American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Beaver

"Beaver" comes from Tsattine, "dwellers among the beaver." Today the people refer to themselves as Deneza or Dunne-za, "Real People." They were culturally similar to the Chipewyans and Sekanis. Traditional Beaver territory (in the mideighteenth century) is the prairies south of the Peace River and east of the Rocky Mountains and on the upper Peace River (present-day Alberta and British Columbia). They may once also have lived in the Lake Claire area and the upper parts of the Athapaska River. The Beaver population may have been between 1,000 and 1,500 in the seventeenth century. The Beaver people speak a Northern Athapaskan language.

A well-defined cosmology and mythology were intimately connected with vision quests. Young people fasted to acquire guardian spirits, mainly in dreams. Various food and behavioral taboos, as well as songs and medicine bundles, were associated with a particular animal spirit. The most important festival took place twice a year and involved the fire sacrifice of food to ensure continued bounty. Dreamers, or prophets—people in touch through dreams with the past and future—had special powers. Shamans were those who had acquired especially powerful guardian spirits. They cured by singing, blowing, and sucking illness-linked objects from the body.

Three or four independent bands had their own hunting areas and leaders. Leadership was based on skill and knowledge, which was in turn gained partly through experience and partly through dreaming. Bands were composed of hunting groups of roughly thirty people; the size and composition of the bands varied. Groups grew in size during the summer and broke into constituent parts in the winter and early spring.

Men might have more than one wife. Newlyweds lived with the woman's family and served her parents for a period of time, but descent was patriarchal. Corpses were placed on birchbark strips and buried in tree scaffolds or on platforms. Mourners gave away their possessions.

The typical dwelling was a three-pole conical moose or caribou skin teepee. Winter lodges of logs were covered with moss and earth. In the summer, people mainly lived in conical brush shelters or simple lean-tos.

The Beaver people were basically nomadic hunters of moose, caribou, beaver, and other animals. Men drove buffalo into enclosures as late as the early nineteenth century. Fish were not an important part of the diet except in emergencies. People also snared smaller animals, such as rabbits, and women gathered berries and other plant food.

Food was often hot-rock boiled in containers of spruce or birch bark or woven spruce roots. Bags were generally made of moose and caribou skins. Bark containers were important as well. Arrowheads were mostly flint, as were knife blades, although people also used moose horn or beaver teeth for this purpose. To encourage certain plants and animals, people regularly burned parts of the prairie.

Favorite trade locations included Vermilion and the mouth of the Smoky River. The relation of oral tradition was taken very seriously and considered a fine art. Women made most clothing from moose skin. Clothing consisted of shirts, leggings, fur-lined moccasins, and a knee-length coat. Men added breechclouts after being influenced by the Crees. Women sometimes wore a short apron. Clothing was decorated with porcupine quill embroidery. Women drew toboggans before the advent of dog power in the twentieth century. People traveled in spruce-bark and birchbark canoes as well as on snowshoes.

Ancestors of the Beavers were in their historical territory 10,000 years ago. The Beaver and Sekani people may once have been united. By the mideighteenth century, Crees, armed with guns, had confined the Beaver Indians to the Peace River basin. At that time, eastern Beaver groups joined the Crees, adopting many of their customs and habits, while western groups moved farther up the Peace River, toward the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The Sarcees probably branched off from the Beaver Indians about that time as well.

In 1799, the leader Makenunatane (Swan Chief) sought to attract both missionaries and a trading post. The people became more and more involved in the fur trade during the nineteenth century. Most people had accepted Catholicism by about 1900, although many retained a core of their former religious ideas.

Although they had been obtaining arms and other items of non-Native manufacture for years, direct contact between the people and non-Native traders occurred only in 1876. New foods were introduced, and for the first time the people's subsistence activities were fundamentally altered. The Beavers signed Treaty 8 with Canada in 1899, under which the Indians accepted reserves but retained extensive subsistence rights. Canadian officials began appointing nominal chiefs after that.

In the early twentieth century, some Beaver people were raising horses and trapping for a living. By 1930, non-Native farmers had settled much of their territory. Construction of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s disrupted the nomadic life of the last traditional Beaver bands, and in the 1950s and 1960s, oil and gas became major regional industries.

The ancient prophet tradition has waned in recent years, although dreamers' songs remain the basis for much ceremonialism as well as an important part of the summer gatherings known as Treaty 8 Days. The Alaska and Mackenzie Highway has separated the Beavers of Alberta and British Columbia from one another. Younger people are literate in English, although Beaver remains the first language for most.

Effective rule by Indian agents came to an end in the 1980s, when the people began to administer their own affairs through such organizations as the Treaty Eight Tribal Association. Children attend band and/or provincial and/or private schools. Most people have high school educations. In general, housing and social services are considered adequate.

 

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