The Micmac How Their Ancestors Lived Five Hundred Years Ago

Abundant Forest, Rivers of Fish

Five hundred years ago, the climate was much like it is today: cool damp summers, months of sun and fog, and winters which varied from cold and snowy to those where the ground was bare and temperatures often above freezing.

The environment in which the Micmac lived, however, was really very different from today's. Now there are large areas cleared of trees for pastures and fields and for towns and cities. Five hundred years ago the land was a forest filled with birch, maple, beech, oak, pine, spruce and fir trees. These provided bark for houses, canoes and containers, roots for binding, and wood for fuel as well as for many of the tools used by the Micmac. The forest was also home to many animals. Here were found bear, moose, porcupine, hare, grouse, and passenger pigeon. Along the lakes and streams of the interior there lived beaver, muskrat, raccoon and otter. The only clearings were natural meadows, marshes and bogs, or sections burnt over by forest fires. These open areas were important to the Micmac because here they found useful plants. Food plants like the groundnut, cranberry, blueberry, raspberry and strawberry grew in these sunny unforested places. Plants used in medicines or for making baskets and mats also came from these places. Some birds nested in these open areas and often moose or caribou fed there.

Moose, caribou, beaver and other animals were much more common then. The rivers were so filled with fish in the spring and fall that they looked more like rivers of fish than of water. The fish were larger, too. Sturgeon often weighed 400 kg or more, while today a large one is about 100 kg. There were so many pigeons in the sky that they sometimes blocked the sun, like a large cloud. The passenger pigeon is now extinct, but there were once millions of them in the land of the Micmac. Huge herds of seal and walrus used to sun themselves and give birth to their young along the shores of the Maritime provinces; now the walrus are gone and seals are present only in small numbers.

It was along the shores of the bays, coves and rivers that the Micmac found the greatest amount of food and other materials for their needs. Here the people spent the largest part of the year. From the shallow waters they took shellfish: clams, mussels, whelks, periwinkles, squid, crabs and lobsters; and fish: flounder, smelt, shad, skate, salmon and eels. Geese, ducks and other waterbirds fed and nested close by. In deeper water the Micmac fished for porpoise, sturgeon, swordfish and the smaller whales. They hunted seals and collected birds' eggs on nearby islands.

On land, they could find most of the plants and animals they needed without having to go very far from the sea. In the late spring and fall, however, they left their coastal homes to go upstream to narrow places on the rivers where the community gathered to trap salmon and eels. They also moved into the interior for a brief period during the winter when fresh food was scarce on the coast.[…]

Herds of sea mammals

The Micmac hunted a number of sea mammals, including walrus, porpoise, small whales and grey seals. The most important was the harbour seal. Its meat was good to eat and the skin was made into moccasins and other clothing. The most important product, though, was the oily fat. Harbour-seal oil was particularly good for flavouring foods, and as a hair and body oil. The fat was boiled in water, and as the oil floated to the surface, it was ladled into moose bladders for storage. Harbour seals could be hunted most of the year. Large herds of several hundred animals would sun themselves on sandy beaches in narrow coves. The Micmac approached them quietly by canoe and speared the seals in the shallow water as they attempted to get out to sea.[…]

Calling the moose

Of the land mammals hunted by the Micmac, the moose was the biggest. In the summer, hunters would stalk moose and shoot them with arrows. Since a single arrow would not kill such a large animal, they followed it, shooting it when they could, and sometimes driving it near to their wigwam site. It might take a day or more for a large moose to die.

In the fall mating season, hunters would attempt to lure moose by using birchbark moosecalls to imitate a cow moose. A number of hunters would wait in ambush with arrows and lances; when the moose came within striking distance all the hunters would shoot their arrows and use their lances. In the winter, the hunters used dogs and wore snowshoes when stalking a moose. The best winter weather for hunting was when there was a great deal of snow. The heavy moose would sink in the snow and become tired very quickly because it could not run easily. The dogs used by the Micmacs were fairly small and lightweight and ran on top of the snow to annoy and hinder the moose. The hunters, with the aid of their snowshoes, could move fairly quickly on the snow as well. Their arrows and lances put an end to the animal.

After the kill, the women butchered the moose and hauled the cut-up carcass back to the wigwam. If the moose was killed some distance from home they might set up a temporary shelter and then camp at the kill-site for a few days. Women cut the meat into long strips for smoking. Fat, meat and berries were stuffed into the intestines, then hung in a smoky place in the wigwam for later use. However, the most welcome part of the moose was the creamy white fat that could be taken from the bones. The women would break up the bones with stone hammers and place the crushed pieces in the large wooden kettles used for preparing their soups and stews. They would heat the bone-and-water mixture by placing red-hot rocks into the kettle. The fat floated to the top and was then ladled into birchbark containers to cool. This fat was used to season food and, since it was a quick source of energy, it was sometimes eaten by itself. Large boxes of fat were given as gifts to show special respect or affection for someone.

