The area of Subarctic cultures lies largely within the five million km2 zone of northern or boreal coniferous forest that extends from the arctic tundra to the mountains, plains or deciduous forest in the south and across North America from Labrador nearly to the Bering Sea. Three-quarters of the area lies on the Canadian Shield, Hudson Bay and Mackenzie River lowlands. It is dotted with many lakes and crossed by innumerable rivers, and consists of western mountain ranges, plateaus and the Yukon River lowlands. Winters are long and harsh but forest cover and snow provide shelter for people and animals. Temperatures often reach -40° C in winter but can rise to 30° C in summer.

Mammals commonly found in the area are moose, caribou, black bear, Dall sheep (northwestern mountains), beaver, hare (rabbit) and either marmot or groundhog, which were important for materials and subsistence; and wolverine, otter, marten, mink, weasel, muskrat, lynx, wolf, coyote, fox and others which, together with some of the subsistence species, provided furs for trade. Muskox, bison and wapiti also were available. Fish abound in the rivers and lakes, and include several species of whitefish, pike, lake trout, grayling and suckers in the Arctic drainage and salmon in the Pacific and, to a lesser extent, Atlantic drainages. Migratory waterfowl pass through the Subarctic seasonally.

Major Language Groups

Most peoples of the Eastern Subarctic speak languages of the Algonquian family; those of the Western Subarctic, Athapaskan languages. Northern Subarctic Algonquians, including the Atikamekw and Innu of Québec and Labrador, speak dialects of the Cree language, and Algonquians to the south speak dialects of Ojibwa. The Beothuk of Newfoundland spoke a language of uncertain affinity. Linguists have identified more than 20 different Northern Athapaskan languages within the Western Subarctic, including Alaska (see Aboriginal People, Languages).

Most Aboriginal people of the Subarctic were not organized politically, but were divided into groups of people, members of contiguous bands (local populations within defined territories) who spoke the same language dialect and were related by kinship and common traditions. Within each of the two major language families, neighbouring groups often shared similar ways of life. Perhaps because the Western Subarctic is physically more diverse than the East, there was more linguistic and cultural diversity among the Athapaskans than the Algonquians.

Historical Summary

Contact with Europeans changed Subarctic cultures and the effects of contact differed according to time and place. Early contact during the 17th century caused extensive migration of Subarctic people such as the Cree and brought new and different intertribal relationships. The 19th century was characterized by direct contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans engaged in the fur trade. Different bands experienced the effects of contact with greater or lesser consequences. In Newfoundland, loss of habitat and killing by Europeans led to the complete extinction of the Beothuk by 1829.

By contrast, the neighbouring Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) developed a trapping economy and systematic trade relations with Europeans. They adapted successfully to contact conditions because Europeans required furs and had no immediate use for their hunting territories. Other Aboriginal groups such as the Cree became fur-trade middlemen between the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and Subarctic Athapaskans to the west. Following Alexander Mackenzie's voyages of exploration along the Peace and Mackenzie rivers beginning in 1789, the rival North West Company established trading posts that gave its traders direct contact with the Athapaskans. In 1821 these posts were taken over by the HBC, which became an important influence in the area.

During the 20th century resource development in the North and movement of non-Aboriginal people into the Subarctic have dramatically increased. These conditions have motivated contemporary Subarctic Aboriginal people to press for land claims settlements and increased control over their communities, culture and future.

Traditional Culture

Hunting Practices
Aboriginal people of the Subarctic lived by hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering wild plants. Indigenous farming was not practical within their territory (crops successfully grown in the North today did not reach contiguous areas until after European contact). Men did most of the big-game hunting, while women snared hare, fished, cut and dried meat, and processed hides. Some hunting techniques such as drives that forced animals into temporary corrals, involved most adult members of a band.

Hunting implements included bows, various types of arrows, a variety of ingenious traps, snares, deadfalls, and such devices as the caribou drift fence and pound. People caught fish with dip and gill nets, traps, spears, and hook and line. They dried berries in the fall or stored them in baskets in pits in the ground. In the northwest, berries were often mixed with fat and fish, or were mixed with pounded dried meat and grease to make pemmican. Women were skilled in preparing meat for drying, hide tanning and sewing, making cooking and storage containers of skins, birchbark or coiled spruce root basketry, and making fishnets from willow baste or babiche.

Since game animals were thinly distributed over vast territories in the boreal forest, or were available only locally or seasonally, Subarctic Aboriginal population densities were modest. Some scholars estimate that the entire area may have supported as few as 60 000 people, although others believe that before the introduction of European diseases, populations could have been larger.

