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Aboriginal Peoples: Overview

Blackfoot boys with bows and arrows, 1885.

When the first European traders reached what would become Alberta, they met many different First Nations, each of which had developed its own way of life and distinctive culture. The main peoples in this area were the Woods and Plains Cree, the Chipewyan or Dene, the Beaver or Tsatinne, the Dene Tha' or Slavey, the Tsuu T'ina or Sarcee, the Assiniboinealso known as Stoneys or Nakota, the Blackfootor Siksika, the Peigan, and the Blood or Kainai. Fur traders also encountered other First Nations, including the GrosVentres, the Kutenai, and the Sekani, in what would become Alberta, although there are no reserve communities for these peoples in Alberta today.

Group of Plains Cree or Assiniboine people, ca. 1880Different peoples tended to live in different regions of the province and each had developed a way of life that was based on the specific natural and physical characteristics of their home territories. Plains groups, such as the Blackfoot, Peigan, and Blood First Nations relied heavily on buffalo as a source of food, clothing and shelter. Although they also hunted other large animals and collected other types of food, their lives were shaped by the seasonal migrations of buffalo. These people followed bison out onto the plains in summer and they migrated back with the herds into the foothills and parkland regions in winter. Other plains groups including the Plains Cree, the Assiniboine, and the Tsuu T'ina/Sarcee followed a similar subsistence pattern. Later many Métis would become specialized buffalo hunters as well.

Metis family at Fort ChipewyanFurther north other groups such as the Woods Cree and some Assiniboine/Stoney tended to hunt and collect food in the Parkland areas in summer, before moving north and west into the foothills and boreal forests to winter. They too hunted large mammals, including buffalo, but their way of life required more attention to fishing and trapping as well. Further north still many of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples, such as the Chipewyan/Dene followed a different approach to subsistence. Many hunted the herds of caribou that move between the boreal forest in winter and the Barrens in summer. Most Athapaskan groups, including the Beaver/Tsatinne and Slavey/Dene Tha', also had to develop sophisticated techniques for fishing and hunting ducks, geese and other wild fowl.

The first fur traders to arrive in what we now call Alberta found it a complex and often confusing world of different peoples with distinct languages, beliefs, artistic traditions, histories, alliances, and even interest in the fur trade. Much of this history remains unstudied, but bit by bit its richness and variety is beginning to emerge.

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            For more on the Aboriginal history of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.