Native Peoples of the Subarctic
∑ Cultures in the subarctic consisted of small bands of hunter-gatherers that emphasized the hunting of caribou. The subarctic was home to about thirty major groups of two major language families, Athapaskan and Algonquian.
Geography and Environment
∑ Long, cold winters and short warm summers
∑ Most precipitation falls as snow, which covers the ground for more than six months each year.
∑ Zone of tundra with permafrost.
∑ South of the tundra is a zone of coniferous forest that dominates most of the subarctic.
∑ Small region of deciduous forest lies to the south of the coniferous forest.
A Basic Prehistory of the Subarctic
∑ At the end of the Pleistocene, the glaciers that had covered the subarctic region gradually began to melt.
○ Created many lake basins.
∑ Subarctic region could not support humans until about 7000 BP, after which the forest became established.
The Paleoindian Period
∑ Majority of the subarctic glaciated during Paleoindian times.
○ Paleoindians exploited the unglaciated coastal regions.
The Archaic Period
∑ Sea mammal hunters along the east coast by 9000 BP.
∑ At 7000 BP, Algonquian groups moved north into the interior eastern subarctic.
∑ Athapaskan people move into the western subarctic from the north and west.
∑ Prehistoric people were organized into small, mobile bands and began to specialize in caribou hunting, although many other animals, such as musk ox, moose, elk, small mammals, waterfowl, and a great variety of fish.
The Contact Period
∑ Native people in the subarctic were probably first contacted by the Norse 1000 years ago.
○ Contact was brief and had no lasting effects.
∑ Basque fisherman first contacted subarctic groups in the east by the early 16th century. By the late 18th century, all groups in the region had been exposed to Europeans. Interaction between Europeans and the Indians was dominated by the fur trade.
∑ England's Hudson's Bay Company took control after 1670.
∑ The Indians took full advantage of the demand for fur and adjusted their settlement and subsistence systems to accommodate trapping and trading.
∑ Guns were introduced into that region in the late 19th century, and the number of animals a hunter could take was greatly increased. Game depletion became so severe that it endangered both animal and human populations.
∑ The Northwest Rebellion of 1885, also known as the Riel Uprising was surppressed.
The Impact of European Contact
∑ The most obvious impacts on native groups in the subarctic were the changes brought about as a result of the fur trade. Men hunted furs instead of food, settlements coalesced around trading posts, and by 1800 the depletion of fur and game resources from overhunting had forced most groups into a dependent relationship with the trading posts.
∑ Disease also devastated native populations.
○ Major smallpox epidemics swept through the eastern subarctic in 1737 and 1781 and a very large number of Indians died. In the 1930s, tuberculosis became a major problem.
A Brief History of Ethnographic Research
∑ Few anthropological studies were done until the 20th century. However, a great deal of ethnographic information was recorded by earlier explorers, missionaries, and fur companies.
A Broad Portrait of Subarctic Groups
∑ Subarctic groups made their primary living by hunting and fishing, with the gathering of plant foods forming a relatively minor component of the economy.
∑ Northern Athapaskan languages were spoken in the west and Algonquian in the east.
○ This distribution may reflect the initial colonization of the region about 7000 years ago.
∑ Most of the Athapaskan groups refer to themselves as Dinť.
∑ 2 major branches of Algonquian languages in the eastern subarctic.
○ Cree and Ojibwa
∑ Most subarctic groups were organized into small, local bands consisting of a few related families.
○ The local band moved frequently within the forest to hunt and to avoid the cold winds.
∑ In the summer, a number of local bands might gather into larger groups (regional band) of several dozen families.
∑ Each of the bands had headmen.
○ These leaders had little real power.
○ Took charge of important community activities, such as ccommunal hunting and fishing, camp relocation, or other activities.
∑ Women rarely had any major authority or significant political power.
∑ Women had a great deal of responsibility for camp work and food gathering.
∑ War was practiced by most groups and was usually based on feuds.
○ Warfare was frequently conducted by shamans, who placed spells on the enemy.
○ If actual combat occurred, it often involved surprise attacks, during which enemy men were killed and young women were captured.
