An Introduction to
North America's Native People

Subarctic Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
Reading Assignment | Resources


The Subarctic culture area stretches from the Labrador Sea to within a few miles of the Bering Sea, and encompasses six Subarctic mapCanadian Provinces, two Territories, as well as much of Alaska. The northern boundary between Arctic and Subarctic shows up in the vegetation change from treeless tundra (Arctic) to forests (evergreens in the west and evergreens mixed with deciduous species in the southeast). The area is a vast, harsh one within which to live, a land of physiographic and seasonal climatic extremes. The climate is characterized by short, warm, bright summers, low percipitation, and long, exceedingly cold winters. The vegetation and topography are varied, from mountains to swampy, coniferous forests, from high plateaus and prairies to lakes, swamps, and rivers. Vegetation in the forests includes spruce, birch, aspen, cottonwood, and pine, to name a few. Vegetation edible by humans is very sparse, but berries of many kinds are plentiful (including blue-, cran-, goose-, service-, rasp-). In the forests game of many different kinds abounds, including moose, some deer and elk, woodland caribou, along with various fur-bearing animals. In the many streams and lakes fish (including salmon, pike, whitefish and other anadromous and freshwater species) are plentiful and migratory waterfowl by the tens of thousands visit the region in spring and fall. Although regarded as an uninviting and unforgiving land by non-natives (explorers, traders, missionaries, governmental agents), it has been home for many thousands of years to Native people whose twentieth century descendants speak Algonquian, or Athapaskan, or more recently, French or English.

Historical Overview

In eastern Canada, history seems to begin about 5000 B.C. with various Archaic cultures, and continues with what are most likely ancestral Algonkians, until by 500 years ago Algonkian speakers formed a continuous bloc from the turndra of Labrador to Manitoba. The boreal forest and tundra of the far northeast supported far fewer large game animals than found elsewhere in the Subarctic; consequently human population densities were low. Caribou may have the principal land mammal hunted, but fish were probably the most important daily food, with plants almost nonexistent since there are very few edible (for humans) species. Of all the late Archaic cultural adaptations (and perhaps societies), those of this region (like those of the Great Basin culture area far to the west) persisted most strongly into the period of the European invasion. In some respects, the Cree and other Algonkian-speaking populations whom the Europeans first met exhibited a Late Archaic cultural pattern.

The first encounters between eastern Subarctic people and Europeans occured at the beginning of the 16th century when various European fishing boats put in to shore to process fish they had taken on the Newfoundland Banks. Trading European-made implements for furs, drinking with the Native people and sleeping with the Native women, they not only stimulated the alteration of traditional cultural patterns but they also passed on European diseases. From the 16th century through the early decades of the 20th century, thousands of Subarctic people died from a variety of contagious diseases: smallpox, whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria, influenza, and tuberculosis. And following each epidemic came famine and poor nutrition which added more deaths.

Initially, there were few signs of the profound changes the presence of Europeans &their appetite for furs would bring to the lives and cultures of the Native people. For many of the eastern Subarctic people, the fur trade was merely an extension of a seasonal round of food-gathering, a routine to which the European fur traders adapted and accepted. And when, in the middle of the 17th century, the British established the Hudson's Bay Company to compete with the French monopoly of the Subarctic fur trade, the Native people skillfully played the two European powers off against each other in order to get the highest prices for their furs (receiving guns, powder, ammunition, clothes, blankets, paints, and other European manufactured items for skins of beaver, otter, lynx, ermine, and other furbearing animals).

