Slavey (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Slaveytmp2062_thumb, or Slave, is a translation of a name (Awakanak) given by the Cree enemies of these people. Their self-designation was Dine’e, "People." They were also known as Etchareottine, "People Dwelling in the Shelter." They are culturally related to the Dogrib and, like them, were not considered a "tribe" until relatively recently.

Location In the early eighteenth century, Slaveys lived between Lake Athabaska and Great Slave Lake. Their mid-nineteenth-century territory included the Mackenzie and Laird River Basins, from western Great Slave Lake south to around Hay Lake and north to Fort Norman, boreal forestland in present-day northeast British Columbia, northwest Alberta, and southwest Northwest Territories. The people live on reserves in this area today.

Population The Slavey population was possibly 1,250 in the late seventeenth century and was officially 5,120 in 1991.

Language Slaveys spoke dialects of a northeastern Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History The Cree, carrying firearms, drove the people north from the Lake Athabaska area in the late eighteenth century. They encountered Alexander Mackenzie in 1789. The first trade post in the area was built in 1796, with additional posts following in the next 15 years. Anglican and Catholic missionaries arrived in 1858; Christianization was virtually complete by 1902.

Treaties signed with Canada in 1900, 1911, 1921, and 1922 generally called for land cessions in return for payments, services, and reserves. The high cost of trade items, as well as the relatively limited non-native presence in the area, kept the people from dramatically changing many aspects of their culture until well into the twentieth century. Slaveys adopted non-native material goods (such as metal items, firearms, flour, and tobacco) on a large scale after World War I, when many began trapping for income for the first time. At about the same time, groups began gathering for the summer at trade posts rather than at traditional lakeshore places, and gatherings were added for Christmas and Easter.

Permanent, significant governmental intrusion began only after World War II for some more remote groups, when the fur market collapsed. Oil and gas exploitation replaced furs as the region’s most important commercial resource at about the same time. By the 1960s, most people had moved from the bush into towns and had enrolled their children in schools.

Religion People sought to acquire a guardian animal spirit in a dream, which would provide them with luck and assistance. Special songs usually accompanied powers provided by the guardian spirits. There were also malevolent spirits or supernatural beings, such as giants, who abducted young children. Quasi-medicine bundles, or collections of items inspired by the dream vision, were kept in a pouch or a box. With few herbal remedies, medicine men were primary curers through removing physical manifestations of illness from a patient. Souls were said to live again after death.

Government People with little real authority led several autonomous bands, each with perhaps 200 people, that came together only in summer, and even then only when conditions permitted. The bands were composed of local hunting groups of 10-15 people, within which food and other items were shared. Membership in all groups was fluid. An informal council of hunters settled disputes.

Customs Within the local group, all people fared roughly equally well or poorly in terms of subsistence. Most personal disputes were settled by compensation or, in extreme cases, banishment. Local groups often resolved differences by playing a game, such as the hand game, or through ritual competition by medicine men. The meeting of two local groups might be an occasion to feast and dance.

Individuals chose their own marriage partners, although parents also played a key role. A yearlong bride service for men followed a wedding. Men sometimes engaged in the custom of wrestling each other for their wives. Divorce was rare.

Women generally gave birth in a kneeling position attended only by women. There was some female infanticide. At her first menstrual period, a young woman left the camp and lived in a separate shelter for about ten days; she returned to the shelter every month. During this time she was subject to several food and behavioral taboos, such as avoiding eye contact with others and not traveling on an existing trail. Boys marked the passage into adulthood by making their first big game kill.

Unlike many groups, men did much of the hard work, such as obtaining firewood and preparing the lodge, in addition to hunting and fighting. Grandparents were important in the lives of children, often "joking" with them to teach proper behavior. The elderly and ill were rarely abandoned. Many people confessed wrongs on their deathbeds. The entire camp remained awake to witness a person’s death. Death was greatly feared and was considered, with illness, to be the result of sorcery. Corpses were placed on scaffolds or covered with leaves and snow and placed with their property under a hut.

Dwellings The winter dwelling was a low pole-frame structure covered with moss, with a pitched spruce-bough roof and two doorways. There was an open smoke hole at the top. These structures might be 20 feet long and 10 feet wide and were inhabited by extended families. In summer, people built conical spruce, moose-hide, bark, or brush lodges.

