Around 1650, there were 500 to 600 Atikamekw. They occupied an area crisscrossed by navigable rivers and located at the crossroads of Cree, Algonquin and Innus communities, a situation that favoured barter. The Atikamekw supplemented their diet of game and fish by acquiring agricultural products such as corn. In spring, the Atikamekw would boil maple sap to make sugar and syrup; they are at the origin of the history of maple syrup in Quebec.
Between 1670 and 1680, a smallpox epidemic struck the Atikamekw. The few survivors were driven away by the Iroquois. Some twenty years later, a group of Amerindians settled on Atikamekw territory; they were known as the "Têtes-de-Boules". Most historians now believe that this goup consisted of a handful of Atikamekw survivors together with other Amerindian nomads. The name Atikamekw would not be used again until the 1970's.
The arrival of the Europeans transformed the lives of the "Têtes-de-Boule". Under the influence of Christianity, they gave up polygamy, they married and had their children baptised. In 1774, the Hudson's Bay Company opened the first trading posts in the region. With the intensification of trade relations, non-Native values began to take the place of traditions.
In 1831, forestry companies began working in the area and introduced paid work. "Têtes-de-Boule" workers knew the forest well and were easily satisfied.
The 20th century saw the beginning of a new era, that of hydroelectric projects. The Opitciwan community had to relocate twice because of floods resulting from the creation of the Gouin Reservoir in 1918. All these activities had an adverse effect on the wildlife; log drives and the flooding of the woods by the Gouin Reservoir produced mercury, poisoning in the fish. It became impossible to maintain the traditional way of life.
4,779 Atikamekw live today in Manawan, Opitciwan and Wemotaci; a few others live in La Tuque, and the Mauricie and Lac Saint-Jean regions.
Today, forestry is the main source of employment. Craft work provides an extra source of income, particularly for the women who make bark baskets. In recent years, efforts have been made to develop the region's tourism potential; in 1993, snowmobilers inaugurated the Northern Triangle, a 1300 km trail that goes through Opitciwan, and many cultural tourism centers were also created.
In May 1993, the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw (CNA) signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments on the construction and repair of roads providing access to the three communities. Roads that provide year-round access allow now the Atikamekw to make an active contribution to the region's economic development.