But the fur trade inevitably changed and had an increasingly adverse impact on the Native people. Over the following decades and centuries, the demand (stimulated in part because such tools were cheaper and in part because skilled craftworkers died from introduced diseases) by the Native people for imported implements lead to more trapping of fur bearers to such an extent that within decades, species of animals were all but wiped out in entire regions (e.g., by the early 18th century, much of the southern boreal forest was trapped out - even moose were few). As fur bearers became depleted in one area, groups that once traded for mutual benefit began to encroach on the hunting lands of others, leading to devastating wars. Additionally, many groups found it more profitable to trade with the Europeans than to pursue old economic activities. Traditional work patterns and kinship alliances disintegrated and group cohesion and discipline broke apart as individuals put personal goals ahead of the values and well-being of the group. Meanwhile, ancient tribal and personal spiritual values and sacred relationships with the land &animals also changed or were abandoned. And exacerbating all of this was the practice of traders freely giving alcohol to Native trappers to make it easier to cheat them. Alcoholism became rampant among many nations.

By the middle of the 19th century, not only were there very few fur bearing mammals left in the eastern Subarctic, but caribou &moose, the people's primarily staple, had all but disappeared and the people were living on a diet of hares and fish, animals with very low levels of fat and certain necessary trace minerals &vitamins. The most significant effect of this dietary change was poorer nutrition, which led to lower susceptiblity to infections, as well as lower and slower recover rates from wounds or accidents. Additionally, since the primary sources of hides for making clothes and house coverings, the caribou and moose were gone, it was difficult to keep warm. It must have seemed to some of the Native people, given their perception of the relationships between themselves and the animals, that their spririt helpers had deserted them and the spirits of the game animals were severely displeased.

Athapascan history in the Subarctic is not well documented until its final millennium and a half. Most likely, the ancestors of the historically known Athapascan-speaking groups entered Alaska from Siberia sometime after 8,000-9,000 years ago. Known as the Northwest Microblade Tradition (because of the use of tiny stone flakes, or microblades, set along a gooove in a handle), it slowly spread eastward reaching the southern Yukon around 6000 years ago and the Mackenzie Basin by 4500 years ago. At about this same time, 6500 to 4500 years ago, two different cultural patterns spread northward. One, termed the Northern Archaic reached as far north as central Alaska while the other pattern, the Northern Plains Archaic spread north as far as southern Northwest Territories. Each pattern seems to be associated with different primary subsistence resources: the Northern Archaic with caribou; the Northern Plains with bison. After 4500 years ago, the climate turned cold and people associated with the Arctic Small Tool Tradition (presumably the ancestors of modern Inuit) moved into these areas. Then, non-Inuit toolkits reappear in this region about 2800 years ago and continue to dominate the archaeological record up the the coming of the Europeans.

In the western Subarctic the fur trade had little impact on the Native people's lifeways until late 19th century, when rapid-fire repeating rifles and commerical fishnets were introduced. The former made caribou hunting much more efficient, thus lessening the need for cooperative workgroups to form ( and altering age-old social interaction and alliance patterns), as well as freeing more time for nonsubsistence trapping for furs (NOTE: it has been suggested that using rifles to kill the animals used for food diminished the reciprocal relationships that had existed for thousands of years between those animals and the Native people). Over the next 50 years, many Athapaskan-speakers worked as trappers, supplying luxury furs to the international markets in exchange for cloth garmets, tea, flour and lard, steel traps, tobacco, rifles and ammunition, all of which became necessities.

Colonization first came to the western Subarctic in the 1860s and 1870s with gold strikes in northern British Columbia and then in Alaska. But more gradualy and ultimately more significant colonization came through incursions more modest than the gold rush. A telegraph line was built across Alaska and Russia and with it went a series of small stations to maintain it, the stations manned by Euroamericans. Later, weather, radio, and radar stations were constructed, farmers and ranchers moved into northern valleys (and destroyed most of the bison herds), and missionaries, who had entered the region as early as the 1850s, broadened their work by opening schools. To ensure pupils for their schools, they collaborated with local traders whose power over purchasing credit could make life easier for those who cooperated with the missionaries and frustrating for those who opposed it.

Another force of change in the western Subarctic was the construction of the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) Highway during World War II. Once the road was open, construction camps and trading posts were transformed from stores with a limited array of goods into southern-style general stores, many of which by the 1970s and 1980s had been further transformed into small department stores with supermarkets sections and catalog desks. But the most important force of change in the 20th century for the Subarctic people has been government, Canadian or U.S.

