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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The Indigenous Peoples of North America: Part 1 – The Arctic

 

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As we have been taught in our history classes, before Europeans arrived to North America, the continent was inhabited by a people called the Native Americans. Of course, those who’ve taken courses in American history in school will probably know that our education doesn’t really touch on these people very much (other than that they later got killed by European disease and relocated to reservations so white people can take their lands). Mostly because an average US history class can only cover so much within 180 days or less. Thus, with the exception of those who took Native American Studies in college or read books about them, most of us tend to learn about the Indians through the media and pop culture. Now your average Native American on TV or in the movies will most likely have long black hair (either free flowing, single thick braid, or loose pigtails) or a Mohawk. Not mention, your average media Native American would have a feather stuck in their hair as an ornament or an elaborate feather headdress (like a war bonnet). If your Indian is a guy, he’ll have on leather pants often lined with fringe along with an age dependent upper wardrobe. Older Indian men usually wear leather tunics and vests while the younger guys have other options of going with just the vest or a bare chest. If he’s shirtless, then expect him to wear some degree of body paint. Yet at any rate, he’ll certainly get his war paint on at the climatic battle scene. If your Indian is a woman, she’ll often wear a single piece leather slip and leave her legs bare. Either way, your average media Native American will wear beaded jewelry as well as soft leather moccasins if they’re not barefoot.

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And it doesn’t help that many Native Americans depicted in classic westerns are played by white guys with blue eyes. Yeah, really makes a convincing Indian (sorry, but the heavy dark makeup isn’t fooling me).

Now is this an accurate representation of Native Americans? Well, some of the time. However, pop culture tends to get the idea of representing Native North Americans with a one-size-fits-all approach of beads, buckskins, and braids. Did all Native North Americans dress this way before Europeans? No. Because North America is a big place with a great deal of variation between Native cultures, especially since the continent has a variety of environments. An Indian from New Mexico did not dress the same way as one from North Dakota. And occasionally, you might see indigenous people in Peru wearing buckskin outfits which is another matter entirely (especially if you account for the llama wool). Nevertheless, such Native North American portrayal doesn’t capture the wide variety while many tribes’ traditional outfits look nothing like the stereotype.

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Yet, they still depict teepees and totem poles on the Playmobil Indian camp play set. Sure it looks cute. But it’s seriously wrong and perpetuates cultural inaccuracies. Seriously, you might as well have a play set of the Norse gods with a Grecian temple.

Then there are the aspects of Native North American culture that you see in the media. Of course, there’s the offensive denigration of Indians as savages but this stereotype has been done to death so I won’t bother to talk about it. Then there’s the magical nature worshipping Native Americans who are just misunderstood because a bunch of selfish white guys want their land. Either way, they’re not going to speak English like a normal person. But that’s beside the point. Anyway, you might see Native American tribes depicted doing things and using stuff that belongs to a myriad of different tribes. A good example of this would be the Indian tribe in Peter Pan which juxtaposes Great Plains teepees and Pacific Northwest totem poles. At a cultural and historical perspective, this is as jarring as it’s inaccurate as portraying Vikings with Grecian temples. Also, you might find a lot of Indians wearing mohawks and war bonnets even when they’re not supposed to. In reality, Native North Americans were and are a diverse group ranging from nomadic hunter-gatherers to agricultural civilizations. And they have adapted to a variety of environmental conditions.

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Type Indian or Native American on any search engine, you’re bound to get results like this. Now while this certainly is a Native American portrait, the guy is most likely a leader of the Plains tribes. And he only wears the war bonnet on ceremonial occasions.

In this series, I plan on showing my readers a rough view on how Native North Americans really lived. However, I’m not going to go with a tribe on tribe basis because that would take too long (since there are over 500 of them). So instead I’ll go according to cultural area. Yet, note that whatever I say about this series will only apply chiefly to Native North Americans before European contact. So if you want to know about Plains horse culture or Navajo sheep herding and silversmithing, this series isn’t for you (though I will show pictures). Not only that, but understand that a one-size-fits-all approach may not apply to all the Indians living in that particular cultural region, even within a recognized tribe or tribal group. I just have it written in because it applies to some of the Indians living there. Also, some tribes might go in more than one region.

Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, Edward S. Curtis

A family photo of an Inupiat Eskimo mother, father, and son, photographed in Noatak, Alaska, by Edward Sheriff Curtis circa 1929. It’s certainly plausible that they’d be wearing their parkas in every day life. But most of the Inuit have adopted to modern lifestyles. Yet, that didn’t stop Robert Flaherty drom doing Nanook of the North.