Territory and Community Bonds

Subarctic Aboriginal people typically lived in communities of 25-30 people. Each group moved frequently within a well-defined territory as game supplies changed from season to season and from year to year. A group's size and the nature of its annual economic cycle were strongly influenced by the availability of local resources. The Tutchone, Athapaskans of the Yukon Plateau, and others west of the Rocky Mountains, gathered along rivers during the summer to catch and dry salmon. The Chipewyan, Athapaskans living north of Lake Athabasca, moved to the edge of the barren grounds to follow the caribou herds. Innu spent their summers near the Atlantic, Gulf of St Lawrence or James Bay coasts and moved inland during the winter. The Beaver (Dane-zaa) hunted bison on the parkland adjacent to the Peace River and used controlled burning to maintain bison habitat.

A single band rarely had exclusive access to its territory since adjacent bands frequently shared hunting resources, especially if they faced food scarcity. Sharing resources rather than the accumulation of wealth was emphasized among individuals and communities because it provided collective insurance against natural fluctuations in the availability. However, rich sites such as lakes or rivers where fish could be taken regularly were usually exploited by the same band year after year. During the summer, when food was abundant, several local bands often resided together.

Most Subarctic bands did not have formal chiefs before European contact. People aligned themselves with individuals who manifested leadership and took the responsibility for specific tasks such as trading, war or communal hunting, including the necessary prior preparations. Aside from the prestige and respect this brought them, their authority did not generally extend beyond these tasks. Fur traders, however, attempted to establish chiefs and to endow them with considerable power, in order to have better control of the Aboriginal population associated with trading posts.

Most adult men and women participated in decisions that affected the band. Families or individuals who did not agree with a particular decision were free to join another band or camp, or to act on their own for a time. Subarctic people were noted for the value they placed on personal autonomy as well as for the flexibility of their social organization. These characteristics helped them respond to the opportunities and limitations of their environment.

Matrilineal kinship ties existed among Pacific drainage Athapaskans, bilateral ties were characteristic of the people of the Mackenzie drainage, and both bilateral and patrilineal bonds united the Algonquian speakers. Normally, people who had regular contact used kinship terms, in part structured according to generation (eg, the eldest people become grandfather or grandmother), to address and refer to one another. Kinship relations often determined membership in groups and regulated marriages. In addition, groups west of the Mackenzie River were organized into clans, and also in some cases by dual divisions (moieties) similar to those of West Coast Nations. These divisions served primarily to ensure hospitality and protection to clan members who might be visiting from other camps or bands, to fulfil certain ceremonial obligations (eg, cremation and/or burial of the dead and reciprocal feasts) and to regulate marriage through the requirement of clan exogamy.

Since their food quest necessitated mobility, Aboriginal people of the Subarctic had limited material possessions. They travelled lightly and preferred to make heavier tools and implements as they were needed rather than carry them from place to place. Success in hunting depended on accurate knowledge of animal behaviour. Children were taught to be self-reliant, observant and resourceful and were expected to learn the habits of game animals and to find their way through large areas of difficult terrain. They learned these skills by listening to long hours of practical narrative accounts and mythological tales and by rehearsing special trapping and hunting songs and innumerable riddles. Among many groups, both boys and girls were sent on vision quests to obtain power from animal helpers or the spirits of natural places. Individuals who were successful hunters were acknowledged to have gained the respect and trust of the animals.

Clothing and Mobility

Northern forest Aboriginal people made summer moccasins, leggings, shirts and coats of soft tanned hides from which the hair had been removed by scraping after treating the fresh hide with the animal's brains. Unique among the Pacific drainage Athapaskans was the short V-tailed summer slipover caribou skin tunic, highly ornamented with dyed porcupine quills, dentalium and beads made from seeds (later glass, trade beads). This exquisite shirt was sometimes worn with leggings with moccasins attached. More generally, Subarctic Aboriginal people wore relatively light clothing and built fires whenever they stopped. Winter sleeping robes were made of rabbit skins cut into strips, twisted and woven together.

Men made snowshoes, toboggans, canoes, sleds and hunting implements. Survival depended on being able to travel long distances. Snowshoes were essential for winter travel. Heavy loads were transported on toboggans and, in the far northwest, sleds were pulled both by dogs and people. During the summer, people and their belongings were moved using canoes on rivers and lakes.

Because of their mobile existence, northern forest people built shelters constructed of easily transported skin covers and of locally available materials such as bark. Dwellings varied considerably depending on local materials and traditions, but in all areas they were designed to be heated and lit by a single fire. They did not usually accommodate more than two families. Among the northern Ojibwa, dwellings were ridge pole or conical lodges also covered with birchbark. Many of the Arctic drainage Athapaskans lived in conical shelters covered with hides, similar to the Plains tipi. Among the Gwich'in and Han of the Yukon, as well as in northern Alaska, the conical tent was replaced by a domed or hemispherical one. Double lean-to structures covered with hides and brush also were used in the Arctic (Mackenzie) drainage and the northwestern mountain and plateau region.

