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ETHNONYMS: Dene, Northern Indians, Yellowknives


Identification and Location. The Chipewyan inhabit the central Canadian subarctic region. The Chipewyan people call themselves collectively Dene (The People). Chipewyan, their common English name, generally is regarded as deriving from a pejorative Cree description of the inadequacy of their first attempts to prepare beaver skins for the fur trade. Early Hudson Bay Company records and especially Hearne's Journaly written by Samuel Hearne and published in 1791, often refer to the Chipewyan as Northern Indians. The Yellowknives, sometimes regarded as a separate tribe, generally are considered to be a branch of the Chipewyan that merged into other Athapaskan-speaking populations during the fur trade period. The Chipewyan tend to call local settlements and temporary aggregations of people by referring to the activity (for example, those gathered at a particular creek mouth to exploit a late winter fish run), person, or place around which the local group has formed. These names often are recorded by English speakers as if they referred to permanent internal divisions among the Chipewyan. The result is a plethora of Chipewyan temporary epithets fossilized in English and referring to groups that never existed among the Chipewyan.

As the fur trade developed and points of trade were established in Chipewyan territory, there was an increasing practice of referring to groups of Chipewyan trading into or camping near points of trade by the name of the point of trade, again generating names referring to nonexistent political subdivisions. With the stabilization of the fur trade, the identification between the point of trade and how the Chipewyan began to think of themselves and organize themselves became increasingly accurate. By the end of the nineteenth century, most larger-scale internal Chipewyan groupings could be reflected accurately through the name of the appropriate point of trade. With the increasing popularity of the phrase "First Nation" in the 1980s, group identity began to reflect local designations or the formal band name assigned by the Canadian government suffixed by the First Nation designation.

The contemporary Chipewyan occupy an immense but sparsely settled territory. From Churchill, along Hudson Bay, settlements follow the Churchill River into Saskatchewan and then continue westward to the Athabasca River in Alberta. From the western shore of the river, ending roughly at about Fort Churchill, Chipewyan country extends north-east to the southern shore of Great Slave Lake and eastward along that lake. From there the Chipewyan utilize the forest-tundra interface and the transitional forest to the south all the way to Hudson Bay. There is intermittent occupancy of the tundra even farther north than Dubwant Lake. The area east of Great Slave Lake is seasonally occupied, generally within the tree line, by Chipewyan from villages in the Northwest Territories as well as from Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Details about the homeland of the aboriginal populations are unknown, but this area was centered at and above the tree line between Great Slave Lake and Hudson Bay. With the advent of the fur trade, especially after the arranged peace with the Cree, Chipewyan populations expanded southward and southeastward. They pushed into the boreal forest south of Great Slave Lake and south to the Churchill River. There was a concomitant abandonment of large areas of the inland tundra to the Eskimo. Economic and political influence, achieved through trade and raiding, extended farther west during the fur trade, but this was not coupled with occupancy of the land.

Demography. The aboriginal population is unknown. Chipewyan culture is dominated by life in a vast and harsh land with scarce and irregular food resources. Population densities rarely exceeded one person per hundred square miles, so the figure of 2,500 to 3,000 is the best available approximation of the precontact population. Postcontact populations fluctuated wildly between 1780 and 1850 in response to disease and migration. The population of the "contact-traditional" period (roughly 1850-1920) was more stable overall, but local populations were subject to dramatic fluctuations as a result of disease, fire, and changes in animal populations and distribution. Absolute population figures remain unknown. The post-World War I population began a gradual climb, again with local fluctuations, with increased contact with the outside world and slow improvements in health care. The 1950s, with greatly improved health care, resulted in a dramatic demographic explosion that continued through the turn of the twenty-first century. Because of the disparity between ethnicity and the administrative categories used for record keeping, an accurate count of the Chipewyan was not possible even in 1999 but the total population may exceed 30,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Chipewyan speak a language that is a member of the Northern Athapaskan branch of the Athapaskan language family. Within the Chipewyan language there are substantial dialectical variations in pronunciation and semantics, but all the variants are mutually intelligible with a modicum of effort on the part of native speakers.

