Chipewyan is a term of Cree derivation meaning "pointed skins," but Chipewyan call themselves DENE or "people," and use more specific names for regional social communities. Their language is a branch of the northeastern Athapaskan language family, closely related to neighbouring DOGRIB and SLAVEY. The name Chipewyan was eventually extended to a large number of Dene peoples who occupied the northern fringe of the boreal forest and adjacent tundra from the Seal River to Great Slave Lake. Some Chipewyan have also been called Caribou Eaters and Mountainees (not to be confused with the Montagnais of eastern Canada).

Sometimes the term has been extended to the YELLOWKNIFE, a neighbouring Dene people who spoke a virtually identical language and whose lands included part of the Coppermine River. By the 19th century Chipewyan lands included northern portions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the southern part of the NWT. In 1749 the population was estimated at approximately 4000 individuals. Epidemics of European diseases decimated the population, with the first great smallpox epidemic occurring in 1781-82, and other epidemics continuing through the first half of the 20th century. The population has now recovered; in 1996 over 15 200 persons were enrolled in Chipewyan bands.

Socio-Territorial Organization

  In the past, Chipewyan socio-territorial organization was based on hunting the migratory herds of Barren Ground caribou. Hunting groups consisted of 2 or more related families which joined with other such groups to form larger local and regional bands, coalescing or dispersing with the herds. Leaders had limited, noncoercive authority which was based upon their ability, wisdom and generosity. Spiritual power was received in dream visions.

In Chipewyan tradition, it was Thanadelthur, also known as the "Slave Woman," who guided an employee of the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY into Chipewyan territory and introduced her countrymen to Europeans. This successful meeting led the HBC in 1717 to establish Prince of Wales Fort, or Churchill, for the Chipewyan fur trade. The fur trade aggravated relations between Chipewyan and their southern neighbours, the CREE, known to the Chipewyan as ena or "enemy." Peaceful relations began to be established between Chipewyan and Cree between 1716 and 1760, but in some places hostility continued much later. The fur trade also affected their relations in the late 18th century with their northern neighbours, INUIT, whom they termed hotel ena or "enemies of the flat area."

 The fur trade expanded west from Hudson Bay to Great Slave Lake in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Yellowknife took advantage of their strategic location and in the early 19th century briefly occupied the Yellowknife River region, displacing its Dogrib inhabitants until the Dogrib retaliated in 1823. Some Chipewyan began to hunt and trap in the full boreal forest, where fur-bearing animals were more abundant, and they extended their territories to the south. Some Chipewyan even began to occupy the northern edge of the parkland, where they hunted bison. Other Chipewyan remained more aloof from the trade, though some were willing to trade food provisions. By the late 19th century most Chipewyan peoples were in the regions they occupy today.

20th-Century Life

All Chipewyan (and Yellowknife) established formal relations with the Canadian government through the treaty process beginning in 1876. They experienced a century of federal policies intended to transform their cultures along European lines. Chipewyan ways of life were threatened especially in the 20th century, when they faced an increasing number of competing land uses, supported by federal and provincial government policies that encouraged the development of northern resource-based industries. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for Chipewyan to support themselves by their traditional bush economies. After WWII, this situation combined with government policies encouraging native peoples to abandon the bush and resettle in permanent administrative settlements, where most live today. Chipewyan have generally felt that their lives have been harmed by these changes, not helped. Today, they are exploring new avenues to regain control over their communities and traditional lands. Many Chipewyan are pursuing land claims with the federal government, as well as seeking to protect their culture and language and to re-establish traditional relationships with the land.

See also NATIVE PEOPLE: SUBARCTIC and general articles under NATIVE PEOPLE.