The origin of the name Micmac or Mi'kmaq, which identifies both a people and their language, is unclear. Alternative names for the Micmac, which can be found in historical sources, include Gaspesians, Souriquois, Acadians and Tarrantines; in the mid-19th century Silas Rand recorded the word wejebowkwejik as a self-ascription. At the time of European contact, Micmac-speaking peoples occupied the coastal areas of the Gaspé and the Maritime provinces east of the SAINT JOHN RIVER drainage. They continue to occupy this area as well as settlements in Newfoundland and New England, especially Boston. The number of registered Micmac is 19 891 (1996), with another 4500 (approximately) nonstatus persons of Micmac heritage (see INDIAN). Estimates of the Micmac population range from 3000 to 35 000, with 20 000 being a reasonable figure.
Micmac is among the Wabanaki cluster of Eastern Algonquian languages, which include the various ABENAKI dialects and the Penobscot and MALISEET-Passamaquoddy languages. Maritime PREHISTORY extends 11 000 years into the past, but the date of arrival of Algonquian speakers into the area remains uncertain.
Social, Political and Cultural Patterns
Aboriginal Micmac settlements were characterized by individual or joint households scattered about a bay or along a river. Communities were related by alliance and kinship. Leadership, based on prestige rather than power, was largely concerned with effective management of the fishing and hunting economy. Painting, music and oratory were encouraged. The Micmac were among the first peoples to be affected by European activities in the New World and underwent early depopulation and sociocultural disruption. They attempted to profit from the FUR TRADE by serving as intermediaries between Europeans and groups farther west. As their trade advantages disappeared, they tried to exploit a military alliance with the French (see IROQUOIS WARS).
After British suzerainty was established, the Micmac were subjected to conscious attempts by government to alter their lifestyle. Most moves to establish them as agriculturalists failed because of badly conceived programs and encroachments upon reserved lands. Their employment as labourers effected irreversible change: crafts, coopering, the porpoise fishery, and road, rail and lumber work integrated the Micmac into the 19th- and 20th-century economy, but left them socially isolated.
A forced relocation scheme in the 1950s posed the greatest threat to them as a distinctive people. The Micmac have been able to salvage some of their traditional culture in political decision-making, religion and language. The rate of unemployment for reserve communities is extremely high in a region with high unemployment, but there are a number of successful musicians, artists, writers and business and professional persons among the Micmac.
See also NATIVE PEOPLE, EASTERN WOODLANDS and general articles under NATIVE PEOPLE.