Our first North American region is the Arctic, which is often exempt from most Native American depictions. Mostly because the Arctic is a very frigid place of ice and snow. Arctic Native Americans tend to be depicted more accurately as wearing parkas, living in igloos, hunting seals, riding kayaks, and running on the ice in dog sleds. But it’s not quite right. Since not all Arctic Native Americans lived in igloos (and even those who did didn’t live in them all the time). Plant life does exist there and the ice does thaw (and keeps thawing due to climate change). While these Native Americans resided near polar bears, they didn’t live anywhere near penguins (which actually live in the Southern Hemisphere). And yes, they do take off their parkas once in awhile. Sure they may spend their days dogsledding, ice fishing, and seal hunting, but they also hunt whales, walruses, and other animals, too. Oh, and they didn’t always leave their grandmas to die on ice floes. Nor did they just eat blubber. Nevertheless, while the Arctic can be a rather inhospitable place, these people have managed to survive its harsh climate for thousands of years and continue to do so. Most of them reside in the farthest reaches of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland. Yet, they don’t necessarily have a lifestyle that 100% akin to Nanook of the North (which is kind of a documentary of the Inuit showing how they lived when they were 12). Because they do know about modern technology, actually take advantage of it, and think the idea of pining for the good old days is utterly insane (even among those who grew up in the traditional lifestyle). However, you might want to avoid calling them Eskimos because some of them see the term as derogatory. Also, a lot of them don’t like being called Indians either which is partly why we tend to refer to indigenous people in North America as Native Americans.

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This is a figurine from the Paleo-Eskimo Dorset culture who were among the first people in the Arctic region. The Paleo-Eskimos inhabited the area from 6,000 years ago before mysteriously disappearing at around 1500 at the latest. DNA evidence has proven that they were not the ancestors of the modern Inuit, a fact that I hardly believe (mostly because if the Thule and Dorset culture coexisted, you’d expect that they’d be having sex with each other. Because that’s what normally happens).

Location: Near the Arctic Circle, encompassing northern and western regions of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland.

First Peoples: Assuming that the earliest Native Americans arrived to the continent through the Bering land bridge, the Arctic region was only used as nothing more than an area to pass through before venturing into greener pastures. The first groups who inhabited this region didn’t arrive until 6,000 years ago and in at least 2 migrations from Siberia and it was the last area in North America to be populated. The Paleo-Eskimo cultures first developed by 2500 BCE and consists of the Arctic Small Tool Tradition (who lived in tent camps while chasing seals and caribou 4000 years ago), the Dorsets (walrus hunters from 500 BCE-1500), and the Thule (who sailed in large skin boats and hunted whales who are said to arrive in 200 BCE-1600). Only the Thule have any biological, cultural and linguistic connection the modern Inuit and are often considered their ancestors. However, it is known that the Dorsets and Thule had no genetic connection and barely interacted with each other (at least favorably. However, the lack of genetic connection is highly unusual since these two groups existed around the same time. But even if under the most hostile relations, you’d still expect that members of both groups would have sex with each other. How can these people coexist without having sex with each other? I don’t get it). And the Dorset would mysteriously disappear by the 1500s. Some evidence suggests that the Thule and Dorsets had contact with the Vikings.

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Here’s a scene of Nanook hunting seal from the 1922 Robert Flaherty “documentary” Nanook of the North. The harsh tundra climate and terrain led the Arctic people to hunt sea mammals including seal and whale. By the way, hunting for such animals in the Arctic was a highly difficult and dangerous task that took hours.

Environment: Tundra, which can be better said as a desert of snow that’s cold, flat, and treeless (though Arctic plants do exist). Snow, ice, and freezing temperatures all year round (along with the increasing threat of global warming). Can sometimes experience a white night and midnight sun come summer as well as 24 hours of darkness in winter. But the Aurora Borealis is pretty. One of the harshest environments on earth.

Subsistence: Hunter, gatherer, and fisher subsistence. Diet was mostly meat based consisting of ringed and bearded seals, walrus, narwhal, and whales. On land, caribou were by far the most important source of food (and other raw materials) along with musk ox, wolf, fox, wolverine, and squirrel. Also consumed ptarmigan, duck, geese, and their eggs. Fishing was mostly a 3 season activity. Some areas even had people gather berries. Almost every part of the hunted animals were used.

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As you might know, the Inuit are well known for building igloos made of snow and ice. Yet, contrary to what you see in the media, igloos were only used as temporary shelter. Sometimes they could be built close together and connected by tunnels.

Housing: Different types depended on materials available and whether the home wasp permanent or temporary. In the central Arctic region, domed shaped snow igloos were the rule among the Inuit. Many of these would often be built attached to each other for added warmth and sociability. And they even had snow furniture in them, too. But some Inuit tribes built sod houses which consisted of a dug rectangular pit with walls made from sod and rocks as well as wood pieces and whalebone for the roof called a shuswap. Aleut housing consisted of a partially underground house covered with logs, whalebone, or poles before being covered by earth, snow, or moss. This was called a Barabara. Temporary housing included a large men’s ceremonial house called a kashim and its female counterpart called an ena along with summer tents of seal and caribou skin over bone or wooden frames.

