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ETHNONYMS: Dehghaot'ine, Dene, Etchareottine, Slave


Identification. The Slavey are an American Indian group of northern Canada whose name or cultural designation is of foreign origin. "Slavey" derives from a translation of the Algonkian Cree term awahkaan, meaning "captive, slave." traditionally, peoples referred to as Slavey distinguished various groups among themselves, usually on the basis of residence or territory.

Location. Slavey inhabited the Mackenzie River drainage of northern Canada. Their territory was roughly bounded on the south by the Fort Nelson and Hay rivers; on the north by the Great Bear River; on the east by the nearest shores of the Great Slave and Great Bear lakes; and on the west by the peaks of the Mackenzie Mountains. Most Slavey now reside in the communities of Fort Liard, Hay River, Fort Providence, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, Fort Wrigley, and Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories; Fort Nelson in British Columbia; and near Fort Vermillion in northern Alberta.

Demography. The aboriginal population has been estimated at about twelve hundred. The contemporary population is about five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The term Slavey is used to refer to a number of closely related northeastern Athapaskan Languages or dialects, including those spoken by Slavey, Bear-lake, Mountain, and Hare Indians. Dogrib and Chipewyan are other closely related northeastern Athapaskan languages. These languages are ultimately related to others spoken in northwestern Canada, Alaska, the Pacific Coast, and the American Southwest.

History and Cultural Relations

Alaska (and perhaps part of northwestern Canada) is the homeland of Athapaskan-speaking peoples in the New World. Prehistoric migrations explain their presence in other areas. Although it is difficult to associate specific Athapaskan peoples with particular prehistoric archaeological traditions, it seems reasonable to suggest an Athapaskan presence in Slavey territory since about 50 b.c.that is, through the encompassing Mackenzie, Spence River, and Fort Liard complexes. The Slavey would have had relatively few contacts with non-Athapaskan-speaking peoples. First contact with Europeans occurred in June and July of 1789, when Slavey encountered Alexander Mackenzie during his exploration of what would become the Northwest Territories. For the next 125 years knowledge of and contact with the West came Primarily through fur traders and Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries. Between the late 1790s and 1858 a number of trading forts were established in Slavey territory. Between 1900 and 1922 two treaties were signed with the Canadian government. In the 1930s mineral resources were discovered in Slavey territory and have subsequently been developed. Since the 1960s, Canadian government programs have had a great impact on Slavey culture and society. Culturally, Slavey are most closely related to other Dene (Athapaskan Indians) in northwestern CanadaDogrib, Bearlake, Mountain, and Hare peoples. They are also culturally similar to the Athapaskan-speaking Chipewyan, Beaver, and Kaska Indians from northern Alberta and northern British Columbia.


Traditionally, Slavey were highly mobile hunters and fishermen whose seasonal socioeconomic cycle was characterized by periods of in-gathering and dispersal in relation to the availability and productivity of basic resources. For most of the year people dispersed to hunt and fish throughout their territory in groups of approximately 10 to 25 people. When resources were temporarily concentrated (for example, at selected fisheries during spawning), groups as large as 200 to 250 individuals were formed. When trading posts were established in conjunction with the fur trade, Slavey incorporated visits to them in their yearly movements. Over time, Slavey began to settle relatively permanently at the points of trade. Today, they reside on a year-round basis in the communities mentioned earlier and participate in seasonal hunting, fishing, and trapping scheduled around local employment and schooling.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Slavey were hunters and fishermen for whom vegetable products provided little food (perhaps 5 percent of their diet). The basic food resources were moose, woodland caribou, bear, beaver, fish (whitefish, lake trout, grayling, and herring), rabbits, and duck. With the addition of trapping, beaver, marten, mink, fox, muskrat, and lynx became important for their fur. In their economic pursuits people employed snares, clubs, bows and arrows, spears, fishing weirs, and deadfalls. With the fur trade came guns, twine fish nets, metal traps, canvas tents, and assorted metal tools such as ice chisels. Boats and motors and snowmobiles are essential to the contemporary pursuit of traditional resources.

Industrial Arts. Slavey industrial arts were not highly developed, but hides, stone, bone, and wood were finely worked in production of snowshoes, toboggans, bags, drums, and other material items.

Trade. Traditionally, trade was inconsequential. Before contact with Mackenzie, exchange with Cree and Chipewyan middlemen probably introduced some items of Western material culture. Despite participation in the fur trade, the Slavey remained socioeconomically autonomous from the 1790s to the start of World War I. After the war, through the fur trade they became dependent on European goods and services. Trapping and fur trading continue to provide significant amounts of income in Slavey communities.

Division of Labor. The traditional division of labor was based on sex and age, with little occupational specialization. Men were primarily responsible for hunting, fishing, and trapping; women, for child rearing, maintaining the household, snaring small game, collecting berries, processing food, and manufacturing clothing. Children aided and eventually assumed the roles of their like-sexed parents.

