The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 2 – The Subarctic

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Here’s a Subarctic Cree family from early Canada. While the mother and kids are dressed in drab, the father has quite a colorful costume and a gun. He also traps animals and trades their skins and feathers.

Our second stop in my Native American series is the Subarctic region. Now this isn’t as snowy and icy as the Arctic, it’s a pretty forbidding region despite it being a mostly boreal forest region. But it’s a very vast region starting from central interior of Alaska, covering the Canadian Shield, surrounding much of Hudson Bay and the northern Rockies, and ending in eastern Canada and as south as Lake Superior. In fact, it covers most of Canada. Nevertheless, despite that the Subarctic is a huge area, you really don’t see it in movies or on TV much (at least in the US, though in Canada, that may not be the case). Or if you did, you might know have known that they were from the Subarctic region. That, or the movie or show was Canadian made. Yet, many of these people tend to speak Athabaskan languages (though some also speak Algonquin in the east). Whatever the case, the Subarctic region is home to a population known to speak over 30 languages. And this area didn’t have a large population of hunter-gathers either. But what a lot of these peoples have in common is their teepee and wigwam shelters and their dependence on the caribou. Also, many of them wore parkas, too. At any rate, it’s kind of what you get if you put cultural aspects of the Plains, the Arctic, and the Northeastern Woodlands together. But it’s in a way that it makes perfect sense because while it may not get as much snow as the Arctic, it’s nowhere near pleasant enough to support agriculture at all. Not only that, but many of these hunter-gatherer groups dealt with regular periods of starvation as food availability can vary from place to place. So while the Subarctic might have great scenery to put on a postcard (since it’s home to Denali), it’s not a pleasant place to live. Still, since European contact in 1500 with Basques, Bretons, and other Europeans fishing at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, non-native diseases, STDs, malnutrition and alcoholism would reduce native Subarctic population by 90-100% in some regional locations while some didn’t see a white person until the mid 19th century.

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While the Subarctic environment isn’t nearly as harsh as the frigid Arctic, it’s quite a forbidding place. Its rugged terrain, long cold winters, short summers, and generally low precipitation in rain, it’s a very hard place to live.

Location: Most of Canada as well as most of interior, western, and south central Alaska. Stretches from Alaska to east of the Rocky Mountains, and the northern Great Lakes.

First Peoples: The first people of the region possibly entered the region at least 12,000 years ago or even as long as 25,000 years ago. Athabaskan speakers descend from a Northern Archaic culture that existed at least 9,000 years ago. The Shield culture was predominant in Labrador before diverging. The Taltheilei tradition existed 6,000 years ago from Great Bear Lake to Lake Athabaska and the Churchill River. The Laurel culture of Manitoba and northern Ontario lasted from 1000 B.C.E. to 800 and known for their ceramic pottery along with the Selkirk and the Blackduck Cree.

Environment: Mountainous and boreal forest with thousands of streams and waterlogged tundra. East has low hills and rock outcroppings. West has high mountains, glaciers, and plains. Climate is characterized by short, mild to hot summers and long, bitterly cold winters. Precipitation is generally low save in some mountainous areas and coastal Alaska and falls mainly as snow. Short springs experience plagues of mosquitoes, black flies, and other insects as well as ice break up and snow melt. Travel can also be limited at that time as well as the fall freeze up. Soil was often poor and often swampy, making agricultural development impossible.

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Central to the Subarctic tribal existence was the caribou for which they depended on for food, clothing, shelter, and tools. Here is a painting of a caribou hunt.

Subsistence: Primarily hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Moose and caribou were a major part of diets for many tribes, with some groups regularly suffering from hunger or even starvation during shortages. Yet, smaller animals like hare, marmot, beaver, porcupine, and muskrat were also consumed along with fish, roots, and berries. Coastal groups relied on sea mammals and shellfish while western groups even hunted buffalo. Musk ox, bear, lynx, wolf, coyote, fox, mink, weasel, otter, wolverine, wapiti and elk were also hunted where available.

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Teepees and wigwams may not have been the only housing in the Subarctic region. But they were among the most common. Most of these would be covered in caribou or moose hides along with bark.

Housing: Most tribal groups resided in domed and conical lodges consisting of poles covered with skins, boughs, or birch bark. Or in other words, wigwams and teepees but not what you’d see on the Plains or the Northeast. Groups closest to the Northwest Coast tribes built plank houses while some built frame houses partially below the earth as well as bark covered rectangular houses at fishing camps. Some groups built shelters with a double A-ridgepole framework and containing multiple fires as well as sod pit houses. Structures like drying racks, sweat houses, caches, menstrual houses, and others were also commonly built.