History and Cultural Relations

The aboriginal Chipewyan were a people of the tundra and the transitional zone of the boreal forest who specialized as predators of migratory herds of barren ground caribou. Indirect contact with Europeans through trade goods and pressure on their land and economy came primarily from the more southernly Cree, who traded directly with Europeans. Direct contact came in 1715, at which time the Chipewyan entered the fur trade primarily as middlemen between Europeans and uncontacted tribes. Direct fur production was only a secondary aspect of the Chipewyan economy in the period of the early fur trade. The Chipewyan held their land against neighbors to the south and west and along the coast. As the fur trade stabilized, many Chipewyan moved deep into the full boreal forest and into the direct production of fur. Christianization occurred throughout the nineteenth century as an adjunct to the stabilized fur trade, but residential missionaries did not reach a number of Chipewyan settlements until after World War II. Because there has never been appreciable white settlement in Chipewyan country outside the few larger towns, the Chipewyan have retained utilization of control over their lands. Relations between the Chipewyan and whites have not lacked stress and occasional violence, but over all, relations between the two cultures have been remarkably peaceful. Abandonment of bush life for life in towns or villages is a nearly completed process. Chipewyan committed to living primarily in the bush seem to be able to replicate themselves from generation to generation. In contemporary times, as technology has changed at an increasingly rapid pace, the Chipewyan have been able to adapt that technology toward changing their lifestyle and maintaining their traditional lifestyle.


Aboriginal Chipewyan culture did not feature permanent settlements. The Chipewyan were intensely social and formed aggregations larger than families whenever circumstances permitted. Early contact reports of the 1770s indicated the presence of seasonal villages of several hundred souls during the caribou-hunting season (late fall to midspring). With the establishment of trading posts, the Chipewyan population began to exploit their posts as seasonal resources. Temporary camps formed around them that then grew into permanent villages and towns. At the end of the twentieth century town life was the normative pattern, with settlements varying from fewer than a hundred to several thousand souls.


Subsistence. From time immemorial the Chipewyan have been specialists in the pursuit of the barren ground caribou. Human population movements responded to the yearly migrations of the caribou, a pattern of life that required a tremendous degree of mobility. Caribou were consumed fresh and were frozen for later use, but each year a substantial effort was made to prepare dried caribou meat. Light, nutritious, and easily stored and transported, dry meat was the critical capital of survival. Caribou provided the basic raw materials for most needs for shelter, clothing, and bedding and was the source of many tools and implements of daily life.

The Chipewyan made use of all available large animals and of most smaller ones as well. Fish and fowl were important food sources, but the use of any particular species tended to be seasonal.

The barren ground caribou was the staff of life for most Chipewyan in the transitional zone of boreal forest at least until the end of World War II. The Chipewyan who occupied the boreal forest proper adopted, in the absence of barren ground caribou, a more diverse animal, bird, and fish subsistence base. For both groups, store foods began to replace rather than supplement bush foods in the 1950s. This pattern of diet and subsistence change continued at the turn of the twenty-first century, but bush food of all species, particularly of fish, has remained a critical and substantial component of the diet in all but the largest northern towns.

Commerical Activities. With the advent of the fur trade the Chipewyan assumed a middleman role between European traders and the native peoples to the west and northwest of Chipewyan country. As long as they were able to maintain this role, trade and raiding were more important sources of wealth than was the production of fur for trade. The fur trade provided a variety of ways other than trapping to obtain goods, cash, and credit. Wage labor, market hunting, and transport were important, as was the small market that developed for manufactured goods such as clothing, snowshoes, and decorative items. When the fur trade stabilized and the Chipewyan lost their middleman role, these venues remained and, since much of the aboriginal Chipewyan country is poor in fur-bearing species, were often more significant sources of income than was trapping. The significance of wage labor increased throughout the twentieth century. By the 1980s, income from wages surpassed that from transfer payments from the Canadian government. Entrepreneurship began to flourish from the late 1970s, with a focus on service industries, transportation, and retail activities.

Industrial Arts. The aboriginal Chipewyan were nomadic hunters. Whatever items they needed, they manufactured for themselves. The primacy in Chipewyan culture was on knowledge: how to make what was needed from what was at hand and how to locate resources as they were needed. Material culture focused on functional but disposable items. Decorative and ornamented items were made for a variety of purposes, but there was little accumulation of artifacts because of the difficulties of transporting them in a highly mobile lifestyle. As some Chipewyan became more settled during the fur trade period, the demand for constant moving diminished. Material culture became a better means to express artistic inclinations as well as a way to produce trade items. Chipewyan technology expanded to meet the demands of the fur trade and has always been innovative and effective in adapting new technologies to meet the needs of The People.