Birds were an important source of food which children could help provide. In addition to the numerous eggs that were collected, children would catch grouse with a loop-snare by sneaking up on a bird, slipping a cord loop over its head and pulling tight. Children would approach wild geese as they were feeding in a meadow and club them with sticks.

Adults usually hunted geese at night. Two or three men in a canoe would drift silently into the middle of a flock of sleeping birds; then they would light birchbark torches and make a lot of noise. The startled geese would awaken and fly into the air. In their confusion they would circle around the bright torches. The men would club the birds, then wring their necks. The Micmac could fill a large canoe in a night in this way. After having feasted on fresh roast goose, they would smoke the rest of the meat.

Smoked foods were eaten without cooking; most food was boiled, however. This was done in a kettle made from a large hardwood log. The log was hollowed out by charring the wood, then chopping out the burnt part until the hole was deep enough. These kettles were so heavy that the Micmac made one for each place where they spent a lot of time. They would have a kettle at their coastal site and at the up-river places where they trapped salmon and eels. To cook food, the kettle was filled with water and hot stones were dropped in using a pair of wooden tongs. The heat from the stones brought the water to a boil. Then the food that was to be cooked was added. When done, the soup or stew would be served in a wooden or bark dish.

Sometimes food was roasted. Meat or fish would be stuck on a sharp stick and placed near the fire until it was done, or small pieces would be placed on a grill of green wood and put directly on the coals. Larger pieces of meat were cooked on a rotisserie. This was a device by which meat was evenly roasted without having to be closely watched. It was made by passing a cord over a bar above the fire and attaching the loose ends to a skewer stuck through the meat. The skewer was twisted — much as we wind up a child's swing — and released. The meat would rotate for a long while, first one way, then the other, until it was cooked on all sides.[…]

Peace in the family

It was common for a wigwam site to be occupied by two or more related families. The closest family tie was between sisters or brothers, so that two sisters and their husbands and children, or two brothers and their wives and children, might choose to live at the same place. In the case of the women, it meant that they would have helpful and pleasant company while the men were away hunting. For the men it meant that they had a work group who got along well with one another and who understood each other's habits -something that was important when hunting silently.

Some men took more than one wife. This gave them more relatives who could help them when they needed it, and it enabled them to have more children. So some wigwam sites had a large group of people living at them, especially those of the highly respected people who had other children living with them as well as their own family.

In order for all these people at a site to get along with one another, there were rules of etiquette which everyone followed. Respect was shown to people older than oneself. There were even special words for elder brother or elder sister. Inside the wigwam, each person had their own special place. Women and girls were on one side; men and boys were on the other. The parents were at the back of the wigwam, the youngest children were next to them, and the oldest were near the doorway. If a person wanted to be left alone he moved against the wigwam wall. The others would not bother or talk to this person until he moved more to the centre of the wigwam, near the firepit. By showing respect for elders and by honouring others' rights to privacy, the Micmac kept peace in the family.

Children growing and learning

The birth of a child was an occasion for rejoicing. The mother washed and wrapped her new baby in soft robes, which she had painted with protective magic signs. Then she laid the baby in the wooden carrier carved with beautiful and intricate designs by its father, and she laced up the carrier strings to keep the infant snug and safe inside.

Until the child could walk, it would see the world from the back of its mother or elder sisters. While the mother worked, the carrier might be hung to swing gently from the branch of a tree or a pole inside the wigwam, out of harm's way. Bigger children would play with the baby, sitting next to it to fan away the mosquitoes or tickle it with a feather, teaching it words. Thus, from birth, children were included in all aspects of family life. Their parents loved them dearly, and invited the whole community to a birth feast. They often celebrated the first step and the first tooth with another feast.

Children learned by watching and listening and by imitation. Almost as soon as they could toddle around the camp, little boys were playing with toy spears and tiny bows, practising the arts of stalking and trapping, studying the tracks and calls of mammals and birds as they tagged after their fathers and uncles or brothers.[…]

Preparing a marriage and a feast

Girls were considered women of marriageable age when they became physically mature. A boy became a man in the eyes of the community when he had killed his first moose; he was then allowed to marry. A young man went to the parents of the girl he liked, and asked permission to live with them for a trial period of one to three years. During that time he hunted and fished for her family, and made all the equipment that a man would need to support and care for a family of his own: tools, weapons, a sled, a canoe, snowshoe frames. His fiancee in turn demonstrated her skills: butchering his kills, cooking his food, preparing his clothes, weaving in the webbing of his snowshoes.

