Inuit First Nations

Lytwyn 2002:116, Map: ‘Indian middlemen trade routes to James Bay’

The Cree:

The Cree were the first North Americans the English encountered when they established their posts in the 1670s and 1680s along the inland rivers of the James and Hudson Bay. These first posts were established at the end of James Bay at Fort Albany, Moose Factory, Charles Fort, Fort Rupert and Eastman Factory. Further into Hudson Bay the posts were located at Fort Prince of Whales (Churchill) and the main base at York Factory.

The Cree became the early traders with the HBC and began to also help with the supply and maintenance of the posts through the winter. As a result, the Cree became known as the Homeguard for the Hudson Bay Company. The effectively established the Cree as the middlemen for the HBC.

With increased competition for furs from the Norwest Company from Montreal and the HBC was forced to undergo a huge expansion inland. This expansion in the 1760s to the 1820s would take the HBC as far west as the Pacific coast and north up the Mackenzie River, south along the Red River and throughout the Hudson Bay drainage basin to the edges of what was granted as the Rupert’s Land monopoly. Naturally this necessitated contact and trade with many different First Nations. At first the HBC traders did not appreciate the potential for conflict between the Cree nation and these possible new trading partners. However, for the Cree is was essential that having already established themselves as the HBC Homeguard, they would not let other tribes get close to the HBC traders or take on the role they had worked so hard to establish.

The Cree people called themselves nehiawak- the People. Although they had many traditional allies in the southern reaches of Rupert’s Land, such as the Assiniboine and Ojibwe, they also had enemies. The Chipewyan were a key enemy that lived to the north. Historically, Cree often went on raiding parties into Chipewyan territory and would take slaves from the tribe to work and do all the manual labour for the Cree conquerors.

The Cree occupied a territory around Lake Athabaska in northern Alberta/ Saskatchewan that stretched east through northern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. These were generally rich hunting grounds for deer and moose and also for the fur-bearing animals the HBC was after. Generally, life amongst the Cree was organized by clans with strong leadership. The leader was known as Okimaw.

In nêhiyawak culture, leadership was earned by attaining a certain level of status. The Okimaw were accomplished warriors, skilled hunters, persuasive orators, able administrators, and solution seekers. Of these traits, bravery in combat was perhaps most highly regarded. "One who had not distinguished himself on the warpath could not be chief," Mandelbaum wrote. Some Okimaw even acquiesced their power to others who had "outstripped them" in battle achievements. But peacemaking could be an even more courageous act. Speaking with Chief Broken Arm in 1847, American artist Paul Kane recorded that "The highest deed of all was to make peace with a hostile tribe. It required great courage to approach the enemy unarmed…."(Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree, 120)

The HBC granted nêhiyawak leaders preferential treatment, "including special gifts and gratuities such as flour, tea, sugar, and other trade goods … [which] they shared … with band members," Christenson noted. "They were also given coats and high silk hats decorated with a broad gold lace band and three plumes of three different colours called ‘coloured cocktail feathers.’ … These garments were known as chiefs’ coasts and were a mark of their rank. Lesser chiefs received scarlet coats." According to one HBC official, "we give to Chiefs and Councillors good and suitable uniform [sic] indicating their office, to wear on these and other great days."

Mandelbaum, however, noted that this practice also had the potential to disturb traditional leadership patterns if the HBC chose to recognize "peaceful trappers" rather than "troublesome warriors". As Europeans became more numerous and powerful, they tried to alter the leadership patterns more explicitly as it suited their interests.

The Chipewyan/Dene:

The name “Chipewyan” was given to the Dene inhabitants whose territory over lapped Cree territories around Lake Athabaska in the northern Alberta area. The term was used because it described how this group tanned skins by staking them on poles and also from how they used the skins to make their clothing. Chipewyan in Cree translates as “pointy skins”. The Chipewyan call themselves Dene meaning “the People”. The Dene people ranged across vast territories from the eastern Barrenlands up to the Mackenzie River delta, but were concentrated in their winter camps mostly around Great Slave Lake. Their territory lay north of Churchill River, between Great Slave Lake and Slave and Athabaska Rivers on the west and Hudson Bay on the east.