Trade. The Chipewyan are great travelers and journeyers. In aboriginal times families often traveled hundreds of miles a year in the course of their subsistence cycle. Journeys of hundreds of miles were not exceptional. That penchant for travel led the Chipewyan into substantial trade relations with all their neighbors, including tribal enemies. During the early fur trade period the Chipewyan expanded their trading activities in conjunction with raiding and warfare, especially to the west and the northwest. They acted as and jealously guarded their position as middlemen between European points of trade and uncontacted neighboring tribal groups. Intertribal trading and raiding faded after the stabilization of the fur trade and more thorough European penetration of northern central Canada. Trade with Canadians remained a major component of the economy until the 1980s, although it was lessened by increasing involvement in the cash and credit economy of Canada after the 1950s.

Division of Labor. The aboriginal sexual division of labor was based on a distinction of males as food producers, primarily hunters, and females as food processors. The role of the shaman may have been restricted to males, but both genders could possess power, act as healers, and display power in other areas. It is likely that all midwives were female. Warfare seems to have been a male domain. Both genders were sufficiently competent in productive skills that individuals of either sex were able to live in isolation for substantial periods. The production of domestic items such as clothing and tipis was a female domain. After Christianization, the division of labor seems to have becomeat least in the realm of powermore restrictive. Microurban life in the last half of the twentieth century led to a relaxation of the rigidity of the sexual division of labor, and after about 1980 many females were able to become economically self-sufficient and removed from the constraints of the traditional division of labor.

Land Tenure. Aboriginal land tenure was that of an open common. The application of the concept of ownership of land was nonexistent. The Chipewyan were subsistence hunters of migratory herds and moved at will in response to environmental factors (primarily the presence of caribou), aesthetic preferences for particular places and types of mocroenvironments, and the presence of kin. With the expansion into the boreal forest and the shift to dependence on nonmigratory forest species, closer ties between specific family groups and specific tracts of land became a more effective means of ensuring subsistence. During the twentieth century, with increasing governmental regulation, the registration of trap lines formalized these specific ties between individuals (and, through them, their families) and specific defined tracts of land. Areas in the north of the Chipewyan range, where the pursuit of barren ground caribou still dominates subsistence, remain largely free of governmental regulation and are treated as an open common.


Kin Groups and Descent. Chipewyan kinship is bilateral. There is no indication of any other form of kin organization since the time of contact. Mortality has always been high while food resources are erratic and often scarce. The Chipewyan have used their kinship system to establish widespread nets of alliance to distribute food and other resources. The core of kinship is the extended family linked through kinship and marriage to the kindreds of all its members. The result is restricted cognatic descent groups bounded by descent, affinality, residence, economic cooperation, friendship, and other factors that merge to create residential units. These overlapping ties are, in conjunction with residence, economic cooperation, political ends, and other factors, the basis for the interconnectedness of regional populations.

Kinship Terminology. The aboriginal and early contact terminology is unknown. Reliable but incomplete kin terminologies were not reported until well into the twentieth century. Local historical factors and contact with other cultures have amplified the inherent diversity of kinship terminology to the point that few valid statements can be made about it. Using cousin terminology as an example, the Chipewyan have been reported to distinguish cross-cousins from parallel cousins, to group cousins with siblings, to distinguish cousins by age relative to the speaker, to distinguish cousins on the basis of same or opposite sex to the speaker, and to distinguish cousins from each other on the basis of the sex of the parental sibling who forms the connecting kin link.

If the affinal terminology is considered with the kin terminology, there are curious but widespread kin equations that give intimations of a previously existing and more systematic structuring of relations between wife givers and wife receivers. In the face of high adult mortality, kin terminology places emphasis on the creation of multiple kin ties as well as the use of fictive kinship and adoption to extend kin ties to the widest possible social relations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Early contact marriages were arranged, sometimes involving the betrothal of young girls to grown men, with the primary concern being to place a daughter into a situation where she would be economically secure. Polygny was practiced, but only by exceptionally successful men. High adult mortality rates wreaked havoc upon the longevity of marriage. Multiple marriages during the life cycle were common. Divorce was common, as was spousal abuseby spouses of both gendersand mechanisms for ending established marriages, including wife wrestling, existed. After Christianization, monogamy became prescriptive and formal divorce was extremely rare. Over the last three decades of the twentieth century the pattern of marriage and divorce, especially with the advent of marriages in which the partners are self-selecting, has come to reflect the trends and patterns in the rest of Canada.

