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The Peoples, Their Places

Northwind Dreaming: The Peoples of Fort Chipewyan

Dog teams, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. 1899. Chipewyans and Crees became the two dominant Indian groups trading at Fort Chipewyan. Alexander Mackenzie (1970:125) overstated the case slightly in 1801 when he claimed:

"Who the original people were that were driven from it, when conquered by the Kristeneaux (Crees) is not now known, as not a single vestige remains of them. The latter, and the Chepewyans, are the only people that have been known here; and it is evident that the last-mentioned consider themselves as strangers, and seldom remain longer than three or four years, without visiting their relations and friends in the barren grounds, which they term their native country."

George Simpson, who operated Fort Wedderburn in 1820-21, elaborated in his report on the difficulties the traders had in securing the Chipewyan Indians as reliable trappers and provisioners:

"The Chipewyans do not consider this part of the Country to be their legitimate soil; they come in large Bands from their own barren lands situated to the North of this lake, extending to the Eastern extremity of Gt. Slave Lake and embracing a large Track of Country towards Churchill. The Compys. Traders at the latter Establishment, made them acquainted with the use and value of European Commodities and being naturally of a vagrant disposition and those articles becoming necessary to their Comforts, they shook off their indolent habits, became expert Beaver hunters, and now penetrate in search of that valuable animal into the Cree and Beaver Indian hunting grounds, making a circuit easterly by Carribeau Lake; to the South by Isle a la Crosse; and westerly to the Banks of Peace River. The greater proportion of them however remain on their own barren Lands, where they procure sustenance with little exertion as the Country abounds with Rein Deer (Simpson: 1938:355-6)."

Although Crees still occupied the region, Simpson (1938: 362-3) noted that their numbers had been decimated by ".the Small Pox, Measles and other contagious diseases." Moreover, some Crees had left the region for Lesser Slave Lake.

Joe Bourke hunting for moose, 1986. Historically, Chipewyans and Crees were hostile to one another and distinct culturally and socially. Until the mid-20th century, Crees were in the minority. By the mid-1800s, Cree men had begun to marry Chipewyan women, creating alliances between their bands. Such alliances not only facilitated access into one another's hunting and trapping territories, they established a basis for the development of Chipewyan and Cree cultures which were more similar than they were distinct.

The early journals offer accounts of various Indians who came to trade. The traders designated some as trading captains, such as English Chief, a Chipewyan Indian who had traveled with Matonabbee and Samuel Hearne in the early 1770s, and later journeyed with Alexander Mackenzie. Other names that show up in the accounts can be related to people who appear in the church records of later years. The continuity of people over time is strongly in evidence in Fort Chipewyan.

Other Indians visited Fort Chipewyan on an occasional basis, especially Iroquois and Ojibwa. Those who remained in the region married locally and were assimilated to Chipewyan or Cree culture.

Reprinted from "Northwind Dreaming: Kiwetin Pawatmowin Tthisi Niltsi Nats ete" with permission of the Provincial Museum of Alberta and Dr. Patricia McCormack.