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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

The Peoples of the Boreal Forest

festival float While some of the cultural practices shown are unique to the people of specific regions, these people's Aboriginal ancestry is their common bond. There are several language groups throughout the forest: the people featured in this book speak Cree, Chipewyan, Dogrib, and Dene (Slavey and Beaver).

What is common to all the people in this book is that they are hunters and gatherers whose traditional way of life was derived from the land in a forest region of northwest Canada. It is in the context of these common cultural practices that this story is told. Cultural practices vary within the range of communities in this story. The author became aware of customs which are specific to some communities and not to others.

    - Terry Garvin, from Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest


In his travels through the northwest boreal forest, author and photographer Terry Garvin encountered Aboriginal languages, traditions, and individuals that exposed him to the diversity and richness that exists among Native cultures in the bushlands.

Two main Aboriginal language groups exist in the boreal forest region: Athapascan and Algonkian. These language groups can be further subdivided into a number of different Aboriginal languages and dialects. Athapascan speakers are also known as Dene, and this group includes a number of different Native Peoples including the Dogrib of the Northwest Territories; the Dunne-za (Beaver) People and the Dene-tha (Slave or Slavey) People, both of northern Alberta; and the Chipewyan, whose traditional lands covered an area of northern Saskatchewan and northeast Alberta. Dene bands are among the oldest groups in the northwest.

Algonkian speakers include the Woodlands Cree, who started off further east in Canada, but eventually moved into the northwest boreal woodlands in the eighteenth century during the expansion of the European fur trade into the region. It was primarily close interaction between the Europeans and the Cree that gave rise to the Métis people of the northwest. From European and Aboriginal cultures, the Métis culture grew into a unique and vibrant culture all its own.

Periodically, the northern reaches of the northwest boreal forest will see incursions of Inuit from the Barren Lands north of the woodlands. At times, this movement of Inuit will be because more favourable hunting and fishing grounds may be found further south. Other times, healthcare and social services from some southern communities may also be required by the Inuit.

The history of the boreal forest peoples is one that has seen great changes, and a gradual shift from a subsistence based lifestyle to an industrial one. The struggle of the various Native Peoples to preserve their culture and traditions has been reflected in the many efforts by notable individuals, Elders in particular, who have tried to pass their knowledge and skills onto younger generations.

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            For more on Aboriginal hunters and trappers in Canada’s northwest Boreal forest, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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