Domestic Unit. The aboriginal domestic unit was a contained subsistence unit that could range in size from a single couple housed within a single tipi to a polygynous grouping of the wives, children, and dependents of a single husband housed in several tipis. Commonly, two to several domestic units camped together. The domestic units within a single camp were interconnected by kinship and marriage. Subsistence and economic goods moved between the domestic units in a very complex series of interchanges. These camps have been described as unitary bodies rather than separable aggregations of domestic units. With microurbanization, the domestic unit has tended to correspond to the single-dwelling household.

Inheritance. Aboriginal and early patterns of inheritance are unknown. The Chipewyan generally place little intrinsic value on possessions but highly value the exchange of objects as a means of creating or reaffirming individual relationships. The Chipewyan are not fond of the possessions of the dead. After the advent of Western technology, high-value items and irreplaceable tools probably were dispersed before death. After death, items of lesser value most likely were abandoned. The pattern of inheritance of goods in response to changes at the end of the twentieth century is still an emerging phenomenon that has escaped systematic characterization. Now that life is more settled, the patterns that emerge for the inheritance of government-built housing probably will be the lead element in the generation of patterns of inheritance for the twenty-first century.

Socialization. Chipewyan culture places a high value on individual autonomy and the individual assumption of responsibility for the course of one's life, even for children. The Chipewyan teach through stories and by example, encouraging the individual to observe the actions and the consequences of the actions of others and to learn from those observations. Child rearing involves a great deal of peer raising in which slightly older siblings and cousins assume responsibility for the care of a growing child.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Chipewyan were an acephalous tribal entity bounded by language, custom, an economy, and the defense of a common homeland rather than by formal institutions or offices. Extended families were linked by kinship and affinity in conjunction with ties of friendship, trust, and the shared exploitation of resources and particular geographic locales. Leadership was vested in influential males who demonstrated competence in specific activities (a mark of supernatural power) and occupied strategic positions within extended nets of kinship and marital alliance. Groups formed for specific tasks, such as berry picking and raids, around individuals who had the desire to lead and the requisite characteristics to draw people into association with them. This pattern was intensified during the early fur trade period as opportunities for long-distance trading and raiding became partial substitutes for routine subsistence activities. With the stabilization of the fur trade, leadership revolved increasingly around the possession of supernatural power as expressed in trapping, hunting, and income-generating labor.

Political Organization. Political activities centered on established figures with demonstrated supernatural power, such as those capable of ensuring adequate supplies of caribou and other subsistence items, those capable of defending the local population from enemy raids, and healers capable of protecting people during epidemics. The Chipewyan organized and defended their territory and its economy without recourse to institutionalized offices or leaders. This acephalous pattern remains the norm for ordinary Chipewyan life even though interaction with Euro-Canada has led to the adoption of the formal structures and offices embedded in Canadian law and governmental practice.

Social Control. The normal means of social control are gossip and the intensive observation of each individual's behavior in a small-scale society that is extremely dense in overlapping roles and social relationships. Internal conflicts were individual and did not lead to institutionalized mechanisms such as feuds. Excessively violent or disruptive individuals may have been removed through murder in remote areas, but there is no evidence of this practice being formalized into any form of collective reaction.

Conflict. The Chipewyan had a long history of conflict with neighboring tribes. Small-scale warfare through planned raids and violent accidental encounters was a necessary aspect of maintaining a homeland free from alien occupation. The fur trade first aggravated raiding and then led to its cessation.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Chipewyan were, and generally still are, animists. Animals, spirits, and other animate beings existed in the realm of inkoze simultaneously with their physical existence. Humans were part of the realm of inkoze until birth separated them from that larger domain for the duration of their physical existence. Knowledge of inkoze came to humans in dreams and visions given to them by animals or other spirits. While the quality and quantity of human knowledge of inkoze varied greatly from person to person, it was always less than that held by animals. Inkoze provided the Chipewyan with a systematic and comprehensive philosophy of causality that is an effective and reliable means for organizing human life. Before the arrival of missionaries, the most effective practitioners of inkoze were regarded as shamans. Less skilled or less powerful practitioners were regarded for their power but were less capable of translating their knowledge into leadership.