This trial period enabled everyone to see how they liked each other, and to judge whether the two young people were capable of performing all the tasks necessary to the survival of a household. At some point the parents met, and if the couple was willing and the families agreeable, a marriage feast was celebrated. The young man provided -hundreds of kilos of food for this as a final demonstration of his worth. The eating went on for days, while stories were told, the family histories of the couple were recited and tobacco pipes were passed around. Chanting and dancing and games added to the excitement.

After the marriage ceremony, a young couple might live alone, stay with various relatives, or go visiting for a while, as they chose. The first baby arrived, and family life began anew.[…]

Traditional Micmac Skills

After a hunter had killed an animal, the women carefully removed its skin before butchering it. From the hides and furs of moose, caribou, beaver, bear and seal they made most of the family clothes. A skin was tied to a wooden stretching frame, and the women scraped the inside clean. If the fur was not wanted, they removed all the hair and scraped the outside. Next the skin was rubbed all over with oil or grease and a tanning substance such as animal brains, which softened and preserved the leather. The skin was worked and stretched to make it supple. Finally the whole hide was suspended over a smouldering fire and smoked to ensure that the leather stayed supple, even if it got wet later. Smoking also coloured animal hides, which are naturally creamy white; Micmac women could stain them different shades of tan, brown and black, depending on the length of time they were kept in the smoke.


Men and women wore loincloths of soft skin, with the ends fastened to a belt at the waist. Each had a pair of leggings of thicker moosehide or sealskin for warmth, and to protect the legs from scratchy underbrush. Their moccasins were also of moose or seal leather, sewn with very fine close stitches to help keep water out. In winter, moccasins might be lined with fur and have high tops. Some were simply a long tube of skin from a moose leg, pulled off whole, then sewn up across the toe. Both men and women wore a pair of sleeves — one sleeve to cover each arm and shoulder. These were tied together at the back and front.

Each person had a blanket-sized robe of suede-like leather or rich warm beaver fur which was worn over the shoulders in winter. Women had a second robe which acted as a dress. There were two kinds of women's robes, both of which had belts at the waist and fell to below the knees. Children had similar clothing and little babies were wrapped up in the softest fox fur or in the feathered skins of swans.

For sewing, a bone awl was used to pierce the leather, but there were also needles of bone or copper. For thread, women had strands of dried animal sinew. The robes for men and women were tied rather than sewn, because they were taken off at night and used for bedcovers.[…]

Wigwam means shelter

The Micmac people lived in wigwams. Wigwam is a Micmac word which means a dwelling, or shelter. The people knew how to make a number of different shapes and sizes of wigwams. The conical type, with one door and a fireplace in the centre, was the most common, but there was also a longer A-frame shape with a door and a fire at each end. The V-type wigwam had a triangular floor-plan. It looked like a V

from above, with a door at the wide end. There was also a rounded hut, which resembled a bowl turned upside down. All of these dwellings were built by putting up a structure of poles, then covering these with bark or hide or reed mats, or a combination of these. A birchbark covering was best, because it was waterproof and insects did not eat it.

To put up a conical wigwam with a birchbark cover, the women first made its frame. They cut five to ten long spruce poles and tied them together at their tops with lengths of tough spruce root. Standing the poles up, they then spread them apart at the bottom until the logs formed a cone shape the size of the wigwam they wanted. Next a thick sapling was bent into a hoop and lashed to the inside of this frame, at about the height of a man's head. The hoop kept the poles from slipping inward or outward.[…]


The canoe and snowshoe were both North American Indian inventions. These two items, together with the toboggan and sled, allowed the Micmac people to travel in winter and summer. Both canoe and snowshoe are so perfectly adapted to the land and climate that they were immediately adopted by the European explorers and settlers who later came to this continent. Their basic forms remain unchanged and in use today.

The birchbark canoe was probably the most impressive Micmac construction. It could be taken far out to sea or up shallow streams and down whitewater rapids. In a country of hills and forests where water is the only road, the canoe was the best way to travel. It could carry great loads, but was light enough for one or two people to portage from waterway to waterway, to take around dangerous waterfalls, or to pole upstream. Thus a family in a canoe could travel far through the interior, using connected rivers, lakes and streams as their highway.

The Micmac canoe ranged in length from three to eight metres. Its high ends and the sides which curved upwards towards the centre kept it from taking on lots of water in rough seas. This shape was distinctive; it marked the canoe as having been made by a Micmac and nobody else.

