Life on the Plains - Part 4

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Flat land and rolling hills extend in all directions. Flowing eastward, rivers have cut deeply into the land, and provide practically all the scarce available water. Tree growth on the high plains is restricted to these valleys, becoming rapidly more noticeable toward the margins of the area. This is the area that many Plains Indigenous peoples called home. Small bands of hunters roamed the Plains beginning at least 11, years ago. See also Prehistory. For several thousand years, bison hunting was conducted primarily with the use of spears, but around CE a group known as the Avonlea people because they lived during the Avonlea period specialized in bowhunting.

By CE, they engaged in some agriculture, but continued to rely primarily on nomadic bison hunting. Traditionally, Plains people relied on seasonal fruits, vegetables and game for subsistence. Nuts , roots, berries were especially prevalent staples of the Plains diet.

Fish was a regular supplement to bison meat for some Plains peoples. While women gathered and cultivated, hunting — a predominantly male activity — provided the bulk of food. Plains hunters used animal-skin disguises to lure bison into traps or get close enough to a herd to kill bison on the periphery with bows and arrows. Hunters also directed bison to stampede over steep cliffs and fall to their death.

While the horse greatly facilitated bison hunting, muzzleloading guns proved inferior to bow and arrows; Plains hunters switched away from bows and arrows only after more convenient breech-loading rifles were introduced by the s. Women were primarily responsible for processing the spoils of the hunt.

When moving to a new camp, family property was transported by pack dogs. Dogs were domesticated independently by Indigenous peoples in North America, though they were quickly replaced by European breeds after contact. After the introduction of the horse , the increased carrying capacity made the construction and transport of larger travois and tipis possible. Women made clothing for their families, often using the skins of antelope , deer and bison : breechcloth, leggings and shirts for men, long dresses and leggings for women.

Section 1: Culture of the Plains Indians

They also made robes and moccasins , sometimes out of bison hides. As Indigenous cultures varied across the Plains, artistic expression ranged from tattoos, to clothing painted or embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, to painted tipi covers, shields and rawhide container. Plains art also included carvings on wooden bowls, horn spoons and stone pipes. These items often featured symbols associated with the Indigenous nation or the identity of the particular band member who made the designs.

Plains peoples are credited with having held the first powwows , events that allow various Indigenous nations to come together in celebration of their cultures. Wearing regalia adorned with sacred eagle feathers, beads and colourful items, Plains Indigenous peoples perform powwow songs and dances.

Drums used in these ceremonies represent the Earth or the circle of life, and as such, are considered important to the culture and spirituality of many Plains Indigenous peoples. Some of the songs played at powwows are healing songs, others tell a particular story; all of them, however, are considered sacred. See also Powwow Singers and History of Powwows.

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Contact between Plains peoples and European fur traders and settlers rapidly accelerated societal change, which had traditionally moved much more gradually. The introduction of metalwares made pottery, stone chisels and arrowheads obsolete in the midth century; glass beads gradually replaced quillwork and by the midth century cloth became as common as animal skins for clothing.

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The Indian Act and other federal legislation and policies that encouraged assimilation, such as residential schools , threated Indigenous cultures on the Plains and elsewhere in Canada. The Indian Act forbade powwows and many other cultural events. Forced onto reserves , the traditional hunting practices of the Plains Indigenous peoples became a thing of the past. Despite this cultural upheaval, Indigenous peoples have persevered.

Powwow traditions and Indigenous languages , among other aspects of their cultures, have survived into the present day. Efforts to protect and preserve Indigenous culture aim to make sure art , language and more do not disappear. The languages spoken by the Indigenous people of the Plains in Canada belong to three linguistic families. See also Indigenous Languages in Canada. Languages from separate linguistic families are completely different, and within each family, languages may be similar but are not the same. The government also acknowledged the harm that residential schools and assimilation policies had done to Aboriginal people's cultures, languages and heritage.

Today the Government of Canada is working in partnership with First Nations in this new era of reconciliation to build stronger First Nations communities. All across the country, this crucial collaborative work is taking place in areas as diverse as First Nations economies, education, governance, social services, human rights, culture and the resolution of outstanding land claims. Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations in what is now Canada were able to satisfy all of their material and spiritual needs through the resources of the natural world around them.

