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The Chipewyan Nation – Customs and Traditions

Chipewyan traditional life was shaped by subarctic woodlands, rather than flat, dry plains. Survival for the Chipewyan meant coping with the harsh winters and fleeting summers of the north. A deep and intimate knowledge of the boreal forest and the barren lands beyond was the foundation of Chipewyan existence.

To survive in the boreal forest, the Chipewyan lived by seasonal patterns of hunting, gathering, trapping, and fishing. The prime prey of the Chipewyan was the barren lands caribou, which was a source of food, clothing, shelter, and tools for them, in the same way that the plains bison served the plains peoples, like the Cree. Hunting caribou demanded that the Chipewyan live a semi-nomadic existence, following the seasonal migrations of the caribou. Thus, winters were spent hunting caribou in the boreal forest, while summers were spent tracking the caribou herds into the barren lands of the north. In the spring and autumn, large-scale hunts were organized by Chipewyan bands to take advantage of large herd movements, gathering enough meat to last for the year.

Aside from caribou, moose, deer, and elk also provided sources of meat. Trapping for meat and furs to trade, served as a supplementary activity, with animals like beaver, fox, mink, muskrat, otter, wolf, and lynx being sought after. Fishing for whitefish, trout, or pike was another summer activity, as was the gathering of roots, berries, and other edible plants for additional nutrition.

Preparing hide Clothing
Caribou, moose, and rabbit hide were the primary sources for Chipewyan clothing. Chipewyan men more breechcloths, belted leather skirts, and leggings. Women wore dresses with ankle-length skirts and leggings. Clothing for both men and women could be painted with various pigments. Moccasins and snowshoes were designed and used for winter travel.

The traditional shelter for the Chipewyan was a conical tipi consisting of a basic pole structure covered with thick hides to keep the inside well insulated in the cold. The average tipi could house eight to ten individuals, and would require numerous caribou hides, sometimes up to sixty or more, to cover it.

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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