First Inhabitants, Indigenous Peoples in 1500
Iroquoians, plains people, Asian connection, indigenous Canada, Plains Cree
In 1500, on the eve of regular European contact, there may have been 300,000 people living in Canada, although some estimates run much higher. More than half were clustered in two regions, southern Ontario and the Pacific coast. Despite divisions due to distance, language, and culture, trade networks stretched far across the continent, as did diplomatic alliances, rivalries, and warfare. Each nation had its own myths, heroes, and spiritual practices, but they all shared a reverence for nature and a sense of the spiritual presence in all living things.
The societies of the Algonquian language family, the most widespread in North America, extended from the Atlantic coast to the Rockies. Groups on the Atlantic coast made extensive use of fish and coastal marine life. Most Algonquian speakers, however, were hunter-gatherers: They hunted deer and other large animals, and gathered nuts and wild grains. They lived in small bands of related families, in the forest that stretches across Canada from west to east. Some moved into the Great Plains to make their living by hunting bison.
Another language group, the Athapaskan speakers, were also hunter-gatherers. They lived mainly in the northwestern forest, but some groups lived on the plains, along with some Algonquian and Siouan groups. These plains people wintered in sheltered river valleys and followed the bison herds. They planned and executed well-organized drives to stampede bison over cliffs. From the bison they got not only food but also clothing, tools, and many other necessities. These societies began their golden age in the mid-1700s when they got horses, imported to North America via Mexico. With the new mobility that horses provided, mounted bison hunters such as the Blackfoot and Plains Cree flourished on the Great Plains.
On the tundra, the Arctic coast, and Arctic lands lived the Inuit, who developed ingenious inventions to help them survive in one of the world’s most forbidding climates. The Inuit lived in small bands as hunters, with a diet almost wholly of sea animals, although some followed the caribou herds. They spoke a common language, in several dialects, that spread eastward from Alaska to Greenland barely a thousand years ago. It is part of the Eskimo-Aleut language group, which has branches in Siberia and thus is the only indigenous language group with a clearly identified Asian connection.
The temperate rain forest of the mountainous Pacific Northwest was the most densely populated part of indigenous Canada and had the greatest diversity of languages. Speakers of at least five distinct language groups lived here. The coastal nations were blessed with abundant food sources, particularly salmon, and lived in substantial, permanent towns of elaborately decorated cedar-plank houses. They produced sophisticated works of art, the most famous of which were the totem poles that decorated houses and proclaimed the lineages of their owners. They traveled, raided, and hunted whales in large, oceangoing canoes. These were complex societies consisting of chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves.
Another area of large populations and complex societies was the woodlands of the lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence valley, inhabited by Iroquoian-speaking peoples. About 500 AD the Iroquoians began growing corn, beans, and squash. Once established, agriculture supported much larger populations than hunting and gathering. The Iroquoian farmers lived in large, fortified towns surrounded by cornfields. Some groups formed rival confederacies known as the Huron, Neutral, and Iroquois (or Five Nations, later Six Nations). Each confederacy had its own elaborate political systems and ceremonies.
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