The Mi'kmaq (Micmac)
Historians and archaeologists differ as to when the Mi'kmaq
first came to Newfoundland. Newfoundland Mi'kmaq oral
tradition holds that the Mi'kmaq were living in Newfoundland
prior to European contact.
There is some historical evidence that
the Mi'kmaq were living in Newfoundland by the 16th century, and
by the 17th century there are increasing references to the Mi'kmaq
in the historical record.
Map showing traditional hunting and trapping territory
of the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq as perceived by Frank Speck.
From Frank Speck, Beothuk and Micmac, Indian Notes and
Monographs series, vol. 22 (New York: Museum of the American Indian,
Heye Foundation, 1922). End Map. Illustration by Tina Riche.
During the 16th and 17th centuries the Mi'kmaq had created
what one historian calls a "Domain of Islands" in the
Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mi'kmaq traders who had adopted the small
European sailing boat, the shallop (or chaloupe), had constructed
a network of exchange which ranged from the Strait of Belle Isle
between Newfoundland and Labrador to the coasts of Massachusetts.
These Mi'kmaq acted as middlemen in the exchange of European goods
During the colonial period, the Mi'kmaq were allied with the
French. As a result, when the French were defeated by the British
in 1763, the Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland were regarded with suspicion
by British authorities.
By this time, the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq had developed a
distinctive way of life hunting caribou, trapping furs, and
exchanging them for necessities such as guns, kettles, knives.
In the 19th century, the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq often acted as
guides; for example, the explorer William Cormack, was guided by
Mi'kmaq in his attempt to locate the Beothuk in the interior of
Newfoundland in 1822 and in 1829. Throughout the 19th century,
the 150 or so Mi'kmaq people in Newfoundland made their living as
guides, trappers, mail carriers, and as sellers of basketry.
|A deserted wigwam, ca. 1890.
Humber River, western coast of Newfoundland. The influx of European hunters and trappers during the 19th century greatly altered the traditional way of life for many Mi'kmaq.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA 13-19).
Life became much more difficult for the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq
with the completion of the trans-island railway in 1898. The
railway brought a flood of caribou hunters to the interior of the
island, and by 1930 the caribou had been hunted almost to
extinction. The world-wide decline in fur prices coupled with the
Depression of the 1930s spelled the beginning of the end of the
old way of life. By 1945 there were no full-time trappers left in
Conne River (Miawpukek), the largest Mi'kmaq community, and
seasonal logging for low wages represented one of the few sources
of cash for the community. Hunting, fishing, and gathering
berries remained a necessary part of most families' lives.
Despite their early conversion to Catholicism, many Mi'kmaq
retained their traditional beliefs. Although use of the Mi'kmaq
language declined drastically in the 20th century, in recent
years the Conne River community has worked valiantly to revive
In 1972 the people of Conne River formed an elected band
council, and in 1973 the Federation of Newfoundland Indians was
formed to work toward Federal recognition of Newfoundland's
Mi'kmaq. In 1984 the Federal Government recognized the Conne
River Mi'kmaq as status Indians under the Indian Act, and in 1987
Conne River was recognized as a status Indian Reserve.
Although the Conne River Mi'kmaq have yet to have their land
claims accepted by the federal or provincial government, the
community has become a model of aboriginal enterprise, including,
among others, a flourishing aquaculture programme, hunting and
fishing lodges, and a logging operation. In an effort to promote
and sustain Mi'kmaq culture, the Miawpukek Band Council sponsors a
variety of cultural events and programmes, many of which can be
seen on the Miawpukek Web Site.
© 1997, Ralph T. Pastore
Archaeology Unit & History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland