May 1, 1929
The Indians native to the Canadian Northewst Territories belong to the Dene nation, and are subdivided into the following tribes: the Hares, the Loucheux, the Yellowknives, the Slaves, the Dogribs, and the Chipewyans.
The Land of Feast and Famine - The Barren Ground Indians
The Indians native to the Canadian Northewst Territories belong to the Dene nation, and are subdivided into the following tribes: the Hares, the Loucheux, the Yellowknives, the Slaves, the Dogribs, and the Chipewyans. Their languages have a common root in the Athabaska languagegroup.
We know but little of the history of these tribes. By means of a number of dissociated and incomplete sources alone are we able to trace through the general thread of their story. As a rough outline, indicating something of their earlier modes of life, a few facts must be mentioned: First and foremost, these peoples were hunters and nomads, the majority of whom were constantly migrating with the caribou. Their weapons consisted of spears and arrows tipped with flint, and various trapping devices, such as snares and nets of animal hide (the latter also of bast) and primitive deadfalls. Fire they obtained for the most part by striking sparks from pyrites. Their shelter was a tepee of caribou-skins, their means of transport dog-sleds, snowshoes, and birch-bark canoes. These were poor weapons with which to conduct a struggle for existence in a land where the Arctic winter lasts eight months of the year. Considering, then, the constant warfare waged amongst themselves and with strange tribes, as well as those periods when wild game was scarce, it is evident that these people lived a difficult life.
The advent of the fur-traders opened new possibilities to these natives. A rough choice of the goods of civilization was then accessible to them, and the price for these was pelts. The Indians no longer found it necessary to keep wandering about the country in quest of game in order to remain alive. The doors of the trading stores stood open to anyone who had a beaver, fox, lynx, or marten to offer in exchange. There were not only food and tools to be had, but weapons which were more effective than the old. This introduction of white civilization meant that the Indians, in addition to their ancient form of hunting, could undertake, if they liked, the harvesting of pelts and thus make a livelihood in a more limited field.
The majority of northern Canada's Indian tribes yielded, to a remarkable degree, to these new conditions. This marked the beginning of a new era. Hunting in the wilderness still constituted the most substantial and the most perfect form of existence, but it was no longer essential to life in the same way it had been in the past. Their society began to take on a different tone when, with a safer mode of existence open to them, they were no longer obliged to pursue their own more exacting struggle for food, wherein all was risked upon one mad dash, good luck, and their own alertness. Necessary adjustments were made, for weal as well as woe, but, in any event, the result for them was a life more insipid than their old.
One may find branches of the Dene nation, however, which still retain their ancient heritage — the Barren Land Indians. A few of the goods of civilization have filtered through to them, via the channel of fur-trading, but the primitive impulse which guides their daily lives is as firm as ever, and outside influences have altered to but a slight degree their original culture. Their existence follows the lines set by their ancestors, whether it be symbolized by their perpetual expeditions through forest or over barren plain in search of the wandering caribou, by their battle against blizzard and winter's cold, by their feasts and general gormandizing when the country is flooded with deer, or by their dark hours of need and starvation when the country lies empty about them.
The term " Barren Land Indians " includes the people of several tribes. Their hunting-grounds are the lands which follow the timber-line from Hudson Bay northwest to the Mackenzie delta, where the river empties into the Polar Sea. In its broader outlines, a common culture here exists. My statements apply in particular to the peoples east and northeast of Great Slave Lake, the peoples amongst whom I have lived and whose life and activities I have already mentioned in some detail in earlier chapters. In the following pages I shall attempt to include a number of facts which I have heretofore failed to mention or but loosely touched upon.