Canadian History/The People of the Lands/Chipewyan



Chipewyan comes from a Cree term meaning ‘pointed skins,’ but they called themselves ‘Dene’ which means people. They speak a language which belongs to a branch the northeastern Athapaskan language family. Their ancestors were the Taltheilei.

Fur trade


Before the Europeans’ arrival, they inhabited the Northwest, an area dominated by the Canadian shield, along with three other nations: the Ojibwa, the Assiniboin, and the Cree. Historically, the Chipewyan lived on the tundra for parts of the year and hunted the migratory herds of Barren Ground caribou. Families would gather to form hunting groups that would coalesce and disperse with the herds. Leaders were chosen for ability, wisdom and generosity and had limited authority. Later, lured by the fur trade, they left the tundra to take up year-round residence in the boreal forests to the south. This opened up a gap in the tundra for the Caribou Inuit who had traded their traditional marine lifestyle to follow the caribou.

Because of the location of their land, the Chipewyan played a large part in establishing the fur trade. In the 1770s, guides from the Chipewyan nation helped guide Samuel Hearne’s exploration of Rupert’s Land. As posts were built around Lake Athabasca, they became the main suppliers. According to Chipewyan tradition, it was a young woman named Thanadelthur who introduced her people to the Europeans. This successful meeting led to the establishing of Prince of Wales Fort, or Churchill, in 1760 by the Hudson Bay Company for the Chipewyan fur trade. Competition in the fur trade created hostility between many first native groups, including the Chipewyan with their southern neighbours, the Cree and the Inuits, who were to the north.



By the early 19th century, the fur trade has expanded west from Hudson Bay to Great Slave Lake. Likewise, the Chipewyan extended their territories south to the full boreal forest, where fur-bearing animals were more abundant. Some even ventured into the northern edge of the parkland to hunt bison. Not all Chipewyan worked in the trade business though, some only traded for food provisions. By late 19th century, they were occupying most of the regions they do today.

Exposure to disease


The Chipewyan’s close contact with Europeans exposed them to deadly diseases for which they hadn’t built up an immunity for. Smallpox and measles were two of the most deadly and contributed largely to native population decline. An example is the outbreak of smallpox in 1780-82 which killed off much of the Chipewyan and Cree population around Hudson Bay.



Horizons: Canada Moves West by Michael Cranny, Graham Jarvis, Garvin Moles, and Bruce Seney