Cultural Overview

Chipewyan culture is profoundly influenced by these peoples' historical experience as subarctic hunter-fishers. An adaptation to hunting herds of barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) which migrate long distances across the forest-tundra ecotone involves strategies of mobility, scheduling, and communication over immense territories. Those Chipewyan groups which moved southward with the expanding fur trade in the late 18 th century retained aspects of this basic hunting economy while also learning to exploit moose (Alces alces), woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), and other resources more common in the full boreal forest. The southern Chipewyan also developed complex interethnic relations, both positive and negative, with neighboring Western Woods Cree groups and with the "mixed-blood" or M├ętis peoples who occupied a niche as servants and laborers in the fur trade industry (Brumbach & Jarvenpa, 1989).

The prevailing social organization of the Chipewyan has been the band, that is, a geographically mobile community of closely related kin which is relatively egalitarian, politically autonomous and marked by short-term de facto leadership rather than formal centralized authority. Regional bands were rarely face-to-face communities except for short durations at summer fishing stations or, as became increasingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at Hudson's Bay Company trade gatherings and at French Roman Catholic mission assemblages. For the bulk of the year between fall freeze-up and spring break-up Chipewyan were scattered in local bands, small clusters of five to ten interrelated families (about 20-50 people). These eyana'de or "winter staging communities" (also referred to as "hunting units" or "hunting groups") were distributed over vast territories and served as points for further dispersal into winter hunting teams. In the early 1900s, for example, the Kesyehot'ine, a regional band of about 150 people, ranged over 49,700 km2, an area the size of West Virginia (Jarvenpa, 1998; Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 1988).

Bilateral kinship ties, that is, tracing descent from both father's and mother's relatives, were important in the formation of the winter staging communities. For example, the families were often linked to one another by sibling relationships (often brother-sister ties) and by parent-child relationships (often parent-daughter bonds) (Irimoto, 1981). At the same time, most people had some close relatives in their silot'ine, or "personal bilateral kindred," scattered across a number of eyana'de or winter communities in a region. Activating such ties was a means of gaining access and residency in these other communities, an important form of social insurance during times of food shortage, illness, and other stressful events.

Some Chipewyan have retained a remarkable degree of geographical mobility despite political-economic changes ushered in by federal treaty provisions in the early 20th century and a new era of settlement nucleation, service centralization, and wage labor emerging after World War II. In this context, the notion of a mobile "bush" life-style takes on added weight as a primordial characteristic of Chipewyan culture and identity. The seasonal exchange of trapping camp for fishing camp, longdistance travel by water routes and forest trails, and the eating of freshly procured caribou, moose, or whitefish are not simply mundane activities. These are among the most highly valued cultural experiences. Moreover, a delicate material-spiritual symbiosis between humans and food animals is a fundamental means of interpreting causality. For example, there is a tendency to interpret major historical changes in animal distribution or abundance as withdrawals or withholdings due to flagrant "disrespect" by hunters. One's ability to hunt, to cure illness, and to engage in sorcery is affected by the state of one's "supernatural" knowledge and power, or what the Chipewyan term inkonze (Jarvenpa, 1998; D. M. Smith, 1973).

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