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Topic – Getting Around—Transportation

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Getting Around – Transportation

Indigenous people have had many ways to travel across their territories. How they got around depended on the materials they found around them for building boats and other vehicles.

On Water

Indigenous canoes

Many Indigenous people used canoes to paddle along rivers and lakes. On the west coast, Indigenous people created dugout canoes from huge cedar trees. They carved the tree using special tools to make a sturdy canoe that could stand up to the ocean’s huge waves.

The Peoples of the Plateau, who lived in southeastern British Columbia, made dugout canoes too. The Ktunaxa people of the area built sturgeon-nosed canoes. A sturgeon is a long-nosed fish. These canoes got their name because they had longbows (fronts) and sterns (backs).

Replica of a dugout canoe

The Indigenous peoples who live in what is now Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes made their canoes using birchbark. They built a wooden frame for the canoe, then wrapped it in the bark. Birchbark is thin and easy to mould, as well as tough and water-resistant.

In the Arctic, the Inuit used skin-covered boats called umiaks and kayaks. “Umiak” means “open-skinned boat.” Umiaks were large boats, usually made of animal skin, such as walrus, stretched over a driftwood or whalebone frame. Up to 20 people could fit in an umiak, which could be 10 metres long. Kayaks were smaller, lighter, and faster. Kayaks were usually made of seal or caribou hide stretched over a driftwood frame. A kayak was so light that a man could carry it over his head. This meant he could walk over ice to open water to hunt or fish. Like the umiak, the kayak today is rarely used for hunting, but it is an important part of Inuit culture. Many non-Indigenous people still use kayaks just for fun to explore Canada’s lakes and rivers.

Over Land

An Example of how a travois was used

Indigenous people walked long distances. They didn’t have horses to ride or carry their belongings until the 1700s. First Nations who lived on the Prairies travelled a lot following the buffalo. To move their goods they built frames called a travois. These were made by tying pine poles together to form a V-shape. Then they loaded on their belongings and harnessed the travois to a dog or, later, a horse.

Some Indigenous peoples moved heavy loads using a tumpline. This was a harness that a
man or woman fastened around the forehead to distribute the weight of a large backpack. 

On Snow 

Various snowshoes

Many groups of Indigenous people used snowshoes to get around during the winter. They came in many different shapes. Some snowshoes were long and narrow and could be longer than most people are tall! These were used by hunters as they ran over unbroken snow. Most people wore wider, more rounded snowshoes.

Toboggans were also used by Indigenous peoples across Canada to move loads over snow. Usually, the toboggans were made of wood, but some peoples in the north used the leg skins of caribou and moose. Often women pulled the toboggans, but after Europeans arrived with large breeds of dogs, heavy loads were moved by dogs.

Peoples of the Far North walked or used dog sleds. These sleds were not held together with nails or pins, because the bumpy, icy, frozen ground would have knocked them out of the sleds. Instead, the pieces were lashed together using animal hide. Sometimes, when no wood could be found for the sled runners, the Inuit used frozen fish lined up and wrapped in animal skin. The sleds were pulled by a team of dogs—sometimes as many as 16. They could travel long distances this way. Many Inuit now use snowmobiles to get around, so the dog sled is not used as much. But some Inuit keep teams of dogs that they use for racing. 

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