Chipewyan (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Chipewyan, "pointed skins," from the Cree word chipwayanewok, referring to a style of drying beaver skins that left shirts pointed at the bottom. Their self-designation was Dene, "the People." Geographical divisions included the Athabaska (Chipewyan proper), Desnedekenade, Ethaneldi (Caribou Eaters), and Thilanottine. The Yellowknife (Tatsanottine) are sometimes considered to be a Chipewyan division. The people were known to the French as Montagnais, not to be confused with the people of eastern Canada.

Location In the early eighteenth century, Chipewyans occupied a huge expanse north of the Churchill River between the Great Slave Lake and Hudson Bay, in present-day Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. In the later eighteenth century they filtered south and west to the Churchill River area and Lake Athabaska. Chipewyan land straddled the northernmost taiga and the southern tundra.

Population There were probably between 4,000-5,000 Chipewyans in the seventeenth century. The 1990 population was approximately 1,000.

Language The people spoke an Athapaskan language. The word "Athapascan" is taken from one of their divisions.

Historical Information

History The Chipewyan may have originated in the Rocky Mountains. The Hudson’s Bay Company forced an uneasy truce between Chipewyans and Crees to their south in 1715, although fighting remained intermittent for another 45 years. In 1717, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a post at Churchill in Chipewyan territory.

The Chipewyan soon acquired firearms, after which time they expanded north at the expense of the coast Inuit. They also harassed the Dogrib and the Yellowknife by excluding them from the fort, cheating them of goods, and kidnapping women. Chipewyans generally served as intermediaries in the fur trade between the British and the Yellowknife and Dogrib until their monopoly was ended in the late eighteenth century. Chipewyans such as the guides Thanadelther and Matonabbee helped non-natives explore the northland.

The people suffered a mortality rate of up to 90 percent in a 1781 smallpox epidemic. Survivors continued to trade at Fort Chipewyan, a closer North West Company fort, after 1788. Some groups moved into the boreal forest, where there were more fur-bearing animals, but in so doing they gave up their traditional dependence on the caribou.

Their subsequent lives were characterized by dependence on non-native goods and poor health caused by malnutrition and disease. Missionaries worked among them from the mid-nineteenth century. They accepted reserves and five-dollar per capita annuities in treaties signed from 1876 through 1906. Log cabin settlements were established in the 1920s. The post-World War II era saw increased school attendance, better health care, and the spread of social services among the people. In the 1960s, forcible relocation brought severe disruption to the most traditional group, the Caribou Eaters.

Religion Communication with the spirit world through dreams and visions provided success in hunting and other activities. Owing to the harsh environment there were no herbal curers: All illness was considered a function of witchcraft, and shamans, by virtue of their spirit powers, acted as curers. After death, only good souls were said to inhabit an island full of game.

Government There were many autonomous bands of various sizes within each division. Regional bands (at least 200-400 people) came together during caribou migration periods and broke into smaller local bands (perhaps 50 or so people) at other times. Bands were associated with particular subsistence areas. Leaders had little or no authority beyond an immediate activity such as hunting or war.

Customs When families met after the winter, they generally sat apart and listened to the old people tell about the recent deaths and problems. After the women wailed in mourning, the groups exchanged greetings. Men were named after seasons, animals, or places, but women’s names always included the word for "marten."

In general, weaker men were at the mercy of the stronger, and women fared worst of all. They were separated from boys around late childhood, did most of the hardest work, and were the first to go without food in lean times. Women were segregated during their first menstrual periods and on subsequent occasions were subjected to behavioral taboos. Women were married at the onset of adolescence, often to considerably older men.

Good hunters had more than one wife. Old and/or sick people were often abandoned to starve to death. The dead were generally left on the ground. When someone died, their property was destroyed. Widows cut off their hair and observed a yearlong mourning period. Games of chance, such as ring and pin and the hand game, were popular.

Dwellings People lived in temporary encampments in open country in summer and in the woods in winter. Dwellings were conical caribou-skin tents with a smoke hole at the top. Spruce boughs and caribou skins served as floors. The tipis were semi-insulated with snow around the base in winter.

Diet The annual round of subsistence activities revolved around following the caribou, which was the main food for all Chipewyan groups. Caribou were driven into pounds, snared with ropes, and shot from canoes or by men on foot. Men also hunted buffalo, deer, bear, musk oxen, and moose. Some groups mixed dried meat with fat to make pemmican, which they stored in caribou intestines. Otherwise, meat was eaten boiled, roasted, smoked, and raw (the latter possibly learned from the Inuit).

The people also snared and trapped small game and fowl. They fished for trout, whitefish, and pike. Most fish were smoked or sun dried. There were also some plant foods, such as moss and lichen (the latter generally eaten fermented in an animal’s stomach).

Key Technology Men hunted with spears and birch bows with arrows and babiche strings. Caribou were often hunted by means of a chute and pound up to a mile or more in circumference, within which snares were set. Fishing equipment included babiche nets, wooden and stone weirs, spears, clubs, and bone hooks.

Most tools were of stone and bone. The use of copper for tools such as hatchets, awls, knives, and arrow and spearheads probably came from the Yellowknife people. Water could be stone boiled in birch-bark and caribou-skin pots. The Chipewyan language contains counting systems. Moss was used for baby diapers. The people also made drums.

Trade Birch-bark items were acquired from the Cree. The people also imported shell, including dentalium, mainly for decorative purposes. There was some trade in copper in the late prehistoric period. Trade chiefs ("captains") emerged in the mid-eighteenth century.

Notable Arts The people made relatively crude wood paintings. They also used porcupine quills and moose hair to decorate clothing and bags, often with complex designs.

Transportation Birch-bark and spruce-bark canoes served as river transport. Snowshoes made from summer tent poles featured right and left sides. Women dragged heavy toboggans in winter and served as pack animals in summer, carrying goods, food, and skins on their backs. Dogs were not widely used as pack animals until the twentieth century.

Dress Well-tanned caribou-skin clothing consisted of shirts, leggings (sometimes joined to moccasins), breechclouts (men), dresses (women), caps, and mittens. Caribou robes were hooded and trimmed with fur. The hair on the hides was shaved off in summer but left on and worn on the inside in winter. Children wore body suits of rabbit skin. People tattooed their faces with parallel lines on the cheek. Women wore their hair very long. Some men wore beards.

War and Weapons Enemies were often massacred, although afterward the murderers underwent numerous purification rites. Enemies included the Cree and Inuit. Weapons included shields painted with fighters’ spirit symbols.

A small girl (Cree and Chipewyan) carries a birch-bark basket of blueberries (1914).

A small girl (Cree and Chipewyan) carries a birch-bark basket of blueberries (1914).

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations There are currently five reserves in Alberta, six in Saskatchewan, two in Manitoba, and two in the Northwest Territories. The total reserve land base is about 337,000 acres. Bands include Barren Lands, Churchill, Cold Lake, English River, Fond du Lac, (Fort) Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Fort McMurray, Janvier, Lac le Hache, Peter Pond Lake, Portage, LaRoche, Resolution, Snowdrift, Stony Rapids, and Yellowknife.

Economy There is some commercial fishing and sporadic wage labor. Hunting and trapping are still important. Many people depend on government annuities and payments.

Legal Status The bands listed under "Government/Reservations" are federally and/or provincially recognized tribal entities.

Daily Life Hunting, fishing, and trapping remain important activities, although the bands live in permanent village of log or frame houses. Most people are at least nominal Christians. Most people still speak Chipewyan as their first language. Some groups have moved from the more settled communities they were forced to inhabit back to more traditional areas, mainly to be closer to caribou.

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