For the purposes of studying traditional First Nations cultures, historians have therefore tended to group First Nations in Canada according to the six main geographic areas of the country as it exists today. Within each of these six areas, First Nations had very similar cultures, largely shaped by a common environment. The six groups were: Woodland First Nations , who lived in dense boreal forest in the eastern part of the country; Iroquoian First Nations , who inhabited the southernmost area, a fertile land suitable for planting corn, beans and squash; Plains First Nations , who lived on the grasslands of the Prairies; Plateau First Nations , whose geography ranged from semi-desert conditions in the south to high mountains and dense forest in the north; Pacific Coast First Nations , who had access to abundant salmon and shellfish and the gigantic red cedar for building huge houses; and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins , whose harsh environment consisted of dark forests, barren lands and the swampy terrain known as muskeg.

The following section highlights some of the wide variations in the six groups' social organization, food resources, and homes, modes of transportation and clothing -- as well as spiritual beliefs widely shared by all Early First Nations.

Plains Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Most Woodland First Nations were made up of many independent groups, each with its own hunting territory. These groups usually had fewer than people. A leader generally won his position because he possessed great courage or skill in hunting. Woodland First Nations hunters and trappers had an intimate knowledge of the habitats and seasonal migrations of animals that they depended on for survival. Excellent farmers, these southern peoples harvested annual food crops of corn, beans and squash that more than met their needs.

An abundance of food supplies made it possible for the Iroquoian First Nations now known as the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse to found permanent communities and gave them the leisure time to develop complex systems of government based on democratic principles. The Huron-Wendat, for example, had a three-tier political system, consisting of village councils, tribal councils and the confederacy council.

All councils made decisions on a consensus basis, with discussions often going late into the night until everyone reached agreement. On the Plains, the individual migratory groups, each with their own chief, assembled during the summer months for spiritual ceremonies, dances, feasts and communal hunts. Even though each group was fiercely independent, Plains First Nations had military societies that carried out functions such as policing, regulating life in camp and on the march, and organizing defences.

The social organization of several Plains First Nations was influenced by their neighbours and trading partners—the First Nations of the Pacific Coast. As a result, the Dakelh-ne Carrier , Tahltan and Ts'ilh'got'in Chilcotin adopted the stratified social systems of the Pacific Coast Nations, which included nobles, commoners and slaves. In addition to these three distinct social orders, Pacific Coast First Nations had a well-defined aristocratic class that was regarded as superior by birth.

The basic social unit for all First Nations in this part of the country was the extended family lineage whose members claimed descent from a common ancestor. Most lineages had their own crests, featuring representations of animal or supernatural beings that were believed to be their founders. The most famous method of crest display was the totem pole consisting of all the ancestral symbols that belonged to a lineage. The people of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins lived in a vast homeland where game animals were very scarce and the winters were long and severe.

As was true of most First Nations across the country, those of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins were primarily occupied with day-to-day survival. As such, First Nations were divided into several independent groups made up of different family units who worked together. Each group hunted a separate territory, with individual boundaries defined by tradition and use. A group leader was selected according to the group's needs at a particular time. On a caribou hunt, for example, the most proficient hunter would be chosen leader.

All First Nations across the country hunted and gathered plants for both food and medicinal purposes. The actual percentage of meat, fish and plants in any First Nation's diet depended on what was available in the local environment. The Woodland First Nations and all First Nations in the northern regions hunted game animals with spears and bows and arrows. These First Nations also used traps and snares—a type of noose that caught the animal by the neck or leg.

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Northern hunters, such as the Gwich'in, built elaborate routing fences with stakes and brush. The Gwich'in used these fences to stampede animals into the area where snares had been set to trap them.

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To provide for times of hardship, the people dried large stores of meat, fish and berries during the summer. During the winter, to keep frozen meat safe from animals such as the wolverine, some First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins stored their food high in a tree with its trunk peeled of bark.

Even though the Haudenosaunee had plenty of meat, fish and fowl available to them in the wild, they lived mainly on their own crops—corn, beans and squash, which were called "The Three Sisters.