachers, secretaries, and social workers. Although many of the reserves in Canada still reflect the rural poverty of the early twentieth century, the Micmac have begun to adapt to the changes of a new era.

One struggle all Canadian tribes have is the issue of sovereignty. The Micmac view themselves as a separate nation; Canada insists they are subject to federal laws. In an effort to preserve their rights, the tribe formed the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative. They are seeking an agreement on the best ways to maintain both tribal and treaty rights now and in the future.

The Aroostook Band of Micmac

In 1970, along with other off-reservation Native groups, some Micmac in the United States, in an effort to fight poverty and discrimination, formed the Association of Aroostook Indians (AAI). The state of Maine recognized them as a tribe in 1973, and they became eligible for Department of Indian Affairs services, Native American scholarships, and free hunting and fishing licenses. The AAI was dissolved, but the group gained legal status as the Aroostook Micmac Council in 1982, with headquarters in Presque Isle, Maine. Today, without a reservation to live on, the Aroostook people are making efforts to retain their Native culture.


The Micmac shared many beliefs with other Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the belief in the Algonquian creator-hero called Glooskap, and in the Great Spirit Manitou. Glooskap, who did good deeds for the Micmac, was a giant who came from across the sea in a granite canoe. When he reached land there were no people to greet him, so he split open an ash tree with his great bow, and the first humans stepped from within the tree.

The main focus of Micmac belief was the Sun, which they prayed to twice a day in long ritual songs and identified with the Great Spirit Manitou. Another tribal god was Skatekamuc, a ghostlike spirit whose appearance in a dream indicated that death was near.

Another important belief is that all living being have souls. Humans are composed of three parts—the physical body, the life-soul (the living organs of the body including the breath, heart, brain, and muscles), and the free-soul, which was separate from the body. The free-soul had two parts, the living and the dead. When a person died, the free-soul of the dead could go to the land of the dead or stay on earth to haunt the living.

The Micmac also believed in witches, who could cause disease by casting spells. The Micmac spiritual world was inhabited by “little people” who played tricks that helped or hurt the Micmac according to their whim. They could be cast out with holy water or palm fronds saved from Palm Sunday (a Roman Catholic holy day).

The conversion of tribal members to the Catholic faith was largely complete by the late seventeenth century. Many Micmac converted because they hoped that European Catholic rituals could save them from the diseases the Europeans brought. The power of shamans (medicine men; pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz) may have also increased at this time as the Micmac’s terror of the white man’s diseases grew stronger. In the mid-2000s, many Micmac were Roman Catholics, the religion first introduced to them in the early 1600s by the French Jesuits.

In the 1970s Noel Knockwood (1932–), Elder and Spiritual Leader of the Micmac, encouraged his people to return to their traditional religion. As a result of his efforts, Nova Scotia now recognizes Native Spirituality as an official religion. As of 2007 there was a renewed interest in the ceremonies, music, and language of the past. In some cases, traditional Micmac beliefs are blended with the Catholic faith.


The Micmac language is the most northerly of the Eastern Algonquian languages. Some Micmac still speak it. In the seventeenth century, a Catholic missionary developed hieroglyphics (picture symbols) for the language, but in time the system fell out of use. In the eighteenth century the Micmac developed a writing system using the Latin alphabet. Catholic priests used it to translate the Bible into Micmac and to publish a Native-language newspaper. Another system of writing the language was developed in the 1970s and is still used. In the mid-2000s most Micmac had French surnames (last names). Although some people spoke Micmac at home, most had French or English as their second language.


The leader of the Micmac tribe was called the sagamore. His power was based on consensus (general agreement by the tribe) rather than force. He made peace between families, arranged for wars against common enemies, or helped settle disagreements. Some chiefs also resolved differences over trapping territories in the French fur trade. The chief’s heirs could not inherit his power. Micmac chiefs earned their position, often through prestige and status.

