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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
Buffalo Robe Trade

As trade decreased and the number of Métis employed in the trading companies began to diminish, Aboriginal and Métis emphasized another product, which stemmed from the bison or "buffalo" centred economy – the buffalo robe. The buffalo robe trade was part of the end of the buffalo. It has been suggested that the buffalo herds amounted to 60 million individual animals in North America before European settlement. The bison travelled in two vast herds, the southern herd and the northern herd, each with its own migration route. The northern herd travelled in a huge loop down through what is now Saskatchewan, south of Cypress Hills into Montana, and back up beside the Rockies, across the Oldman River, north across the Red Deer River and up to the North Saskatchewan, before bending back east and then south again.

A market for the robes developed in the eastern states, not only for coats and robes for carriages, but also as a source of leather for industrial belts. As prices, driven by demand, increased in the south, some of the northern Aboriginal buffalo robe product made its way into the American markets. The HBC, realizing they were losing profits, increased their prices as a result. Since much of the bison came from the Aboriginal communities it is estimated that the Aboriginal people were only eating four out of every one hundred animals they slaughtered.

The Métis who at this stage sought an alternate income other than the fur trade had a number of economic strategies. They did some subsistence farming, they fished, trapped and hunted, and they combined the buffalo robe trade with freighting goods between the large trade centres. The Métis took on a middleman position, purchasing hides from the Aboriginal people and re-selling them to the HBC or to companies across the line.

Over time, the Métis took on more of the hunting and hide preparation. Whole communities moved out to the plains in the fall to hunt buffalo all winter. They settled where there was shelter, and where they knew the buffalo could be found. These outposts became winter villages, and before 1870 some were becoming permanent settlements. The Métis people from St. Albert and Lac Ste. Anne (a little north and west of Fort Edmonton) made use of the territory between Battle River and Red Deer River, settling at the river fords and around Buffalo Lake. The best known hivernant settlements were Tail Creek, on Red Deer River southwest of Buffalo Lake, and Buffalo Boss Hill, on the eastern side of the lake.

The involvement of the Aboriginal and Métis communities in the hide trade resulted in the disappearance of the buffalo and their whole economy and way of life. By 1860, it was becoming obvious to everyone in the area that the buffalo were disappearing; they were already scarce in the Canadian prairies. The Great White Hunt across the northern states, from 1870 to 1873, in which over 5000 white hunters and skinners participated, took over 3 million buffalo and spelled the end of the great herds. By 1887 it was estimated that there were 1100 buffalo left alive, and by 1890, the estimate fell to 750 animals.

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Liens Rapides

Background

North West Company

Hudson's Bay Company

Geography and Ecology

The Trade

Provisioning

Buffalo Robe Trade

Company Employment (Wage Labour)

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