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The Chipewyan Nation – Historical Overview

Chipewyan woman History to 1876
Prior to their contact with Europeans, the Chipewyan people occupied a territory that spanned from the western shores of Hudson’s Bay, west; covering an area that today comprises: northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, and the southern Northwest Territories. They were a boreal forest people, subsisting on game like barren land caribou, moose, deer, and elk; fishing for whitefish, trout, and pickerel: and trapping fur-bearing animals like wolf and beaver. The climate of Chipewyan territory in the northern fringes of the boreal forest, where the forest meets the barren lands beyond, is generally humid and cool. Long winters and short summers were typical of life in the region. Trade was maintained with other First Peoples in the Hudson Bay area, like the Cree.

Contact with European explorers and traders began sometime after 1682, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established the York Factory trading post. French and English fur traders learned of the Chipewyan through their encounters with Chipewyan women and children who had been captured by the Cree, and with whom the Europeans enjoyed an ongoing trade relationship. The Cree were enemies of the Chipewyan, and the traders attempted to encourage peace between the Cree and Chipewyan in order for trade to be opened up with the Chipewyan. This was successful sometime in the early 1700s, allowing trade with the Chipewyan to commence. Trade at this time was not extensive, as the Chipewyan did not have access to large numbers of furs in their territories, and were not in need of European made trade goods, as the barren lands caribou provided an excellent source of food, clothing, shelter and tools.

Over time, the fur trade proved more appealing to the Chipewyan, leading to a gradual migration south and west, into the boreal forest; taking the Chipewyan into areas covering more of northern Saskatchewan and parts of southern Alberta, where fur-bearing animals were more plentiful. This led to more direct competition for furs with the Cree; and warfare between the them became more frequent. In addition, greater contact with Europeans meant greater exposure to European diseases, against which the Chipewyan had no immunity. Smallpox, influenza, and measles wiped out two-thirds of the Chipewyan population by the 1820s. Alcohol, introduced to the Chipewyan by European traders, led to dysfunction and breakdown in many Chipewyan communities.

The 1870s saw the Canadian government searching for land to open up for settlement, and many First Peoples were approached to sign treaty agreements asking them to cede their traditional territories in exchange for annual benefits and smaller tracts of reserve land. Though many plains tribes occupying territory in central Saskatchewan and Alberta, like the Cree, Nakoda, and Saulteaux signed on to Treaty 6 in 1876, many Chipewyan bands did not, their northern territories not of immediate interest to government authorities at the time. A small band of Chipewyan living on the shores of Primrose Lake in the vicinity of Cold Lake, led by Chief Kinoosayoo and his headman Antoine Xavier, did sign Treaty 6 at Fort Pitt in 1876. Later, during the 1877 adhesions to the treaty, a second small band of Chipewyans living at Heart Lake received treaty payments. These Chipewyans were led by Antoine Xavier. Much larger groups of Chipewyan bands would sign on to Treaty 8 and Treaty 10, ceding the bulk of Chipewyan territory in later years.

1876 and After
The Chipewyan people living on reserves around Cold Lake continued their traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping lifestyles. Food and supplies gathered through hunting and fishing were supplemented by a livelihood in the fur trade and by some limited farming. The Cold Lake Chipewyan lived for quite a number of years in relative peace and self-sufficiency, without suffering the adverse effects experienced by the plains tribes further south.

In the 1940s, the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments introduced a system of licensing to commercial fishing and trapping. This licensing system had no direct impact on the trapping and fishing lifestyle of the Chipewyan people in the Cold Lake region, other than to regulate their activities; but other activities, like the creation of the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range (now the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range) by the federal government in 1952, had a damaging effect on Chipewyan traditional life. In 1952, the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments leased 3 million acres of land to the federal government for use as a weapons test range. The area around Primrose Lake was closed to the public in 1954, and the Chipewyan people suffered as their traditional economy collapsed. Cut off from their traditional lands and means of subsistence, the Cold Lake First Nations filed for compensation from the Canadian government. Initial compensation was given to certain affected individuals between 1954 and 1961, but in 1975, the Cold Lake First Nations made a claim that the initial compensation was inadequate to provide for the people whose livelihood had been destroyed. It would take years of negotiation, but in 2002, the Cold Lake First Nations and the Canadian government signed a $25 million settlement, granting the Cold Lake Chipewyan new reserve land and compensation for the loss of their traditional territory.

The Heart Lake First Nation, a Chipewyan reserve near Lac La Biche in Alberta, has had an interesting history with Treaty 6. There is some debate as to whether their reserve falls under the auspices of Treaty 6 entitlements, or those of Treaty 8. The confusion seems to stem from contradictory government information regarding the Heart Lake First Nation. When the Chipewyan under Chief Kinoosayoo signed onto Treaty 6 in 1876, the Chief’s headman in the band was a man by the name of Antoine Xavier. In 1877, a small band of Chipewyan who later listed Xavier as their headman received treaty payments under Treaty 6. The band later applied for and was given a reserve under the conditions of treaty, but government records did not specify which treaty. When the reserve was finally surveyed, it was done under Treaty 8, and the band was listed as having signed Treaty 8 as well on 12 June 1899. However, the 12th of June fell before the Treaty 8 negotiations began in 1899 (Treaty 8 was signed on June 21, 1899, and the Chipewyan bands listed did not sign until later that summer). Thus, there is no clear evidence to indicate whether the Heart Lake Band signed Treaty 6 or Treaty 8. Officially, the band is listed under Treaty 6, and for the time being, this remains the band’s status.

Indian Claims Commission, “Cold and Canoe Lake Inquiry [Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range], August 1993.” Claimsmap, Alberta. http://www.indianclaims.ca/english/claimsmap/AB/primrose1.html (accessed August 2006).

Johnson, Gregory A. Lac La Biche Chronicles: The Early Years. Lac La Biche: Potage College, 1999.

Malinowski, Sharon and Anna Sheets, eds., “Chipewyan.” The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes, Vol. III. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Smith, James G.E. “Chipewyan,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

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