Inkoze established a paradigm in which more powerful animals/spirits sacrificed their physical forms for human use. This paradigm of sacrifice was compatible with the conventional Christian concept of the sacrifice of the God and allowed an easy integration of Christianity into existing religious belief. Most Chipewyan are now both Christian and animist, although public recognition of those who possess significant amounts of inkoze is a troublesome issue.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional Chipewyan life, at least through the middle of the nineteenth century, centered on shamans as healers, sorcerers, finders of game, and protectors from physical and spiritual enemies. Female midwives functioned, largely within each practitioner's kin group, until the middle of the twentieth century. Christianization altered the role of native religious practitioners largely by driving them underground.

Ceremonies. Aboriginal and early contact period religious life is unknown. Shamans gave public performances in the open or hidden in small (shaking) tents. The Chipewyan are not given to public ritual or ceremonial performance, and there is little or no indication of public ceremonial performance. The social context for secular ceremonial performances (the Tea Dance or the guessing game) is fragmentary and poorly known. The Chipewyan have taken to religious ceremonial after Christianization and engage in secular ceremonial activities at events such as Treaty Day. A number of Western practices, such as the wedding dance and banquet, have been adopted, although the increasing size of Chipewyan villages is making these increasingly family rather than community activities.

Arts. The arts were never a separate category in Chipewyan culture but were integrated into other aspects of life. Drama was poorly developed, but oral performances (myth, storytelling, singing) were well developed. Material expression of the arts was more highly developed among females than among males, especially in the decoration of functional objects, clothing, and tipis. With microurbanization has come a flourishing of the arts. Music has grown in breadth and depth, and a number of bands have achieved semiprofessional status. Males have entered the practice of the arts in unprecedented numbers, and both commercial and private production now include painting and the creation of commercial, decorative, and religious objects.

Medicine. Knowledge of inkoze was integral to healing and medicine. Practical knowledge of healing gained through observation and stories was combined with dream-revealed knowledge about the cure for particular cases of illness or injury. The medicine revealed in these dreams was based largely on plants but included other organic materials and minerals. The Chipewyan experimented with an immense quantity of materials for curing as well as a wide variety of combinations of the medical materials revealed in dreams. Individuals made careful observations both of the results of their attempts to cure and of the context in which each cure was attempted. Individually, each healer developed a practical body of material and supernatural knowledge; collectively, at least a part of the experience of each healer passed into the public domain. Some, particularly plant-based, cures were so successful that they escaped any tie to the supernatural and were treated as simple technology. Practical treatments for ordinary injuries and illnesses were present, but little is known about their specific nature. Most of this cumulative body of knowledge has been lost, and the remainder is fading quickly.

Death and Afterlife. Conceptualization of death, spiritual life, and the afterlife are poorly understood or little known. Death was often thought to result from sorcery or another form of supernatural agency. The Chipewyan believe in reincarnation (although what is reincarnated is not a soul in the Western sense) and conceptualize the spirit as an aspect of Inkoze. The soul is not considered a single entity; the Chipewyan believe that ghosts remain earthbound and that aspects of the spirit can separate from the self before death to visit places that were significant in a person's life. The dead retain a recognizable identity and may visit the living in dreams or visions. The Christian concept of the soul has been added to traditional beliefs about the spiritual construction of the person without displacing them.

For the original article on the Chipewyan, see Volume 1, North America.


Gordon, Bryan (1977). "Chipewyan Prehistory. " In Problems in the Prehistory of the North American Subarctic: The Athapaskan Question, edited by J. Helmer, F. Van Dyke, and J. Kense. 72-77. Calgary: Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary.

Irimoto, Takeshi (1981). Chipewyan Ecology. Senri Ethnological Studies: No. 8. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology.

Jarvenpa, Robert (1976). "Spatial and Ecological Factors in the Annual Economic Cycle of the English River Band of Chipewyan. " Arctic Anthropology N. S. 18 (1): 45-60.