As of 2007 the Micmac Nation was composed of the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians in Maine and of bands residing in Canada. The Aroostook Band is governed by a chief, a vice-chief, and council members who are elected for two-year terms. In 1991, the U.S. government passed the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Settlement Act. The act recognized the Micmac as a tribe, entitling members to various federal services and benefits. It also established a $900,000 fund to buy 5,000 acres of land for the tribe.


For many centuries the Micmac were hunter-gatherers. They wandered the land until they began trading furs with the French. As they were forced to give up more and more land and the numbers of fur-bearing animals decreased in the mid-1600s, the Micmac had to find other means of survival. Some continued to hunt sea mammals in the Bay of Fundy. They processed and sold porpoise oil. That stopped during the mid-1800s when petroleum came into use. Still reluctant to end their hunting traditions, the Micmac found jobs as guides for sportsmen, worked for commercial fisheries, or labored in logging camps. The Micmac strongly resisted becoming farmers. A few tried farming potatoes, but only for their own table.

By the early 1900s many Micmac, after a long history of wandering in search of food and resources, settled on various reservations. Women and children stayed behind while the men alternated between working away from home and returning to live with their families.

During the twentieth century some Micmac took jobs as seasonal laborers. Families supported themselves by selling crafts, especially splint baskets, and by government welfare. Some tribe members harvested ash trees to make the baskets. Micmac in the United States also worked in logging, river driving, blueberry agriculture, and potato picking. Some continue to do so. Many have crossed into Canada to gain employment. Micmac people manage and own several retail businesses and two trucking companies. They have obtained industrial and manufacturing contracts that are an important part of the tribe’s economy. They are also exploring the possibilities of owning a power station on the river and opening a casino to expand employment opportunities and tribal income.

Daily life


The Micmac lived in small family groups instead of villages. Their homes were light and easy to move. The most typical residence was the cone-shaped wigwam, made of poles covered by bark, hides, woven grass mats, evergreen branches, or (in more recent times) tarpaper and cloth. There was a hearth at the center and belongings were stored around the edges. For sleeping, they placed furs over boughs on the floor. In summer they may have lived in longhouses that could hold several families. Even in the mid-nineteenth century the Micmac still lived in bark wigwams.

Clothing and adornment

In earlier times the Micmac made clothes from moose or deer hides, bound together with sinew (animal tendons). They also used animal hair to make clothing. Both men and women wore leather undergarments and had long hair. The men dressed in loincloths, and the women wore skirts. They covered their feet with moccasins and their legs with leggings of animal hide. In cold weather men also wore a traditional “eared” headdress that covered the scalp. It rose up in points like a bat’s ears and draped over the top of their overcoats like a cape. When hunting seals they wore sealskin, with head and flippers attached, as a disguise that allowed them to get close enough to the seal herd to approach their prey. Men wore snowshoes in winter.

After the French came, the Micmac began to wear clothing of French broadcloth. They mixed it with garments of traditional Native American design. Micmac women wore caps that came to a peak, similar to hats worn by fifteenth-century Portuguese fishermen. Women used threads and quills to decorate overcoats obtained by trading furs with the French.


Before contact with Europeans, the Micmac hunted and gathered their food. Their only crop was tobacco, raised for ceremonial purposes. Smelt, herring, Canada geese, goose eggs, sturgeon, partridge, salmon, eel, elk, bear, and caribou also formed important parts of their diet. The Micmac used specialized weapons and containers to hunt. They used barbed wooden spears for catching fish and fished mainly at night by torchlight. The Micmac fished from hump-shaped canoes. They collected fat, which they often ate as a snack or stored for later use in birch bark and other types of containers.

The Micmac sometimes also ate roots, nuts, and berries that they made into loaves. They boiled and ate yellow pond lily, marsh marigold, wild leeks, milkweed flowers, cattail, and berries. They exchanged leather pelts for metal tools, dried peas, beans, and prunes.