Diet Men hunted mainly moose, but they also hunted woodland caribou, running them down and shooting them with bow and arrow in spring and snaring them with the help of dogs in summer and winter. Beaver were caught in wooden traps in fall and speared or clubbed in winter. Men also hunted numerous small animals as well as birds. Fish were also very important.

Meat and fish were either roasted, boiled, smoked, dried, or made into pemmican. Women gathered berries, roots, and some other plant foods. Food to be stored was cached in the ground (winter) or hung in a bag from a pole.

Key Technology Most animals were caught with babiche or sinew snares. Other hunting gear consisted of the bow and arrow, clubs, and spears. People fished with twisted willow bark or babiche nets and weirs as well as with hook and line. Other important items included stone adzes, beaver-tooth knives, bone or antler projectile points, woven spruce-root or -bark cooking vessels, and moose-hide, calf-skin, or hare-pelt diapers. Babies were carried in moose-hide bags lined with moss.

Trade Slaveys imported some native copper from the Yellowknife and Dogrib people. They also imported some caribou skins, flint, chert, and pyrites as well as Inuit bone and ivory knives. They exported moose and fish products.

Notable Arts There was some geometric-style painting and dyed porcupine-quill embroidery. The people made music from drums and caribou-hoof rattles.

Transportation The people used two types of snowshoes, beaver-hide or birch toboggans, birch or spruce-bark canoes, and some moose-hide rafts. Much travel took place overland, with goods carried on a person’s back by means of a tumpline around the forehead.

Dress Clothing was mainly of moose skins and consisted of pointed shirts and coats, leggings joined to moccasins, tassels (men), dresses (women), robes, caps, and mittens. In some areas, women’s clothing was made mostly of woven hare skins. Clothing was heavily fringed, with moose-hair and porcupine-quill decoration. People also wore moose-hide and rabbit-skin blankets.

Faces were tattooed with parallel lines on the cheek. Women wore woven spruce-root caps. Men plucked their facial hair and skewered their noses with wood or goose quills. Both sexes wore embroidered leather waist, wrist, and arm ornaments.

War and Weapons Despite their peaceful reputation, the Slavey were known to massacre Kaskas and other mountain Indian enemies. Neighboring tribes were reluctant to attack them for fear of witchcraft reprisals. The people also fought the Cree. War garments included bear-claw headdresses or feather caps. Weapons included willow-twig shields. War leaders were chosen on an ad hoc basis.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Slavey communities include Hay River, Fort Laird, Fort Norman, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, and Fort Wrigley in the Northwest Territories; Fort Nelson in British Columbia; and Hay Lakes Region in Alberta. The people own roughly 40,500 reserve hectares.

Fort Nelson (formerly the Slave Indian) Band owns four reserves with a total land area of 9,558 hectares. Total population was 575 in the mid-1990s, of whom 284 lived on the reserves. Local government is provided by an elected chief and councilors. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council.

Prophet River (formerly part of the Fort Nelson) Band owns one reserve with a total land area of 374 hectares. Total population was 151 in the mid-1990s, of whom 84 lived on the reserve. Local government is provided by a chief and councilors elected according to custom. The band is affiliated with the Treaty Eight Tribal Council.

Economy Government payments have largely taken the place of traditional strategies that provided long-term economic independence. There are seasonal jobs in oil and gas. At Fort Nelson, people engage in trapping, oil work, forestry, construction, guiding, road building, and freighting, and they collect gas royalties. Trapping, guiding, and work at a fur depot are the main activities at Prophet River.

Legal Status The Slavey are a federally recognized tribe.

Daily Life Traditional nomadic patterns have been replaced by a sedentary existence, especially since the 1960s. Since about the same time, the Slavey have become politically active to maintain control of their own affairs. The nature of local development, such as the proposed controversial oil and gas pipeline, may be the biggest issue of all.

Contemporary life is marked in part by a number of problems, including substance abuse and general ill health, substandard housing, limited educational and economic opportunities, crime, and racism. Most of these problems can be attributed to the tension between the loss of traditional culture and replacement by spiritually and materially inadequate non-native institutions, programs, and attitudes.

Facilities at Fort Nelson include offices, a community hall, a clinic, a school, and a garage. Facilities at Prophet River include offices and a store.

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