(1980). The Trappers of Patuanak: Toward a Spatial Ecology of Modern Hunters. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 67. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

(1998). Northern Apprenticeship. Prospect Heights, IL: Tavelant.

Sharp, Henry S. (1988). The Transformation of Bigfoot: Maleness, Power, and Belief Among the Chipewyan. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

(2001). Loon: Memory, Meaning, and Reality in a Northern Dene Community. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, David M. (1973). InKOnZE: Magio-Religious Beliefs of Contact: Traditional Chipewyan Trading at Fort Resolution, NWT, Canada. Mercury Series, Ethnology Division Paper No. 6. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.

(1982).Moose-Deer Island House People: A History of the Native People of Fort Resolution. Mercury Series, Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 81. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

Smith, James G. E. (1970). 'The Chipewyan Hunting Group in a Village Context, " Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology 2(1): 60-66.

(1978). 'The Emergence of the MicroUrban Village among the Caribou-Eater Chipewyan, " Human Organization 37 (1): 38-49.


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ETHNONYMS: Orchipoins, Otchipiweons


Identification. The Chipewyan are a Subarctic group whose name is derived from a Cree word meaning "pointed skins," a reference to the cut of the caribou-skin hunting shirt traditionally worn by the men. The Chipewyan referred to themselves as "Dene," meaning "human" or "the people."

Location. In aboriginal times Chipewyan territory extended west from Hudson Bay along the Seal River to Lake Athabasca and north above the Arctic Circle to near the mouth of the Coppermine River at Coronation Gulf. During the nineteenth century the Chipewyan abandoned the Northernmost parts of this territory while pushing westward to Great Slave Lake and the Slave River and southward to the Athabasca River. In the north this region consists of rolling, boulder-strewn, and lichen-covered hills and valleys interlaced with numerous lakes, rivers, and streams. To the south this barren-ground environment gives way to a spruce-dominated boreal forest transition zone that includes bogs, patches of tundra, and stands of juniper, aspen, and birch.

Demography. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Chipewyan numbered between thirty-five hundred and four thousand, an estimate that probably reflects the effects of smallpox epidemics in 1781-1782 and 1819. In the twentieth century tuberculosis has been a major health problem for the Chipewyan, and they were severely affected by influenza outbreaks in the 1920s and a measles epidemic in 1948. In 1982 the Chipewyan numbered approximately five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chipewyan is classified in the Northern Athapaskan subfamily of the Athapaskan language family.

History and Cultural Relations

At the beginning of the historic period the native groups neighboring the Chipewyan included Western Woods Cree to the south, Inuit to the north, and Dogrib, Slavey, and Beaver to the west. To the northwest was a regional group of Chipewyan usually identified as the Yellowknife. Aboriginally and in historic times the Inuit and Western Woods Cree were considered enemies. Even today, in settled Cree-Chipewyan communities, ethnic relations are usually strained.

Direct contact with Europeans was initiated in the late seventeenth century when French and English traders encountered Chipewyan women and children who had been taken captive by the Cree. Direct trade with the English was established in 1715, and in 1717 the English established a post at Churchill (Prince of Wales Fort) on Hudson Bay for the purposes of carrying on this trade. In response to the Pressures of the fur trade and the desire for European trade goods, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries some groups of Chipewyan moved permanently into the boreal forest zone, where fur-bearing game was more plentiful. Those groups became known as the Boreal Forest Chipewyan, and those who continued to occupy the forest edge and the barren grounds and hunt caribou became known as the Caribou Eater Chipewyan. In 1846 Roman Catholic missionaries established a mission at Lake Isle à la Cross, and in 1912 an Anglican mission was founded at Churchill.

In 1899 and 1907 treaties with the Dominion of Canada extinguished Chipewyan land titles in exchange for annuity payments and other considerations. Many of the lifeways of the early-contact period persisted among the Caribou Eater Chipewyan well into the twentieth century. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, repeated government efforts to relocate, settle, and acculturate these traditional Chipewyan resulted in rapid and disruptive culture change. Nevertheless, even in the 1970s some Chipewyan still were committed to the caribou-hunting way of life.