To build a canoe, men looked for big White Birch trees and cut the heavy bark from them as single sheets, as high up as possible before the branches began. These sheets of bark were placed on the ground and then folded up over the wooden frame of the craft. Split spruce root was used to sew the bark together and to bind it to the frame. Sometimes the root was dyed different colours. Where the bark had been joined, the seams were caulked with spruce gum to make the boat waterproof.

Paddles were made of beech, maple or ash. They had blades as long as a man's arm, and were often decorated with carved designs.

The Micmac people also made hide-covered boats, using the skins of moose or caribou in place of bark. These were used as temporary craft when a canoe was not available, because the untanned skin cover rotted after a short while in the water.[…]


The Micmac people made the things they needed from the raw materials around them. Over the centuries their ancestors had discovered how to use animal bone, ivory, teeth, claws, sinew, hide, fur, feathers, quills, hooves and shells, clay, copper and stone; and wood, bark, roots and other plant parts. From these materials they created clothing, houses, transportation and all the tools, furnishings, weapons and toys which enabled them to live and to enjoy life. They managed to do all this without metals or machinery, relying only on their own skills and knowledge.

Traditionally, there were certain crafts and chores that were done by men and some which were women's responsibilities. Both contributed their special skills, although each probably knew enough about the other's work to cope in emergencies. Women usually built the family wigwam, for example, but a hunter alone in the woods would set up one for himself. Women sometimes made canoes, although ordinarily this would be done by a husband, father or brother. As well, some things were made by men and women together, each working on a different stage; for example for snowshoes men made the frames and weaving needles, and women produced the rawhide and wove it in.

Men hunted, fished and fought, and they made the tools and weapons necessary to do all those things. They worked with wood, bone, antler and stone, fashioning log kettles, baby carriers, toboggans, tobacco pipes, duck decoys and bowls and spoons. Many of the items they made were decorated with carved designs.

Axes and adzes were formed by pecking and grinding stones such as granite to a sharp edge and smooth surface. In turn, these tools were used to cut and work wood. Finer carving and gouging was done with beaver teeth -the front teeth of the beaver, which are strong enough to gnaw through trees. Sometimes the beaver tooth was sharpened to a point, to cut thin lines. The front teeth of moose and porcupine were also good woodworking tools. All three could be hafted — set in handles -to give the carver a better grip. To smooth wood and bone, the men used the sharp edges of shells, or sanded their work with grit. Holes were drilled with a bow-drill which had been filled with a stone bit.

Micmac men also made knife-blades, spear-points, arrowheads and scrapers of stone. Only certain types of rock were used, rock with a special crystalline structure, such as quartz, agate, chert and jasper. All these stones break in a very particular way when hit. A man who knew exactly where to strike the stone, and how hard to strike, would shape a rock 'core' into the form he wanted by breaking off flakes along its surface edges. This was not crudely done. It took years of careful practice to learn. The Micmac tool-kits for stone-knapping, as it is called, included hammers of various sizes made of rock or antler.[…]

Reeds, roots and porcupine quills

Micmac women butchered, cooked, built the wigwam, and prepared clothing and its ornamentation. They made cordage — the ropes, netting, twine, string and lashing that their families needed — and most of the containers: bowls, dishes, pots, baskets and bags.

Women were also skilled weavers. Their materials included cedar bark, basswood bark, reeds, rushes, cattails, nettles, Indian hemp, sweetgrass, spruce roots, beach grass, rawhide, tendon thread, feathers, moose hair, porcupine quills, and the skins of everything from caribou to rabbits to eels. Think about this for a minute: they had to know where and when and how to gather all these things, and how to prepare them for use. They had to learn six basic techniques of weaving with many variations for each of the different materials. Some materials could be woven three or four different ways. This is an impressive technology.

Baskets, boxes, bags and bowls

Women made all sorts of containers, too. Containers were very important to a people who had no closets, no kitchen shelves or bureaus. A people who moved regularly on foot or by canoe had to have lightweight but sturdy baskets, boxes, bags and bowls in which to store and to carry all the family possessions and food supplies. Women solved the problem by using a variety of strong but light materials.

There were bags of tanned leather or containers for which animal skin was allowed to dry into stiff rawhide. Tobacco pouches, knife sheaths, carrying sacks and quivers were a few of the items made from skin. Sometimes an animal's furred skin was taken off whole and used as a bag.[…]

Source: Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Harold McGeee, "The Micmac: How Their Ancestors Lived Five Hundred Years Ago" (Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing Limited, 1983), 5-49. Notes: Illustrations by Kathy R. Kaulbach

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