Manitou, the ubiquitous creative spirit, was identified with the sun. Other deities in human form could be prevailed upon to assist mortals. All animals, but especially bears, were treated with respect, in part because it was believed that they could transform themselves into other species. The Micmacs' rich mythology included Gluscap, the culture hero, as well as several types and levels of magical beings, including cannibalistic giants. Shamans were generally men and could be quite powerful. They cured, predicted the future, and advised hunters.
Small winter hunting groups, composed of households, came together in the summer as bands, in seven defined districts. They also joined forces for war. Bands were identified in part through the use of distinctive symbols. There were three levels of chiefs, all with relatively little authority. Local hunting groups of at least thirty to forty people were led by a hereditary headman (sagamore), usually an eldest son of an important family. These groups were loosely defined and of flexible membership. Chiefs of local groups provided dogs for the hunt, canoes, and food reserves. Sagamores also kept all game killed by unmarried men, and some of the game killed by married men.
The general Micmac worldview valued moderation, equality, generosity, bravery, and respect for all living things. When the people gathered together from the spring through the fall, each group camped at a traditional place along the coast. There was a recognized social ranking in which commoners came below three levels of chiefs but above slaves, who were taken in war.
Children as well as the elderly were treated with respect and affection, although little or no effort was made to help ill or old people remain alive. There were many occasions for feasting and dancing, especially as part of life cycle events. The Micmacs probably observed a woman's puberty ceremony; boys were considered men when they had killed their first large game. There were elaborate menstrual taboos, including seclusion. Older brothers and sisters generally avoided each other. Men used the sweat lodge for purification.
Marriages were generally arranged. A prospective husband, usually no less than twenty years of age, spent at least two years working for his future father-in-law as a hunter and general provider. After the probationary period, he provided game for a big wedding feast, including dancing (first marriages only). The birth of children formalized a marriage. Adultery was rare, although polygyny was practiced. Longevity (life spans over 100 years) was not unusual before contact with Europeans.
Micmacs built their inland winter camps near streams. Single extended families lived in conical wigwams of birchbark, skins, or woven mats. Each had a central indoor fireplace. The inside was divided into several compartments for cooking, eating, sleeping, and other activities. Floors were covered with boughs, and fur-covered boughs served as beds. The people may have had rectangular, open, multifamily summer houses.
In the winter, small bands hunted game such as moose, bear, caribou, and porcupine. They also trapped smaller game and ate land and water birds (and their eggs). Meat and fish were eaten fresh, roasted, broiled, boiled, or smoked. Pounded moose bones yielded a nutritious "butter." People fished in the spring and summer for eel, salmon, cod, herring, sturgeon, and smelt. They also collected shellfish and hunted seals and other marine animals. They also gathered a number of wild berries, roots, and nuts. They occasionally ate dog, especially at funeral feasts, but they generally avoided snakes, amphibians, and skunks.
Men made birchbark moose calls and boxes. They also made double-edged moose-bone-blade spears and bows and stone-pointed arrows for hunting as well as snares and deadfalls for trapping. Women made reed and coiled spruce-root baskets, woven mats, and possibly pottery. Micmacs generally served as trade intermediaries between northern hunters and southern farmers. Men built eight- to ten-foot-long, seaworthy birchbark and caribou skin canoes. They made two types of square-toed snowshoes, one for powder and one for frozen surfaces.
People dressed in skin robes fastened with one (men) or two (women) belts, moose skin or deerskin leggings, and moccasins. Men also wore loincloths. Both sexes wore their hair long. People tattooed band symbols on their bodies.
Small population groups came together as bands for war. The people were allied with southern Algonquins as members of the Abenaki Confederacy. The Micmacs adopted some Iroquois war customs, such as the torture of prisoners by women. There was some interband fighting (intraband disputes were generally resolved by individual fighting or wrestling). Captives were taken as slaves, tortured and killed, or, especially in the case of young women, adopted.
The Micmacs were originally from the Great Lakes area, where they probably had contact with the Ohio Mound Builders and were exposed to agriculture. They may have encountered Vikings around 1000. The Cabots, early explorers, captured three Micmacs at their first encounter. Friendly meetings with Jacques Cartier (1523) and Samuel de Champlain (1603) led to a long-term French alliance.
The Micmacs were involved with the fur trade by the seventeenth century, becoming intermediaries between the French and Indian tribes to the south. A growing reliance on non-Native manufactured metal goods and foods changed their cultural and economic patterns, and war, alcohol, and disease vastly diminished their population. In 1610, the Grand Chief Membertou converted to Catholicism after being cured by priests.
In the eighteenth century, the French armed Micmacs with flintlocks and encouraged them, with scalp bounties, to kill people from the neighboring Beothuk tribe. This they did to great effect, nearly annihilating those Indians, after which they occupied their former territory in Newfoundland. British attempts at genocide against the Indians included feeding them poisoned food, trading them disease-contaminated cloth, and indiscriminate individual and mass murder.
By the mideighteenth century, most Micmacs had become Catholics. They continued fighting the British until 1763. Much of this fighting took place at sea, where the people showed their excellent nautical skills. Following the American Revolution and the end of the fur trade, Micmacs remained in their much diminished traditional area, which was increasingly invaded by non-Natives.
In the nineteenth century, Micmacs were forced to accept non-Indian approval of their leadership as well as a general trimming of lands guaranteed by treaty. The people continued some traditional subsistence activities during the nineteenth century but also moved toward working in the lumber, construction, and shipping industries and as migrant farm labor. They were generally excluded from higher-paying skilled or permanent jobs. Starvation and disease also stalked the people during those years.
Micmacs had lost most of their Canadian reserves by the early 1900s. Schools were located on many of those that remained. Hockey and baseball became very popular before the Depression. Significant economic activities in the early to midtwentieth century included logging, selling splint baskets, and local seasonal labor, such as blueberry raking and potato picking. An administrative centralization of reserves in the 1950s led to increased factionalism and population flight.
In the 1960s, many Micmac men began working in high-steel construction, on projects mainly in Boston. Women used vocational training to find work as nurses, teachers, and social workers. They also became increasingly active in band politics. Canadian Micmacs formed the Union of New Brunswick Indians and the Union of Nova Scotia Indians in 1969 to coordinate service programs and document land claims. They and other landless tribes formed the Association of Aroostook Indians in 1970 to try to raise their standard of living and fight discrimination. The tribe formed the Aroostook Micmac Council in 1982.
Many Micmacs still speak the Native language, and they tend to be active in various pan-Indian organizations. Most are Catholics. There have been some gains in Canadian Micmacs' quest to regain their hunting and fishing rights. Canadian Micmacs still face severe problems such as substance abuse, discrimination, and a high suicide rate.