The Chipewyan were highly mobile, with the movement and dispersal of camps and hunting groups determined by the nature and availability of resources, especially caribou. In the winter and early spring camps were located at elevated points on the forest edge in areas frequented by the caribou. In the summer, when caribou were sometimes scarce, camps were located near lakes and streams containing fish. Trade with Europeans and the establishment of European trading posts undermined the traditional pattern of mobility and gradually led to permanent clustered settlements. In the twentieth century this trend has been reinforced by government relocation programs, the establishment of schools and other services, increased commerce, and limited wage labor opportunities. The traditional dwelling was a conical structure built of a framework of wooden poles covered with sewn caribou skins. As the settlement pattern became more permanent, the traditional dwellings were replaced by canvas tents and log homes, which were still common in the 1970s.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The seasonal round of economic activities in aboriginal and early-contact times centered on the movement of the caribou herds. In the spring when the herds moved out of the boreal forest to their breeding grounds on the tundra and in the late autumn when they returned, local and regional bands coalesced and situated themselves along the migration routes and killed large numbers of caribou in communal hunts. Traditionally, hunting parties employed the chute and pound method and killed the caribou with spears and arrows. In the summer on the tundra and in the winter in the boreal forest the herds dispersed and were pursued in small, scattered hunting groups; at these times of the year fishing with nets, weirs, spears, bows and arrows, and hook and line was also an important Subsistence activity. Other animals hunted included ducks, geese, bears, beaver, squirrels, and wolverines. Fur trapping from late autumn through early winter was added to the aboriginal subsistence pattern after the Chipewyan became involved in the European trade. The Boreal Forest Chipewyan, as a consequence of involvement in fur trade, abandoned seasonal migrations to the barren grounds in search of caribou and hunted moose and woodland caribou instead. In the 1960s limited wage labor and commercial hunting and fishing became important factors in the Chipewyan economy.

Industrial Arts. Besides being the main source of food, the caribou also provided the raw material for hunting and fishing equipment, lodge coverings, clothing, bedding, and snowshoe webbing. This material culture complex was considerably modified quickly by the introduction of European firearms and metal tools. Dogs are used as beasts of burden.

Trade. The Chipewyan were not at first heavily involved in the fur trade owing to the scarcity of fur-bearing game in their territory. Nevertheless, they did play an active middleman role in connecting European traders with native groups farther west, a role that continued to earn them considerable profits into the early nineteenth century.

Division of Labor. Men's work was concerned primarily with hunting and fishing. Women erected lodges, set and broke camp, hauled supplies, prepared fires and food, prepared skins, made clothing, dried meat, cared for children, snared small game, and gathered plant foods. The hard lot of women reflected their low status in Chipewyan society.

Land Tenure. In aboriginal and early-contact times Regional bands were associated with the vaguely defined wintering territories and migration routes of different caribou herds. Involvement in the fur trade led to the development of a Concept of land use rights in trapping areas, but not to actual land ownership. Land ownership was made more concrete in 1958 when the Manitoba government required the registration of trap lines.


Kin Groups and Descent. Traditionally, bilateral Personal kindreds were the basis for networks of cooperation and sharing.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology has changed from Iroquois to the Eskimo type as a consequence of European contact and acculturation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. First marriages were arranged by parents, and girls were often betrothed in childhood. Patrilateral cross-cousin marriage may have been preferred. Polygyny, usually of a sororal type, was permitted and occurred most often among group leaders and skilled hunters. In aboriginal and early-contact times marriage was unaccompanied by ceremony, but today is attended by a Roman Catholic service. In the past the newly married couple resided with the bride's family until the birth of their first child, at which time they might take up residence with the husband's family. In more recent times bilocal and neolocal residence patterns have become prevalent. The option of divorce was available to both husband and wife, but was rarely exercised. Divorce is rare among present-day Chipewyan as well.

Domestic Unit. In the historic period and probably in aboriginal times as well, the basic unit of social organization was the hunting group, consisting of a male head and his wife, their unmarried children, and, depending on the male head's hunting skill and influence, their married children and their families. Throughout the seasonal round of subsistence activities, this basic unit remained intact. Involvement in the fur trade, sedentization, and acculturation undermined this traditional pattern and in the twentieth century has resulted in greater emphasis on the nuclear family. Even among those Chipewyan who continue to hunt and trap, the traditional pattern has been broken as men leave their families behind in the villages and hunt alone or in small groups.

Inheritance. In aboriginal and early contact times an Individual's property was destroyed at death. Today property is Divided evenly between the deceased's survivors.

