Topic – Peoples of the Subarctic

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Peoples of the Subarctic

The Subarctic peoples lived on the largest territory of any group of First Nations peoples. The area where they lived stretched over most of northern Canada, from Yukon to Newfoundland. This group included the Gwich’in (Kutchin), Innu, Montagnais, Naskapi, Yellowknife nations and more. Life was hard for these peoples because of the long, harsh winters. Most of these First Nations moved around following the migrating animals.

Home on the Move

Bark-covered wigwam, homes for some Subarctic peoples

The peoples across this wide area created many different kinds of buildings for their homes. But all had similarities: they were small, and they were quick to set up and take down, so they could be moved easily.

Some Subarctic peoples lived in tipis. In the north where few trees grow and wood is scarce, the supports that formed the cone shape might be whale bones. Other groups lived in wigwams, which were domes formed from curved poles and covered with bark, brush, or hides.

Peoples of the Subarctic also lived in lean-tos. These are triangle-shaped buildings topped by a sharply angled roof. A pole or whalebone was lashed between two trees and shorter poles were leaned against it to make a frame. Animal hides or brush-covered the frame to keep the lean-to warm.

Other Subarctic peoples lived in homes called ridgepole lodges. These buildings had upright poles in the centre of the front and back, with longer poles stretched between them. Poles were leaned against these long poles from both sides, then covered with bark or skins.

Getting Around

How a tumpline was used

The Subarctic peoples’ survival depended on their being able to walk long distances in search of food. To transport heavy loads, they used a tumpline to lighten the heavy pack. A tumpline was a piece of cloth or animal hide that a hunter fastened around a load, then around his forehead to support the weight of the pack. Later, dogs were used to pull loads.

In summer, these peoples canoed the rivers and lakes. In winter, they wore snowshoes and used toboggans to move heavy loads.

Moose and Pike

Image of a moose

Bear, caribou, and moose were some of the animals the men of the Subarctic hunted. They used bows and arrows, as well as traps and corrals. 

Women set snares, preserved meat, and cleaned hides. It was also the women who fished, using hooks, nets, or spears to catch lake trout, pike, whitefish, and more. As well, the women picked berries, dandelions, moss, and other plants.

Animal Spirits

Hand drum. Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons

Many of the nations in the Subarctic believed in spirit beings and animal spirits. They told stories about Raven, who could be both a hero and a trickster. Children were taught how important it is to have good relations with the spirits of animals and with nature since it was believed these could affect people’s well-being.

In late summer, some groups held ceremonies to celebrate the harvest. Many of the nations sang songs, often accompanied by the beat of a hand drum (a drum played with the bare hand, rather than a drumstick).

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