○ Scalping was not practiced.
∑ Kinship was bilateral with no distinction between motherís and fatherís side of the family.
○ Lineages and clans were not recognized among some, such as the Western Woods Cree.
∑ There was a tendency toward matrilocality
∑ Many groups employed a system in which a person belonged to one of two major groups of clans.
○ Crow and Wolf
○ Membership depended on the membership of oneís mother.
∑ First menses was significant for females, who would be isolated from the group.
∑ Marriages were usually arranged by oneís parents, and polygyny was common.
∑ Men hunted, fished, and conducted war.
∑ Women collected plant resources and did most of the domestic chores.
∑ Women were often treated poorly, and being beaten by oneís husband was not uncommon.
∑ Some groups had berdaches.
∑ Music, dancing, and storytelling were very popular and many games were played.
∑ After contact, the Indians learned how to make alcoholic beverages, and drinking parties became common social occasions among many groups.
∑ The people of the subarctic were primarily hunters and fishers.
∑ Division of labor based on sex.
∑ Plant collecting was not the primary source of food.
∑ Agriculture was not practiced by any subarctic groups.
∑ The only domesticated animal was the dog.
∑ Sharing, reciprocity, and general cooperation were important characteristics of the subsistence system.
∑ The two most important terrestrial animals in subarctic economies were caribou and moose.
○ Used for both food and skins
∑ A trail mix, called pemmican, was made from a mixture of meat, fat, and berries pounded together, and would keep for months.
∑ Fish were a critical resource for most groups, particularly in summer.
○ Speared, traps, weirs, and nets
∑ The most important food plants were various species of berries, followed by fern roots, wild onions, and mushrooms.
∑ Birch sap was used as a candy and spruce sap was made into chewing gum.
Material Culture and Technology
∑ In summer, short conical tents were constructed.
∑ In winter, they used semi-subterranean, earth-covered structures.
∑ Subarctic groups used several types of snowshoes.
∑ Dogsleds were used by a few groups.
∑ Canoes the primary mode of transportation during ice-free months.
∑ Most clothing was made of tanned caribou or moose hides.
∑ Containers made of bark, a few stone tools, many items made from bone and wood.
○ No pottery
∑ Native copper was cold hammered into ornamental objects such as jewelry.
∑ Rope, large nets, fencing, snowshoes, and other items were made from babiche, caribou, or moose skin cut into long strips and braided together.
∑ Subarctic groups generally did not believe in supreme or overall deities, only in a general, impersonal power.
∑ Spirits were found in animals, plants, geographic features, and other objects.
○ Some of the spirits were good; some were evil and feared.
○ Manitou: A general power possessed by various beings and spirits.
∑ It was common to seek a spirit-helper in a vision quest at puberty.
∑ It was necessary to thank animals for allowing themselves to be hunted and killed.
∑ Hunters tried not to kill more animals than they needed and tried to preserve pregnant females and the young.
∑ All subarctic groups had shamans.
○ Shamans placed spells (good and bad) on people, protected people from the bad spells of other shamans, and tried to kill enemies with witchcraft.
○ Shamans also cured people.
○ Shamans found to be practicing evil were sometimes killed.
Subarctic People Today
∑ 610 recognized groups, often called First Nations, living on 2,240 reserves.
∑ Indian Act, 1951: Expansion of government benefits to many subarctic groups in Canada
∑ In the 1960s, the Canadian govt. established schools, health centers, and military installations, and created housing programs for the native people of northern Canada.
∑ New health problems, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, tuberculosis, and a variety of other Western ailments have sprung up.
∑ Subarctic people today have managed to maintain their cultural identities and much of their traditional culture while adapting to and using much of Western technology.
∑ Development of lumber, oil, minerals, and hydroelectric power had drawn many Indians into wage labor.
∑ Family structures have become more similar to those of typical Western families.
∑ Now reside in modern, Western-style housing with electricity and plumbing, and they shop at grocery stores.
∑ Land claim settlements:
○ Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971)
○ James Bay Settlement, Cree (1975)