Indigenous peoples in Canada developed rich building traditions thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Each of the six broad cultural regions of Indigenous peoples in Canada, defined by common climatic, geographical and ecological characteristics — the Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains and Eastern Woodlands — gave rise to distinctive building forms which reflected these conditions, as well as the available building materials, means of livelihood, and social and spiritual values of the resident peoples.
A band is a basic form of local residential group in traditional hunting and gathering societies all around the world. Today the Canadian government uses the terms band (or Indian band) and First Nation to describe the local unit of administration by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
Clan has been used to designate social groups whose members trace descent from either male or female ancestors. For the Indigenous people in Canada, the term has been used most often to designate groups based on unilineal descent. This means that a person belongs to the clan of either parent.
In Canada, the term Indigenous peoples (or Aboriginal peoples) refers to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. These are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. In 2011, more than 1.4 million people in Canada identified as Indigenous. Though severely threatened — and in certain cases extinguished — by colonial forces, Indigenous culture, language and social systems have shaped the development of Canada, and continue to grow and thrive despite extreme adversity.1
Indigenous languages are spoken in all regions of Canada. There are around 60 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 10 separate language families. While in many places there has been decreased transmission of languages from one generation to the next, recognition of this has led to efforts by Indigenous peoples to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with a large number of languages and great linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages are spoken widely, and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. On 6 December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to implement a new law to protect and preserve Indigenous languages in Canada.
Hiawatha is an important figure in the precolonial history of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of present-day southern Ontario and upper New York (ca. 1400-1500s). He is known most famously for uniting the Five Nations — Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk — into a political confederacy. In 1722, the Tuscarora, a First Nation from much farther south, joined the Confederacy, forming what we now know as the Six Nations.
The Indigenous people of the Northwest Coast had numerous origin myths which explained, for example, how daylight began or why summer and winter alternate. The principal character in many of these myths is a powerful trickster, Raven, who is known to different First Nations under various names.
Babiche is a type of string traditionally made by Indigenous peoples from rawhide and had multiple uses, such as to lace snowshoes, fishing nets, drumheads and the like. Though typically considered a French Canadian term, babiche is an Algonquian word, loosely translating to “cord” (in Mi’kmaq, ababich) or “thread” (in Ojibwa, assabâbish).
The totem pole (also known as a monumental pole) is a tall structure carved out of cedar wood, created by Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples to serve variously as a signboard, genealogical record and memorial. Some well-known carvers include Mungo Martin, Charles Edenshaw, Henry Hunt, Richard Hunt and Stanley Hunt.
Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa — wawa meaning "talk" — is a pidgin language that was prevalent in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s and early 1900s. Its small vocabulary and simplified grammar and sound system made it ideal for communication between diverse communities, especially those engaged in trade. The language is based on Lower Chinook, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), French, English, with some contributions from Salishan, and other Indigenous languages. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 people could speak Chinook Wawa in 1875, and it was used widely in court testimony, newspaper advertising, missionary activity among Indigenous peoples, and everyday conversation from central British Columbia to northern California.
Dene games are tests of physical and mental skill that were originally used by the Dene (northern Athabascan peoples) to prepare for the hunting and fishing seasons, and to provide entertainment. Today, Dene games (e.g., Finger Pull and Hand Games) are still played in many schools and community centres in the North as a means of preserving tradition and culture. As competitive sports, Dene games are also featured in various national and international athletic competitions, including the Arctic Winter Games.
Ookpik, which means “snowy owl” or “Arctic owl” in Inuktitut, is the name of one of the most popular of Inuit handicrafts, a souvenir sealskin owl with a large head and big eyes. In the 1960s, Ookpik became a popular national symbol after the federal government chose it to represent Canada at the 1963 trade fair in Philadelphia. Today, Ookpik is less popular among consumers, but it still holds significance for some Inuit artists and toy collectors.
The Lac La Croix Indigenous pony, also known as the Lac La Croix Indian pony or the Ojibwa pony, is thought to be the only existing breed of horse developed by Indigenous people in Canada. It takes its name from Lac La Croix First Nation in northwestern Ontario, where it was last found in the wild. Known in the Ojibwa language as bebezhigooganzhii or mishdatim (meaning “one big toenail”), it is a small, semi-feral horse that once lived in the wild and worked as a service animal — but is also considered a spirit animal — for the Ojibwa people of northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota. Today, this friendly, all-purpose breed is used in equine therapy, Indigenous heritage programs and tourism. Conservation efforts in Canada and the United States strive to protect the breed, which is critically endangered.
More than 3,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia (and adjacent areas of Washington State and southeastern Alaska) such as the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw developed artistic traditions that are heralded throughout the world for their imaginative and stylistic qualities.
Indigenous territory — also referred to as traditional territory — describes the ancestral and contemporary connections of Indigenous peoples to a geographical area. Territories may be defined by kinship ties, occupation, seasonal travel routes, trade networks, management of resources, and cultural and linguistic connections to place.