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The Chipewyan Nation – Social Life

Duck hunt Chipewyan society was organized in small kinship units or bands. Bands consisted of anywhere from thirty to one-hundred people who camped and hunted together. Chipewyan bands would usually operate independently of one another, coming together in large numbers for large hunts that would take place during the spring and autumn caribou migrations. Band leadership was usually comprised of the best hunters in a Chipewyan camp. Though these leaders were considered the chiefs of their respective bands, Chipewyan society did not have a clear class of nobility from which leadership was drawn. Leaders were chosen based on individual merit.

Ceremonies and rites of passage were rare in Chipewyan social. Children were born with the help of the older women from the band, but the demands of nomadic life kept the ceremony of birth to a minimum. Chipewyan children learned about their place in Chipewyan society under the guidance and tutelage of their parents. Labour in the Chipewyan camp was divided along gender lines, so by the pre-adolescent to adolescent years, Chipewyan boys were learning to be the hunters and warriors of the camp, while girls were learning the skills necessary to maintain the camp.

Boys were considered of marriageable age once they became successful hunters, which usually occurred somewhere between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. Girls were considered for marriage after they reached puberty. Consequently, there was often an age gap between Chipewyan husbands and wives. Marriages were often arranged by the parents of the prospective bride and groom, with successful hunters considered the most eligible. A young couple would usually live with the parents of the bride — the groom being obligated to hunt for his in-laws — until the birth of the couple’s first child, after which time the couple could spend time with the groom’s family as well. Kinship ties among the Chipewyan were close, and a groom was expected to have a close working relationship with the brothers of his bride.

The Elders of the Chipewyan were afforded great respect, and were looked to as sources of knowledge and wisdom. If however, the elderly or ill were seen as a threat to the survival of the band, they were at times abandoned; although this appears to have been practiced only in extreme situations, and it was seen as a time of great sorrow if such measures were necessary. The dead were left to the elements, their bodies and earthly possessions abandoned with them by the rest of the camp.

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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