The first inhabitants of North America crossed from Siberia to Alaska around 25,000 years ago. These hunter-nomads came searching for mammoth and bison, the ice-age animals that constituted their basic diet. A steady trickle of Siberian people reinforced the first wave of migrants over the next 15,000 years, and slowly the tribes worked their way east and south until they reached the Atlantic and South America.
Aboriginal peoples When Europeans explored Canada, it was already inhabited by diverse groups of Native People. Each geographic region presented its own set of environmental conditions to which settlers adapted their lifestyles. The native people were hunters, gatherers, fishers, and farmers. Some lived settled lives, while others were nomadic and moved with the changing seasons and food sources. Although some people might incorrectly think of them as primitive, they had to possess a powerful knowledge of their land to survive. Of special note was the Huron. They lived around the southeastern corner of Lake Huron – a north-south trade crossroad. Here, linkages and networks of aboriginal North America crisscrossed. The Huron also occupied the interior trade routes east to the Atlantic Ocean, being an Iroquois-speaking population in this wooded area. When European settlements expanded westward from the Atlantic Coast, all native peoples’ way of life would be affected.
A wide range of cultures evolved from the descendants of these hunter-nomads. The type of culture created depended on the environment they lived in. In the north, life was austere because it was cold and there wasn’t much to eat, but when they headed west to places like Ontario and British Columbia, the land was more fertile, and they could fish more often.
To the indigenous Canadian population, “Eskimo” and “Red Indian” are terms of abuse that harken back to times when whites dominated the country and crushed its original population. Additionally, they don’t want to be called “Indian.” Instead, they use terms such as “Inuit,” “aboriginal,” or “native,” but each word has its connotation. Instead, it is best to refer to a tribe or band by name rather than just saying Canada’s “first peoples.”
The Iroquois tribes lived along the St. Lawrence River and the shores of the Great Lakes; among these were the Mohawks, Hurons, and Seneca tribes. They created plentiful harvests with beans, pumpkins, squash, and corn to hunt and fish. They lived in large villages frequently with several hundred inhabitants because they cultivated enough food for an entire year. To protect themselves from warring tribes of their kind, they built high, rounded walls using sharpened wood stakes at every settlement they had across the region.
The Plains Peoples
War was prevalent on the south Canadian plains; the population depended on the buffalo and had a strong warrior culture. They first hunted the buffalo with cleverly constructed traps, containing and directing animals off cliffs. The Blackfoot only used dogs as beasts of burden until horses arrived through trade with Europeans. The horse and later guns had a significant impact as they made hunting easy and created a militaristic culture focused on bravery.
People of the Pacific Coast
The tribes in the Pacific Coast region were divided into small groups, such as the Tlingit and Salish, who all depended on the ocean for food. As a result, they developed an elaborate ceremonial life with large and lively feasts and potlatches. Each potlach attempted to outdo the neighboring clan with very elaborate gifts. Woodcarving, specifically totem poles, became one of the dominant art forms of this region because it provided a way for them to share their culture through religious imagery.
The Inuit and the Peoples of the Northern Forests
The far north is home to the Inuit, nomadic hunters who lived in tents during the summer and igloos during the winter. These Arctic conditions and limited society led to foraging small, frequent family groups and grouping together only for certain occasions, such as caribou migration. North of the Inuit area and also in Canada, there were many tribes in the northern forests, including the Naskapi, Chipewyan, and Wood Cree. These tribes depended on fishing and hunting seals, deer, or moose for meat. When tribes had enough success with their hunters, their shaman priests kept a good relationship with the spirit world.
Native Canadian Issues
Canada’s First Nations have been recovering since the 1960s. A sign of that recovery is the establishment of the Assembly of First Nations, an influential organization on the national stage. In 1980, the AFN tackled and won against the federal government in land rights with court cases, highlighting how native people were stripped of their territories. Canadians of indigenous descent could be considered chronically impoverished; therefore, Canada’s AFN labored on many occasions to improve their standard of living. This work was done alongside most other societies: the AFN continued to serve this purpose until the establishment of Nunavut, a Canadian territory created in 1999 from the North-Western Territory.
The indigenous Canadian population has a complicated relationship with the terms “Eskimo” and “Red Indian.” These terms are associated with a time when whites dominated the country and oppressed its original inhabitants. Today, indigenous Canadians prefer to be called by other names such as “Inuit,” “aboriginal,” or “native.” However, each of these words has its connotations. The best way to refer to a specific tribe or band is by name rather than a general term.
It is truly amazing to think about how long humans have inhabited North America. Siberian hunter-nomads were the first to venture to what we now know as Alaska and slowly made their way down the continent over the next 15,000 years. It is fascinating to ponder where these first inhabitants came from and what drove them to explore such a vast and unknown territory. Today, we continue to be inspired by their example of courage and exploration, and we honor their memory by learning more about their incredible journey.