Land Tenure. Land was not owned, with access to resource sites restricted by use principles. Local and regional bands, however, were symbolically associated with the Territories they frequented. With the fur trade came some registration of trapping lines.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Slavey had no clans or unilineal descent groups. Kinship was reckoned bilaterally and used as a fundamental organizational principle of local bands the social flexibility of which was a key fact of Slavey life. Such groups were formed by tracing ties from either partner in a marriage to a central figure, a good hunter or provider, who led the group. There seems to have been some emphasis on the female line, as exemplified by temporary matrilocal postmarital residence. There were few formal duties and obligations in kinship relationships; rather, there were diffuse principles of solidarity and reciprocity that lessened in intensity as social distance increased.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally and both teknonymy and fictive kinship are documented. Consanguineal and affinal kin are separated. Terms for the former are characterized by (1) differentiation only by sex for the Second ascending generation, (2) bifurcate merging for the first ascending generation, (3) Hawaiian or Iroquoian distinctions for ego's (one's own) generation, (4) Hawaiian or Iroquoian distinctions for the first descending generation, and (5) contrasts by sex and sex of speaker for the second descending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. There were no prescriptive marriage rules, but local group exogamy with nonparallel relatives was seemingly preferred. Close relatives were considered inappropriate Marriage partners. Polygyny occurred relatively frequently, was often sororal, and was explained in socioeconomic termsthe successful hunter could support more than one wife. The sororate was practiced, as was pre- and postmarital bride-service. Temporary matrilocal postmarital residence (while "working for" a father-in-law or brother-in-law) was the norm. After the birth of a first child or some other reasonable period, patrilocal and neolocal residence were possible. Divorce was apparently easyone spouse simply left.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family household was the primary domestic group. It could be extended by the addition of one or more of the parents of the married couple. Nuclear families, however, rarely traveled alone, as they normally accompanied larger local groups that were kin-based and within which expectations of economic cooperation and generosity were great.

Inheritance. Traditionally, upon death, individually owned personal property was placed with the corpse of the deceased person or was destroyed or was kept by relatives as mementos. If property was inherited, it was usually by a spouse or child on the informal basis of need and appropriateness. The Canadian government has administered the transmission of registered trapping lines from father to son.

Socialization. Like-sexed parents and the rest of the immediate family were fundamental to socialization, which was accomplished with great leniency. The values of industriousness, individual autonomy, generosity, emotional restraint, and control were encouraged. Because noninterference, or "minding one's own business," was valued, intervening with another's children was rare. Disapproval of self-glorification, stinginess, bossiness, gossiping, anger, laziness, fighting, and illicit sexual congress was expressed.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Bilateral kinship, marriage, and friendship principles were central to Slavey social organization. Kinship and social distance were informally computed, and rights, duties, and obligations attenuated as distance increased in this fundamentally egalitarian society.

Political Organization. The Slavey were organized into more or less formal bands. Local bands were normally kinbased and leadership was provided by men possessing special abilities as hunters and providers along with unusual generosity. The successful hunter's obligation to distribute his kill among the local group was a basic fact of Slavey social and, ultimately, political life. The leadership of successful providers was informal and situational, and ceased when their skill diminished or they failed in their distributive obligations. Regional bands were focused on the territories they inhabited and existed as groups only when relatively large groups came together at concentrated resource sites. They lacked leaders and were not necessarily composed of local bands. The Slavey "tribe" was a nonfunctioning category of cultural and linguistic identity.

Social Control. Social sanctions were diffuse and inFormal. Gossip, the reduction of aid and support, "talking to," and avoidance or withdrawal from unpleasant persons were the norm. Perhaps the most extreme sanction was banishment. Sorcery or the threat of sorcery may have played a role in social control.

Conflict. Raiding and warfare were matters for families and local groups, not regional groups or tribes. Revenge for the death of a kinsperson or for the theft of a woman was the primary motive. Disputes over women were more frequent than disputes over resource sites or extractive resources. The fur trade led to hostilities with the Cree and Chipewyan.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Slavey religious beliefs were dominated by concepts of a mythological past, a diffuse power inherent to the world and everything in it, and animal spirits. By reference to the mythological past, people were able to explain many features of the contemporary world. The presence of inherently dangerous, but morally neutral power was also used to explain (and to exert influence over) phenomena in the world. Animal or "medicine" spirits occupied the traditional Slavey universe. Today, the Christian God and other Western supernaturals are also recognized. Individuals could obtain power from animal spirits.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans (usually, but not always men) dreamed and came to "know" about things. Through dreaming they acquired power, which was used for curing and for success at various subsistence activities such as hunting. Acquired power might also be used negatively. Shamanistic techniques included singing, dancing, sucking, dreaming, and incantating. Knowledge of an animal spirit might necessitate an eating taboo.

Ceremonies. Most Slavey ceremonies were relatively informal and not calendrical. Dancing and feasting to celebrate successful hunts or the meeting of groups were common. Girls were secluded at menses and a boy's first kill was celebrated.

Medicine. Curing was primarily the domain of the Slavey shaman. Supernatural techniques predominated, but roots, berries, spruce gum, other plants, and animal products were employed.

Death and Afterlife. For traditional Slavey, death was accompanied by the loss of a "shadow," but further information about this or about concepts of an afterlife is difficult to obtain. Corpses were either placed in trees or buried in the ground. Modern conceptions of death and afterlife are dominated by Christian beliefs.


Asch, Michael I. (1981). "Slavey." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 338-349. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Helm, June (1961). The Lynx Point People: The Dynamics of a Northern Athapaskan Band. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 176. Anthropological Series, no. 53. Ottawa.

Honigmann, John J. (1946). Ethnography and Acculturation of the Fort Nelson Slave. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 33. New Haven, Conn.: Department of Anthropology, Yale University.


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