They followed the caribou herds as their main source of meat, but also fished the large lakes and rivers and harvested small animals when there were shortages. The much harsher climate meant that the Dene groups often faced shortages. To make life more secure, they camped in smaller family groups and did not usually form large communities. In the summers they would gather to fish around the lakes and rivers and might join other camps at this time. The Dene also inhabited an area where the fur bearing animals sought by the Hudson Bay Company were not very plentiful. For this reason, they were not easily drawn into the fur trade.

George Simpson, who operated the HBC 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)."

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. Still, early contact between these tribes was extremely volatile and there is much evidence of brutal wars and retaliations between the groups.

The Churchill River is where the Hudson Bay Company erected one of its oldest posts and attempted to expand trade with three distinct groups who used the area: the Inuit, the Chipewyan Dene, the Cree. This post, located at a meeting place is also a geographical transitional space where boreal forest becomes tundra, where inland rivers meet the salt shores of the Hudson Bay and at a time when the HBC had to expand inland in order to stave off the encroachments of other traders. In order to do this, they needed to secure partnerships with those who could act as guides, interpreters, informants and who could provide the appropriate clothing and food for the HBC staff. The Homeguard Cree who the HBC had so long relied upon, now became a deterrent as they had historically hostile relationships with both the Chipewyan Dene and the Inuit.

The Fur Trade Brokers Peace:

Dealing with this issue fell to the new HBC Factor, James Knight, who was sent to re-establish trade from York Factory in 1714 after the HBC forts, recently captured by the French were returned. Knight was pondering how to make a connection with the Chipewyan when very good fortune brought an answer in the form of a young named Thanadelthur to York Factory.


THANADELTHUR, a Chipewyan (Northern Indian) known as the Slave Woman in the records of the HBC; the Indian name meaning “marten shake” was given her in the oral tradition of the Chipewyans; d. 5 Feb. 1717.

Read more about Thanadelthur.

Unaliit Indians (Cree First Nation) of Long Ago: Written by Louis Angalik (2008)

Long ago Unaliit Indians started thinking of the usefulness of axes because Unaliit (Cree) Indians live where there were trees and they needed an axe. These they made themselves. They started off with axes similar to ones made by Inuit. Stone axes fastened with rope to a wooden handle were used by Unaliit Indians so they could use them to cut trees. But first they had to find a hard stone. It had to be sharp for cutting wood, but could also be used for other things. So they started thinking about an axe long ago before they saw any Qallunaat. They always had stone axes that were used for meat and wood. They also made qajaqs (canoes) out of trees using an axe.

They wore animal skin clothing which was supplied by hunting. Both Inuit and Unaliit Indians used animal skin clothing. Unaliit Indian clothing had pointy thing in the hood and the front part of the coat was open with tie strings. Itqiliit (Chipewyan) Indian’s caribou outer coats were long. They used summer caribou skins for clothing and made them pliable like Inuit do by tanning them. But Unaiit Indians hunted different animals like moose and caribou- the caribou that stay in the tree line. But they never ate raw meat; they ate only cooked food by scorching the meat slowly near a flame.

When beads were brought in by Qallunaat, they started making beaded foot wear and beaded personal items to make them look nice. Their women did most of the beading by decorating their sewing. Even Itqiliit Indians hunting clothes were beaded when Qallunaat brought the beads to sell them.

Beads were really sought after by Inuit and Itqiliit Indians and Unaliit Indians. Itqiliit Indians had more food varieties because they had more animal variety in the tree line. Their food was eaten both by Itqiliit and Unaliit Indians because Itqiliit and Unaliit Indians main diet were animals.

Before rifles came, Unaliit and Itqiliit Indians had to make bow and arrows to use in hunting game. They used stones and animal bones for survival a long time ago. Itqiliit Indians are closer to us than Unaliit Indians because they lived around near Churchill. But Unaliit Indians apparently lived further south and further inland where there are more trees.

Itqiliit Indians use to come up to the Inuit land in the summer to where there were no trees. This is after they had met Inuit people and had stopped warring with them. Itqiliit Indians and Inuit became best of friends and wanted to trade their possessions, like dogs and personal items. Some Inuit even learned to speak Itqiliit Indian language, and Itqiliit Indians also learned to speak Inuit language. There was an Itqiliit person in Churchill that could speak Inuktitut.

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