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Aboriginal People In Canadian History And Culture History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Canada has provided a home for settlers ever since the first inhabitants arrived on the continent. Each of these groups of settlers had contributed to the rise of the country in several ways. Among the many inhabitants throughout the history of Canada, Canadian Indians had one of the greatest influence on the country’s economy and provided a very rich cultural heritage.

Many experts think that the first Indian settlers had migrated to Canada during the last Ice Age, leaving their previous homeland, Siberia. After the ice had melted, only people could cross to Canada through the Bering Strait, while land animals had to stay behind. [1] Therefore, Canadian Indians had to establish their villages and society without the help of the most common European domestic animals such as donkeys, horses or oxen. Despite the fact that their domestic animal resources were limited, early Canadian Indians were very successful farmers.

During the period between 500 BC and 1000 AD, each of the numerous Indian tribes had their own developed culture, customs and beliefs. Their food sources varied according to the geographical features of their living areas. In the northern areas of the country, fishing and hunting were the most popular means of acquiring food. The tribes living there, for example the Inuits, hunted for whales, thus they introduced a sea-hunting culture to the area. Moreover, among the Inuits, there were several fishermen who fished for salmon in the cold rivers surrounding their villages. The weather around the Arctic was quite harsh, especially during winter when the seas froze and snow covered everything, which made it necessary for the Inuits to develop new objects, such as the dog sleds, or the snow houses [2] , which are in use even in present day.

The arrival of the European conquerors brought a huge change into the lives of the native people of Canada. As the members of the First Nations were skilled hunters and fishermen, they had resources and useful goods to offer to the Europeans. Among these goods, the most important one was animal fur (first the fur of beavers). Europeans and the native people made contact with each other with the help of trading goods. Europeans traded metal tools (which were very much needed by the Indians) for highly expensive animal fur.

The limited cultural background of the North American hunting peoples provided an insatiable demand for the products of the more elaborate cultural development of Europeans. The supply of European goods, the product of a more advanced and specialized technology, enabled the Indians to gain a livelihood more easily – to obtain their supply of food, as in the case of moose, more quickly, and to hunt the beaver more effectively. [3] 

As a result, several trading posts had been set up, which later evolved into towns, thus helping the development of Canadian settlements.

The most active fur trading tribes, such as the Algonquians and the Hurons had an enermous role in the establishment of the very first trading stations and colonies. They hunted for food which they provided for the colonists, even if they had to carry these goods several hundreds of kilometers to be able to sell them. With the help of these tribes, the French colonists managed to establish the colony of Quebec, the first colony of Canada, in 1608. If it had not been for the help of the Algonquian and the Huron tribes, the French may have not been able to hold their stand on the continent.

Due to the fact that the aboriginal inhabitants of Canada had been living in the country for a long time, several geographical areas were named by them, and many of these names are still in use in the present day. Actually, the name Canada originates from an Iroquoian word that means “village” or “settlement” [4] , which was later adopted by French settlers like Jacques Cartier. Other provinces and territories whose official names are aboriginal in origin are Yukon, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. [5] Also, there are thousands of towns or cities with their names originating from aboroginal names, which indicates the huge impact of the aboriginal culture on present day Canada.

The art of the indigenous people of Canada also largely contributed to the country’s cultural heritage. The most important art had been created before the European settlers arrived, and these artifacts have very unique characteristics. The most popular artifacts produced in that time were the totem poles, which had animals, such as eagles, bears, ravens or legendary creatures depicted on them. Many of the aboriginal people were skilled sculptors or painters, and after the Europeans’ arrival some of them started to make art for a commercial purpose. As a result, more and more aboriginal art had reached a wide variety of audience, and the Indian art became more and more popular.

The culture of the aboriginal people had a huge effect on the contemporary theatre, too. Many stories featured in plays or dramas were based on aboriginal stories told by Indian storytellers. Each tribe had its own creation story or myth that was told orally to the members of the tribe for hundreds of years, and especially during ceremonial occasions. These stories preserved the spoken language of the tribes, and added them to the cultural heritage of Canada. Today, there are several languages still spoken by indigenous people, and the most widespread ones include Anishinaabe and Cree, with several hundred thousand speakers; also Inuktitut, Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and Mi’kmaq. [6] 

One of the most important contribution of the native people to the economy of Canada was the use of the canoe throughout the trading period of the 17th and 18th century. As the European colonists could not navigate the area, they often hired aboriginal guides to help them find their way, and to mediate between trading tribes. The canoe (usually made from birch bark) was the fastest means of transport through the rivers of the country, and due to its design and structure, it could carry a huge amount of goods, such as fur, food, or the metal and iron tools that the native people were given in return. There had been several examples of a single native person carrying goods on his canoe from the eastern part of the country to the west. This journey consisted of several thousand kilometers, and the importance of keeping the trade routes active was recognised both by the colonists and the Indians.

The native people of Canada contributed to the military successes first against the British, then later against the United States. During the war between the French colonists and the British, the Iroquis had trained the French soldiers in guerilla warfare, which was a great advantage. New France (the French colony in Canada) also had allies among the Algonquians, and they proved to be a great asset.

The French had very close trading (hence military) ties with the Abenakis from Maine, many of whom had sought refuge in Canada and with the Micmacs and Malecites in the Maritimes. France also had loose alliances with the Great Lakes Algonquians: the Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Miami, and Illionis. Moreover, the Canadian fur traders and fort commanders, unlike the land-hungry English settlers, cultivated a friendship of the Algonquians by giving the Indians gifts and presents. [7] 

One of the most important Indian war heros was named Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee tribe, and a large contributor to the success of the war against the Americans. He was later considered a folk legend, and many Canadians remember him as a hero for the defense he did to their country, even today.

Apart from cultural and military contributions, the aboriginal people in Canada invented several of the now everyday items and activities, such as maple syrup, tug of war, lacrosse, the toboggan, snowshoes. Lacrosse is now a very popular sport in Canada, while maple syrup is considered one of Canada’s national products. The aboriginal people showed the settlers how to make maple syrup, or “itsinzibuckwud”, as the Alqonquians called it, which meant “drawn from wood”.

In the early days of colonization, it was the Natives who showed French settlers how to tap the trunk of a tree at the outset of spring, harvest the sap and boil it to evaporate some of the water. This custom quickly became an integral part of colony life and during the 17th and 18th centuries, syrup was a major source of high quality pure sugar. Later, however, they would learn to bore holes in the trees and hang their buckets on home-made spouts. [8] 

In modern day Canada, Quebec produces the largest amount of maple syrup in the world, followed by the United States.

In conclusion, the native peoples’ contribution to the economy and cultural heritage of Canada is very important. Not only did the aboriginals made it possible for the European settlers to establish a country in the continent, but they also introduced them to the typical food and tools of the native people, which made the life of the settlers easier. With the help of fur trade, the early Canadian economy was flourishing, and the alliances between the European settlers and the Indians helped Canada obtaining its independence.

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