Beaver (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Beaver, from Tsattine, "dwellers among the beaver." Today the people refer to themselves as Deneza or Dunne-za, "Real People." They were culturally similar to the Chipewyan and Sekani.

Location Traditional Beaver territory (in the mid-eighteenth century) is the prairies south of the Peace River and east of the Rocky Mountains and on the upper Peace River (present-day Alberta and British Columbia). They may once also have lived in the Lake Claire area and the upper parts of the Athapaska River.

Population The Beaver population may have been between 1,000 and 1,500 in the seventeenth century. In 1990 there were approximately 800 officially recognized Beaver Indians.

Language The Beaver people speak a Northern Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History Ancestors of the Beaver were in their historical territory 10,000 years ago. The Beaver and Sekani people may once have been united. By the mid-eighteenth century, Cree Indians, armed with guns, had confined the Beaver to the Peace River basin. At that time, eastern Beaver groups joined the Cree, adopting many of their customs and habits, while western groups moved farther up the Peace River, toward the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The Sarcee probably branched off from the Beaver about that time as well.

In 1799, the leader Makenunatane (Swan Chief) sought to attract both missionaries and a trading post. The people became more and more involved in the fur trade during the nineteenth century. Catholic missionaries arrived around 1845; most people had accepted Catholicism by about 1900, although many retained a core of their former religious ideas.

Although they had been obtaining arms and other items of non-native manufacture for years, direct contact between the people and non-native traders occurred only in 1876. New foods were introduced, and for the first time the subsistence activities of the people were fundamentally altered. Since some of the Peace River area was arable, non-native farmers began displacing the people as early as the 1890s. The Beaver signed Treaty 8 with Canada in 1899, under which the Indians accepted reserves but retained extensive subsistence rights. Canadian officials began appointing nominal chiefs after that.

In the early twentieth century, some Beaver were raising horses and trapping for a living. By 1930, non-native farmers had settled much of their territory. Construction of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s disrupted the nomadic life of the last traditional Beaver bands. Oil and gas became major regional industries in the 1950s and 1960s.

Religion A well-defined cosmology and mythology were intimately connected with vision quests. Young people fasted to acquire guardian spirits, mainly in dreams. Various food and behavioral taboos, as well as songs and medicine bundles, were associated with a particular animal spirit. The people recognized a spiritual connection between people and animals,with the latter entitled to respect on an equal level with people.

The most important festival took place twice a year and involved the fire sacrifice of food to ensure continued bounty. Dreamers, or prophets—people in touch through dreams with the past and future—had special powers. Shamans were those who had acquired especially powerful guardian spirits. They cured by singing, blowing, and sucking illness-linked objects from the body.

Government Three or four independent bands had their own hunting areas and leaders. Leadership was based on skill and knowledge, which was in turn gained partly through experience and partly through dreaming. Bands were composed of hunting groups of roughly 30 people; the size and composition of the bands were variable. Groups grew in size during summer and broke into constituent parts in winter and early spring.

Customs Bands occasionally came together in summer to socialize. Festivities consisted in part of group singing and dancing around a fire, during which seating was ritually regulated. The people established a well-defined and close kinship system within which everyone was related on some level. Hunters fed the entire camp based on need. People slept facing east.

Men might have more than one wife. Newlyweds lived with the woman’s family and served her parents for a period of time, but descent was patriarchal. Corpses were placed on birch-bark strips and buried in tree scaffolds or on platforms. Mourners gave away their possessions and grieved loudly and publicly. Men often cut their bodies and went to war; women cut their hair as well as part of a finger.

Dwellings The typical dwelling was a three-pole conical moose- or caribou-skin tipi. There were also winter lodges of logs covered with moss and earth. In summer, people mainly lived in conical brush shelters or simple lean-tos.

Diet The Beaver were basically nomadic hunters of moose, caribou, beaver, and other animals. Men drove buffalo into enclosures as late as the early nineteenth century. Fish were not an important part of the diet except in emergencies. People also snared smaller animals, such as rabbits, and women gathered berries and other plant food.