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This Athabaskan family portrait shows a variety of what native peoples in the Subarctic would’ve worn. In winter, they would’ve worn parkas, snowsuits, and other winter items. In the spring and summer, they’d go with tanned leather clothing of caribou and moose.

Clothing: Most clothing usually came from moose and caribou as well as hare and other skins with trim from beaver or other fur. Hides were often tanned and dehaired so they wouldn’t weigh down except winter items like parkas, hats, and mittens. Many people wore leggings with moccasins. Clothing can be decorated with fringe, paint, quills, claws, or down. Women wore dresses while men wore shirts, jackets, and snowsuits. Mothers often carried their babies on their backs with cradle boards. Adornments consisted of noseplugs, earrings, and tattooing.

Transportation: Overland travel was usually preferred and many used sleds, sledges, and toboggans (sometimes pulled by dogs though not always). Though people did build lightweight birch bark canoes and moose hide boats.

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Like most nomadic tribes, Subarctic Indian society wasn’t very authoritarian, formal, or centralized. Extended families usually lived in groups though once in awhile bands would get together to socialize, hunt, and trade.

Society: This was a sparsely populated area with no more than 100,000 living in the region at any one time. So most cultures were nomadic. The basic unit was a local group consisting of 10-20 related people but could be up to 75. Membership was fluid and nonbinding, in deference to autonomy values and need for flexibility in a difficult environment. Leadership was extremely informal and nonauthoritarian, except for the groups most influenced by the Northwest Coast. When conditions permitted (possibly not quite every summer), local groups might come together as loosely constructed regional bands of several hundred people to socialize and renew family ties. Kinship names were used in most tribes as a general term. For instance, elders were addressed “Grandmother” or “Grandfather” whether they were blood related or not. Some groups might conduct memorial potlach with chiefs being recognized as among the clan leaders in the Cordillera. Warfare was mostly a local matter though while some groups seeking women, most people fought over revenge for trespass or prior blood transgression. Yet, warfare was more developed in the far west than in other areas. However, there were no regional groups conducting full scale wars. Trade was widely practiced with goods and services being exchanged as a peaceful reason for travel and human interaction while bands frequently shared resources with each other.

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Though Subarctic tribes mostly practiced matrilineal descent, the treatment of women varied from tribe. Some women were treated as no more than mere pack animals while others maintained relative autonomy and even assumed positions of authority and power.

Family Structure: Primarily matrilineal descent, though not always. Women mostly made clothes, prepared food, and looked after children while men hunted the big game. However, it wasn’t uncommon for women to snare hare or fish. Women’s status varied according to local custom with some being treated as essentially pack animals with little to eat and others existing in relative autonomy as well as attaining both authority and power. Female infanticide wasn’t unknown through much of the region while menstrual taboos could be quite rigorous. Yet, both men and women were usually married by 13 or 14 and had some decision power in the bands. Newly married men were required to live with their in-laws for at least a year before establishing their own households (yet, sometimes they could have more than one wife). Exogamy and cross cousin marriage were usually encouraged. Since infant mortality was common, babies were usually not named until it was certain they would survive. Cremation was standard funerary practice.

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The Subarctic tribes were well known for their intricate beadwork and embroidery. After they made contact with the Europeans, these Indians took to using glass beads and sewn floral designs.

Practices: Animism, shamanism, reincarnation, ceramics, storytelling, controlled burning, music, lacrosse, wooden dolls, basket weaving, dance, embroidery, beadwork, and scapulimancy.

Tools and Weapons: Antler clubs soaked in grease, armor, spears, hide containers for holding water, tumplines for carrying, snowshoes, bow and arrow, net traps, gaffs, fish hooks, snares, and weirs. Raw materials usually consisted of bark, wood, root, stone, and sometimes copper. Yet, many groups also liberally borrowed from their neighbors.

Notable Tribes: Cree, Ojibwa, Gwich’in, Dena’ina, Beothuk, Beaver, Mountain, Hare, Han, Tanacross, Yelloknife, Innu, Chipewyan, Eyak, Kuskokwim, Holikachunk, Sekani, Tagish, Ingalik, Ahtna, Babine-Wet’suwet’en, Dogrib, Tutchone, Carrier, Chilcotin, Attikamek, Tanana, Bearlake, Koyukon, Naskapi, Slavey, Tlicho, and Kaska.

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