Healing practices

The Micmac believed that there were both good and evil spirits. A person with extraordinary powers, a buoin or shaman, had power to call on these spirits or to intercede on another’s behalf. Many Micmac relied on the spiritual powers of a buoin to combat deadly diseases.

The tribe used herbs to promote healing. Gargling with wild blackberry root helped sore throats. A concoction of unripened cranberries was used to draw out venom from poisoned arrows. Teas made from the bark of white oaks and dogwood eased diarrhea and fevers. A salve related to ginseng root was used to heal wounds.

Today the Aroostook Band of Micmac receive health care services through the Micmac Health Department, which includes a clinic and fitness center as well as contract health, community health, environmental health, behavioral health, and youth departments.


Traditional education in the Micmac community consisted of elders passing on their knowledge in a one-to-one situation. During the early half of the twentieth century, children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had to learn white ways. As a result the bond between the elders and youth no longer existed; younger generations did not learn the language or customs of their ancestors. In 2000, the Micmac in Maine opened Aroostook Band of Micmacs Cultural Community Education Center to educate people about both historical and contemporary Micmac culture.



The Micmac were known for their elaborate and colorful beadwork and quillwork (designs made with porcupine quills), which they used to decorate robes, moccasins, necklaces, armbands, and other items. Micmac quillwork reached its peak in the Victorian Era (1837–1901; the years when Queen Victoria ruled England), when the popularity of ornamental items like boxes, pincushions, and wall hangings was at its height among Americans. The Micmac also made attractive strings of beads called wampum from the shells they found on the shoreline.


The Micmac used a variety of weapons and tools such as spears, bows and arrows, snares, and leisters, or three-pronged fish spears. They used harpoons for seals. Hunters made birchbark “callers” shaped like megaphones, to imitate moose calls. Their tools underwent a change after Europeans arrived. Instead of using stone or bone for hooks or spear tips, they used iron.

Europeans adopted some of the Micmac tools and inventions, which were superior to their own. Snowshoes and toboggans became important to both cultures. The Micmac also made several types of canoes that were light and easy to repair. They had different styles for inland water travel and another for longer trips up the coast.



Like other Algonquian tribes, the Micmac traditionally held ceremonies to thank the tribal spirits for their generosity and to ask them for continued blessings. Such ceremonies could include activities like dancing, feasting, sport, games, and gift-giving.

In August 1994 the Aroostook Band of Micmacs hosted its first annual powwow, a three-day festival that featured Micmac crafts, food, and games.

>Rabbit and the Moon Man

According to this Micmac tale, Rabbit, a great hunter, is determined to catch the thief who has been stealing from his traps. He is startled by a flash of light, but pulls his rope snare tight to catch the robber.

When he came near his traps, Rabbit saw that the bright light was still there. It was so bright that it hurt his eyes. He bathed them in the icy water of a nearby brook, but still they smarted. He made big snowballs and threw them at the light, in the hope of putting it out. As they went close to the light, he heard them sizzle and saw them melt. Next, Rabbit scooped up great pawfuls of soft clay from the stream and made many big clay balls. He was a good shot and he threw the balls with all of his force at the dancing white light. He heard them strike hard and then his prisoner shouted.

Then a strange, quivering voice asked why he had been snared and demanded that he be set free at once, because he was the man in the moon and he must be home before dawn came. His face had been spotted with clay and, when Rabbit went closer, the moon man saw him and threatened to kill him and all of his tribe if he were not released at once.

Rabbit was so terrified that he raced back to tell his grandmother about his strange captive. She too was much afraid and told Rabbit to return and release the thief immediately. Rabbit went back, and his voice shook with fear as he told the man in the moon that he would be released if he promised never to rob the snares again. To make doubly sure, Rabbit asked him to promise that he would never return to earth, and the moon man swore that he would never do so. Rabbit could hardly see in the dazzling light, but at last he managed to gnaw through the bowstring with his teeth and the man in the moon soon disappeared in the sky, leaving a bright trail of light behind him.…

The man in the moon has never returned to earth. When he lights the world, one can still see the marks of the clay, which Rabbit threw on his face. Sometimes he disappears for a few nights, when he is trying to rub the marks of the clay balls from his face. Then the world is dark; but when the man in the moon appears again, one can see that he has never been able to clean the clay marks from his shining face.