Key Technology Food was often hot-rock boiled in containers of spruce or birch bark or woven spruce roots. Bags were generally made of moose and caribou skins. Bark containers were important as well. Arrowheads were mostly flint, as were knife blades, although people also used moose horn or beaver teeth for this purpose. Fish were caught with rawhide (babiche) line and bone hook, nets, and stone weirs. Hunters used cone-shaped calls to summon moose. Food was served on birch-bark dishes. In order to encourage certain plants and animals, people regularly burned parts of the prairie.

Trade Favorite trade locations included Vermilion and the mouth of the Smoky River. Trade partners included the Chipewyan, Slavey, Sekani, and Cree. Buffalo products were a main trade item. In general, the Beaver did not particularly focus on acquiring material goods.

Notable Arts The relation of oral tradition was taken very seriously and considered a fine art. Clothing was decorated with porcupine-quill embroidery. The people also made fine bark containers.

Transportation Women drew toboggans before the advent of dog power in the twentieth century. People traveled in spruce-bark and birch-bark canoes as well as on snowshoes.

Dress Women made most clothing from moose skin. Clothing consisted of shirts, leggings, fur-lined moccasins, and a knee-length coat. Men added breechclouts after being influenced by the Cree. Women sometimes wore a short apron.

Items of personal adornment included horn and bone bracelets. Hunters wore grizzly bear claws around their necks. Both sexes painted their bodies and wore marmot or hare robes, caps, and mittens in winter.

War and Weapons Weapons were spears and the bow and arrow. The Sekani were occasional enemies, as were the Cree.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Blueberry River (formerly Fort St. John) Band owns two reserves with a total land area of 1,148 hectares. There were 263 members in the mid-1990s, of whom 151 lived on the reserves. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council. A chief and councilors are elected according to provisions of the Indian Act.

The Doig River (formerly Fort St. John) Band owns two reserves with a total land area of 1,348 hectares. There were 195 members in the mid-1990s, of whom 94 lived on the reserves. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council. A chief and councilors are elected according to provisions of the Indian Act.

The Halfway River Band owns one reserve with a total land area of 3,989 hectares. Band membership in the mid-1990s was 184, of whom 145 lived on the reserves. A chief and councilors are elected according to provisions of the Indian Act. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council.

The West Moberly First Nations (formerly part of Hudson Hope Band) own one reserve with a total land area of 2,034 hectares. Band membership in the mid-1990s was 116, of whom 69 lived on the reserves. A chief and councilors are elected according to custom. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council.

The Saulteau First Nation (Beaver and Cree) owns one reserve with a total land area of 3,026 hectares. Band membership in the mid-1990s was 628, of whom 325 lived on the reserve. A chief and councilors are elected according to custom. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council.

Other reserve communities include Clear Hills, Horse Lakes, Child Lake, and Boyer, all in Alberta. The local town is Fort St. John, British Columbia.

Economy There is minimal hunting and trapping, but some people work as guides and maintaining roads. At Doig River there is farming and cattle raising, fire fighting, trapping, and road maintenance. At Halfway River there is seasonal work, farming, trapping, guiding, forestry, and fire fighting. West Moberly offers logging, trapping, and a backhoe business, and at Saulteau there is a cattle ranch and farm, forestry, and a gravel operation.

Legal Status The bands listed under "Government/Reservations" are provincially and federally recognized. Legal action continues on Canada’s attempt to remove a key parcel of land from Beaver control.

Daily Life The ancient prophet tradition has waned in recent years, although dreamers’ songs remain the basis for much ceremonialism as well as an important part of the summer gatherings known as Treaty 8 Days. The Alaska and Mackenzie Highway has separated the Beavers of Alberta and British Columbia from one another. Most younger people are literate in English, although Beaver remains the first language for most.

Effective rule by Indian agents came to an end in the 1980s, when the people began to administer their own affairs through such organizations as the Treaty Eight Tribal Association. Children attend band and/or provincial and/or private schools. Most people have high school educations. In general, housing and social services are considered adequate.

Blueberry River Band facilities include a cultural center, a drop-in center, offices, and a school. Doig River facilities include offices, a community hall, a store, a kindergarten, and a garage. Halfway River facilities include offices, a community hall, a school, and a store. West Moberly facilities include offices and a community center. Saulteau’s facilities include offices, a community hall, and a healing center.

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