Socialization. As in adult life, the work responsibilities of adolescents and children fell most heavily on females. There was no rite of initiation recognizing puberty or adulthood for males; for females first menses was marked by a period of isolation. Among contemporary Chipewyan, boys and girls are allowed to play together until about age ten and then are kept apart in separate play groups.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Aboriginally, hunting groups linked by ties of marriage and descent constituted local bands averaging between fifty and sixty persons. Several local bands, in turn, made up regional bands of two hundred to four hundred persons who identified with particular caribou wintering areas and migration routes. In the mid-nineteenth century five such regional bands existed. The organization of local and Regional bands remained fairly well intact until the mid-twentieth century when increasing sedentization resulted in the deterioration of larger group identity and solidarity.

Political Organization. Positions of leadership embodying power and authority were not present among the aboriginal and early-contact Chipewyan; however, individuals with unique proven ability were accorded respect and influence. Such men were often hunting group and band leaders. After contact, participation in the fur trade and the desire of Europeans to deal with groups rather than individuals led to the development of the trading chief whose responsibility it was to command small expeditions to European trading posts. In 1900 the Canadian government created the position of chief in order to facilitate its official dealings with the Chipewyan. Until the 1930s this elected position was occupied by Respected leaders, but since that time the position has lost much of its influence as Chipewyan have tended to interact with the government on a more individual basis.

Conflict and Social Control. In the past the fluidity of local and regional band structure served to diffuse group tensions. This outlet, however, has become increasingly less available as the Chipewyan have settled in permanent Villages. In the mid-twentieth century the tensions resulting from settled life and the concentration of large groups of People from different local bands have been exacerbated by the breakdown of traditional patterns of sharing and cooperation under the influence of a cash economy. In response to these tensions, some families have returned to the more nomadic hunting and trapping way of life in the bush.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Chipewyan religious beliefs were based on the idea of power being given to human beings in dreams by animal spirits. This power could be used to cure sickness or control game and other natural phenomena and was a factor in leadership. Today most Chipewyan are practicing Roman Catholics.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans, in particular, were believed to possess supernatural powers.

Arts. Drums are the only musical instruments known to have existed in aboriginal times.

Medicine. Illness was believed to be the result of hostile, usually non-Chipewyan sorcerers. In curing ceremonies the shaman sang and danced to summon his spirit helpers. It was believed, however, that he would be successful only if his powers exceeded those of the sorcerer causing the sickness.

Death and Afterlife. Except in the case of the very old, death, like illness, was thought to be the work of a hostile sorcerer. The Chipewyan believed that the dead are reincarnated and return to earth as men or wolves and often with supernatural powers. In aboriginal and early-contact times hunting groups abandoned their camp after a member's death and left the deceased unburied.


Birket-Smith, Kaj (1930). Contributions to Chipewyan Ethnology. Translated by W. E. Calvert. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-24. Vol. 6, Pt. 3. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Bone, Robert M., Earl N. Shannon, and Stewart Ruby (1973). The Chipewyan of the Stony Rapids Region: A Study of the Changing World with Special Attention Focused upon Caribou. University of Saskatchewan, Institute of Northern Studies, Maudsley Memoir no. 1. Saskatoon, Canada.

Oswalt, Wendell H. (1966). "Chipewyan: Hunters and Fishermen of the Subarctic." In This Land Was Theirs: A Study of the North American Indian, 17-63. New York: John Wiley.

Smith, James G. E. (1981). "Chipewyan." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, edited by June Helm, 271-284. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

VanStone, James W. (1965). The Changing Culture of the Snowdrift Chipewyan. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 209. Anthropological Series, no. 74. Ottawa.


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Chipewyan (chĬp´əwī´ən), Native North Americans of the Athabascan branch of the Nadene linguistic stock (see also Native American languages). Formerly the largest of the Athabascan groups, scattered Chipewyan bands ranged W Canada between Great Slave Lake and the Churchill River. They were nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived in small groups of extended families, following the seasonal migration of caribou herds. The Chipewyan were in rivalry with the Woodland Cree; eventually their numbers were severely reduced by smallpox. They are not to be confused with the Chippewa or Ojibwa. In 1991 close to 10,000 Chipewyan were living in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories.

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