At fishing camps in the Cordillera there were unchinked "smokehouses" that resembled roughly built log cabins. To provide added warmth in winter dwellings, the hair was left on the hide coverings of conical and domed tents which, although bulky, nevertheless were portable. Some Athapaskans of the Mackenzie District and Cordillera as well as Aboriginal people of the eastern Subarctic wintered in conical log structures chinked with moss and partially covered with dirt and snow. The Han near Dawson, as well as many Alaskan groups, built rectangular pit houses that were heavily banked with turf to withstand the cold, while far to the south in BC, groups such as the Chilcotin made pit houses similar to those used by Aboriginal people of the Plateau.

Considerable effort was taken to cache food and equipment not needed for the season; specially prepared pits, strong cribbed and conical structures and cairns, or on racks and platforms in trees were used for storage.

Mythology and Spirituality

Myths and legends described a time when animals had great power and could assume human form. Many Subarctic people told stories about a "culture hero," the first person to become powerful. For them, power and knowledge were one, and a powerful individual was one who "knows something." The culture hero demonstrated the personal knowledge and self-reliance that were recognized as important survival skills, could outwit individuals with knowledge of evil medicine, possessed the ability to overcome dangerous animals of the myth time, and thus make the world a safer place in which humans could live. The Algonquian culture's hero and trickster figures are the Nanabush or Nanabozo and Wisahkecahk. The Athapaskan culture hero goes by many names but is often associated with migratory water birds and the sun, both of whom are seen to fly through the heavens. Beliefs about the interdependence of people and nature embodied in myth helped Subarctic Aboriginal people interpret their environment.

Religious leaders were people who used their powers for the benefit of others, though to some people they sometimes used their power for evil. Among many Algonquians, these shamans, or medicine people, conducted the shaking tent ceremony in which distant spirits of people or animals were conjured for curing and prophecy in a special tipi. Elsewhere, shamans performed under a blanket or dressed in a special manner as a signal of their importance. Western Athapaskan medicine men and women charged high prices for their services and asserted prerogatives or took liberties among their people, for which reason some of them were feared as well as respected. Among the Innu, certain men and women told about the trail ahead by scapulamancy, a form of divination done by interpreting the pattern of cracks on a caribou shoulder blade heated by fire.

The beaver of the Peace River region in the West had prophets called Dreamers - people who had experienced death and flown like swans to a spirit land beyond the sky. They were healers and leaders in religious dances based on songs they brought back from their journeys to heaven. Like many other Subarctic people, they sang to the accompaniment of single-headed hand drums. Most people, however, had some degree of medicine power obtained from childhood vision quests. In addition, there was a body of beliefs and practices, proscriptions (taboos), prescriptions and minor rituals which existed apart from shamanism, divination and curing. Among these customs were the special observances taken prior to, and after killing animals.

Cultural and Environmental Change

Contact with Europeans presented a challenge to Aboriginal peoples of the Subarctic. Many quickly became dependent on trade goods such as guns, knives, axes, cooking pots and clothing, and eventually food, since they turned from harvesting animals for food and skins to trapping those species desired in European markets. Bands moved closer to trading posts, and the traders worked to control the Aboriginal people. Trading chiefs who negotiated with the Europeans became as important as the earlier hunting leaders.

The fur trade had a considerable impact on Subarctic ecology. Many species of game and fur-bearing animals were depleted. European diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and influenza killed large numbers of Aboriginal people (see Aboriginal People, Health). Other people died of starvation during periods of disease and game scarcity.

Many Subarctic Aboriginal people adopted elements of Christianity but also retained many of their own spiritual traditions, sometimes blending the two. The ability to assimilate new techniques and ideas is a typical attribute of the Subarctic Aboriginal culture.

In modern times, large-scale resource development and settlement of the North have threatened the traditional Aboriginal economy of trapping and subsistence hunting. In 1975 the Grand Council of the Cree signed the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement accepting compensation for social and ecological impacts of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project (see James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement). Many Cree continued to hunt and trap on their land, using government entitlements to subsidize the cost of modern transportation and communication systems. Aboriginal people of the western Subarctic in the District of Mackenzie, organized politically in the Dene Nation, are seeking self-government within the Canadian national context. In the western provinces and BC's Peace region, subarctic people signed Treaty 8 in 1899 and 1900. The slavey of Fort Nelson took an adhesion to the treaty in 1910, and the McLeod Lake Sekani Band negotiated an adhesion in 2000. Oil and gas exploration has caused dramatic environmental impacts in the Peace River areas of BC and Alberta. The massive development of the tar sands in the Fort McMurray region has caused even greater impact to the Cree of northern Alberta. The First Nations have received some benefits in the form of jobs and compensation from the developers, but the environmental changes have severely impacted traditional hunting, fishing and trapping activities.