First Contacts

The first contacts between Europeans and Athapaskan populations took place both progressively and in different places. To the east of the region, contact was essentially with fur traders and missionaries, while the Russians came to the Alaskan shores in 1741. At first such contacts remained sporadic, and even though more and more Europeans ventured into the North, it took an event the magnitude of the 1898 Klondike gold rush (with its 30,000 prospectors) to accelerate the process.

One of the major transformations and disruptions wrought by these contacts was the participation of Amerindian populations in the fur trade. In 1717, the Hudson's Bay Company established the trading post of Fort Prince of Wales in Churchill in order to trade directly with the Chipewyans. Then around 1858, it created the post of Brochet in the hope of extending this trade to other Dene tribes.

In the beginning, the Chipewyans (the largest group among eastern Athapaskans) played the role of intermediary between the Company and other Amerindian populations, or even at times Inuit.

The entry of the Chipewyans into this market drove them to progressively abandon the tundra for the wooded forests, where they could trap the fur animals sought by the Hudson's Bay Company. Little by little, starting in the 18th century, the Chipewyans only went into the tundra for summer expeditions, a period during which they continued to go caribou hunting in order to build up large amounts of food stocks for the winter. The meat of the killed game could then be dried, smoked, or transformed into pemmican (a meat dried and then ground to powder, to which fat was added, turning it into a very rich food). The Chipewyans therefore adapted to the fur market to the point of changing their lifestyle, one that went back to their arrival in the region. Indeed, from 650 BCE until the 18th century, the Chipewyans (at the time, it would be more appropriate to speak of a Taltheilei tradition) lived in the tundra, where they hunted caribou several hundreds of kilometers north of the forest limits. However, even though the modes of occupying the territory changed, it seems that their hunting techniques remained the same, the Chipewyans always using tracking corridors (of which archaeological remains exist) to hunt caribou (Irimoto and Yamada, 1994: 93).

With the western progress of the fur market, similar consequences impacted with greater or lesser intensity on other Athapaskan populations.

When the fur market collapsed in the 1980s, the Athapaskans found themselves without a source of income to obtain the manufactured products and basic foodstuffs on which they had become dependent. In general, the oil and mining developments employed mainly inward migrants, not indigenous peoples. After the difficult years preceding the signing of the treaties with the government in Ottawa, the Athapaskans, like most native populations in Canada, followed the classic pattern of family allowances and mandatory schooling of children (which in many cases meant going to boarding schools), elements that incited these nomadic populations to settle in small communities. There they would be more exposed to western culture and its series of social problems.

Athapaskan populations have thus gone through many changes following the arrival of Europeans. But because these contacts came at a later date than on the eastern part of the American continent, some of these populations still exhibit, or at least they did so up until the beginning of the 19th century, certain cultural characteristics that they possessed at the time of the first encounter. Without denying the importance of these transformations, it is worth noting that for some of these communities hunting-related activities still remain central in the 20th century. Thus, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Dene still generated half of their income from resources taken from the forest.

Another consequence of contact with Europeans for native people was the introduction of particularly deadly diseases. During the 18th century, epidemics, most notably that of smallpox at the start of the 1780s, caused heavy losses among the Athapaskans in general and among the Chipewyans in particular, as more than two-thirds of these populations were decimated.

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