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Unlike a lot of Native American cultures, Arctic tribes like the Inuit sometimes still wear their traditional parkas, a lot of times made from caribou fur for added insulation.

Clothing: Most clothing was made from caribou skin though polar bear, seal, wolverine, squirrel, bird, and fish skins were also used. And it was primarily fashioned for insulation from freezing temperatures and wind. In winter, people wore inner (fur side in) and outer fur side garments (fur side out). But only the inner garment was worn during the summer fur side out. The winter outer garment was a heavy hooded jacket, often lined with fur known as a parka. A mother might wear an extra-large parka to shelter babies. Both sexes wore pants, stockings, mittens, seal skin boots, or low shoes. Raincoats were sewn with waterproof gut. Clothes were often decorated with colored furs or fringe. Men wore snowshoes and snow goggles while hunting in the winter. Adornments consisted of labrets (lip plugs), ear pendants, nose rings, and tattoos. Sothern tribes wore close fitting shits and pants. While Aleut women wore seal or otter skin parkas, Aleut men wore parkas of bird skin where the feathers turned in and out depending on the weather. Aleut children wore down parkas with tanned bird skin caps.

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Sleds pulled by dogs and kayaks were the primary modes of transportation among the Arctic Native Americans. Dog sleds for land and kayaks for water. Luckily I found a picture that had both a kayak and sled dogs.

Transportation: Kayaks were closed boats made for one man and used for hunting. Larger open umiaks made from wooden frames and sewn skins for water navigation. Umiaks were employed for either whale hunting or general travel (in the latter case, they’d be paddled and/or rowed by women). Wood and rawhide sleds were pulled by either dogs or people and were used for winter travel.

Society: This was a sparsely populated area that could have consisted as many as 80,000 pre-European contact. Lived a mostly nomadic culture where group members saw themselves tied to the land. Members lived in an isolated existence and would organize into bands on a seasonal basis. Leadership was generally underdeveloped. When strong leaders emerged, there was little formal structure and usually for a temporary situation like whaling expeditions. Leaders were usually older, experienced men who might be leading household heads and probably owned an umiak. Also had a very bloody history of intertribal warfare.

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Another scene from Nanook of the North. This one depicts Nanook’s wife Nyla with their baby playing with the husky puppies. Arctic nuclear families normally consisted of 5 to 6 people at a time. And Arctic family life wasn’t always as happy as what you see in this 1922 film. Still, this moment is so filled with cuteness.

Family Structure: Nuclear families usually consisted of 5 to 6 people. Hunting sea mammals was the primary occupation of most men because it could be highly dangerous and/or extremely demanding. Women sewed up skins, cooked food, tended lamps, and looked after children. Both men and women took part in igloo construction. Descent was generally bilateral. Kinship was of such primary importance so much that “strangers” (those who couldn’t immediately document kin affiliations) were perceived as potentially hostile and might be summarily killed. Other groups subject to willful death were infants (especially girls) and old people. Cannibalism and suicide weren’t uncommon, but only in extreme cases of need. Prospective husbands often served the bride’s parents for a period of time (bride service). Wife stealing (committed in the overall competition of supremacy) might result in death as possibly other conflicts. Murders were subject to revenge. Corpses were generally wrapped in skins and left on the ground. Southwest Inuit and Aleuts practiced mummification. Yupik parents tend to name their children after the last person in the community to have died.

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While the Inuit mostly dominate the Arctic cultural Native American landscape, the Aleut and the Yupik also reside there. These are Aleuts who reside in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands while the Yupik live in western Alaska. Both groups also live in part of Siberia as well.

Practices: Bone, antler, and ivory figurines, amulets, and toys. Wooden ceremonial and dance masks. Basket weaving, animism, shamanism, music, acrobatics, kickball, string games, and storytelling.

Tools and Weapons: Harpoon, bow and arrow, needle, thimble, knife, adze, ax, drill, scraper, spear, and shovel, primarily from bone and antler as well as chipped stone (for points, blades, scrapers, and pots). Other tools include baleen boxes, soapstone pottery, oil and blubber burning lamps with moss wicks, movement indicators (for breathing-hole sealing), throwers, various types of harpoons (with detachable heads), seal nets, clubs, bird bolas, three pronged spears, fish hooks, stone fish weirs, as well as animal traps and snares.

Notable Tribes: Inuit, Aleut, and Yupik. Some of the Aleut and Yupik are known to reside in Siberia.