Macfarland, Allan A. Fireside Book of North American Indian Folktales. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1974.

Family life

Because of the often harsh conditions in which they lived, the Micmac became a very self-sufficient people, able to survive by their wits. In winter they scattered into small family groups to find what little food was available. In summer, they reunited in larger groups. The Micmac considered all members of the tribe as equals, and individual initiative was highly prized. Males had to kill a large animal, such as a moose, to be recognized as adults. In addition, a Micmac man could not marry until he had spent two years with his fiancée’s father and proved his abilities as a provider.


For the Micmac, each month was associated with the pursuit of a different wild resource. They hunted seal and cod in January, smelt (a small fish) in March, geese in April, and young seals in May. They gathered eel or hunted for moose in September, sought elk and beaver for meat in October, and went ice fishing in December. While trying to capture seals, the Micmac sometimes disguised themselves in animal skins and stalked them, using clubs to kill their prey.

Current tribal issues

In the mid-1990s the Micmac Tribal Council in Maine began the Micmac Development Corporation to oversee tribal economic development, and look into the possibility of establishing a casino and resort business. During the mid-2000s, they began pursuing ownership of a power station on the Penobscot River.

In 2006 a federal judge ruled that the state of Maine did not have civil or criminal jurisdiction (power to enforce laws) on tribal lands. This was a victory for the Micmac and reinforced their sovereignty (self-government).

Notable people

Henri Membertou (c. 1580–1660) was an important Micmac chief, a Catholic convert, and an ally of the French. He was known as a shaman who could predict the future, walk on water, and cure people of diseases.

Chief Panounias (d. 1607) guided the French explorer Samuel Champlain into the interior of North America (see “History”). His death led to warfare between the Native Americans of Acadia and the Penobscot.

Anna Mae Aquash, born Pictou (1945–1976), was an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist who struggled to promote the rights of Native American people in North America. She was found murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota at the height of Native American protests in the 1970s. Aquash became a symbol of American Indian protest and activism.

Alger, Abby L. In Indian Tents: Stories Told by Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Micmac Indians. Park Forest, IL: University Press of the Pacific, 2006.

The American Indians: Algonquians of the East Coast. New York: Time-Life Books, 1995.

Lacey, Laurie. Micmac Medicines: Remedies and Recollections. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus, 1993.

McBride, Bunny. Our Lives in Our Hands: Micmac Indian Basketmakers. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 1990.

Runningwolf, Michael B., and Patricia Clark Smith. On the Trail of Elder Brother: Glous’gap Stories of the Micmac Indians. New York: Persea Books, 2003.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. The Micmac: How Their Ancestors Lived Five Hundred Years Ago. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Nimbus, 1983.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. Micmac Quillwork: Micmac Indian Techniques of Porcupine Quill Decoration: 1600-1950. Halifax, Canada: Nova Scotia Museum, 1991.

Aroostook Band of Micmacs. (accessed on July 10, 2007).

Augustine, Stephen. “Mi’kmaq.” Four Directions Teachings: Aboriginal Online Teachings and Resource Centre. (accessed on July 10, 2007).

Chisolm, D. “Mi’kmaq Resource Centre,“ The Mi’kmaq Resource Centre. (accessed on May 15, 2007).

Mi’gmaq Mi’kmaq Online Talking Dictionary. (accessed on July 10, 2007).

“Mi’kmaq Portraits Collection,“ Nova Scotia Museum. (accessed on July 10, 2007).

“Traditional Mi’kmaq Beliefs.“Indian Brook First Nation. (accessed on July 10, 2007).

George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 23 2018


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 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.