The 20th century has seen both positive and negative impacts on the Native people. Moose &caribou reappeared, fur prices rose, and railroads were extended into many areas of the Subarctic, thus bringing bulk supplied within purchasing range of the Native people. Cloth became standard for all clothing, canvas tents and canoes replaced traditional shelters and boats, many families built log cabins at trading posts, trapping remained the principal souce of cash, and in many eastern settlements, all adults were literate in Cree syllabics.

Following WWII, the Canadian federal and provincial governments imposed trap line registration, a process which not only brought foreign regulation into economic pursuits that had operated through community agreements, but also brought government officials into more frequent contact with &regulation of the Native people. Simultaneously, the Canadian and U.S. governments instituted mandatory education policies for the Native people's children, with drastic results. In some instances, children were literally kidnapped from their homes and shipped to far distance schools (usually run by missionaries) where they were divested of their clothes, hair, language, dignity, &culture. In other instances, the government forced entire bands to alter their seasonally nomadic lifestyle and settle into permanent homes centered on a government run school.

During the latter half of the 20th century, a variety of Eurocanadians &other non-Natives (trappers, prospectors, miners, missionaries, government employees) have invaded the Subarctic, resulting in whole new sets of stresses for the Native people. The greatest threat comes from the proliferation of projects for exploiting raw resources for the benefit of temperate-latitude consumers. Contrary to the wishes of the Native people, the Canadian &U.S. federal governments have pushed the construction of all-weather roads - roads seen by the Native people as destructive to hunting &fishing grounds. International corporations have proposed massive resource extraction projects while federal &provincial governments have proposed ecologically devastating hydroelectric generating systems - all without consulting, much less notifying, the Native people - and none of which would benefit the Native people.

Today, many of the Subarctic people continue their orientation toward subsistence hunting and fishing, with trapping the most common cash-earning occupation, sometimes supplemented with seasonal wage labor. Snowmobiles &chartered small planes allow individuals to extend their hunting, trapping, &fishing territories and community involvement in schools is becoming the norm with the emphasis now being on enhancing students' abilities to deal with local situations rather than on how to deal with urban life in non-Native communities. Native groups have banded together, especially in the Canadian Subarctic, to oppose any and all projects which would be detrimental to either the environment &amp/or the Native people. The majority insist that continuation of opporutnities for subsistence hunting &fish be THE PARAMOUNT CONCERN before any development projects are given the go ahead. In 1977 the Ojibway-Cree Nation of Treaty Number Nine (the 1905-1906 treating signed between the Canadian government &the Cree and Ojibwa of the Hudson Bay drainage of Ontario) made it plain that the North is their homeland and it is not to be denuded, raped, &pillaged for the benefit of temperate-dwellers. Here, in part, are the "inalienable rights" of the Ojibwa-Cree:

Defining Features

Given the geographic location of the various Subarctic peoples, &the fact that the area was (&still is) subject to external influences from all sides, a type culture (one representative of the area in its pre-European-contact form) is elicited only with difficulty. Similarly, any detailed &accurate reconstructions of most of the pre-European-contact Subarctic societies &cultures is problematic. Part of this is due to the fact that almost all of the Subarctic people were subject to several centuries of contact with Europeans, Eurocanadians, &Ameropeans before in-depth, reliable observations were made. Also, the local groups reflect varying degrees of influence from societies in adjacent culture areas. On the southwest, where salmon move up the freshwater streams to spawn, Subarctic cultures begin to resemble those of the intermontane Plateau area while to the west other groups have been touched by influences of the more elaborate cultures of the Northwest Coast. In the far north, Eskimo patterns make their appearance among some Subarctic bands, while still others, pushing onto the southern prairies, take on an array of traits from the Plains culture area.

Assigned Readings

WWW Resources on the Subarctic Culture Area


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Cultures Areas
Arctic | Subarctic | Northwest Coast

Plateau | California | Great Basin
Southwest | Plains
Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands

Updated: 09 Mar 2000