Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Chipewyans inhabit the central Canadian Subarctic, in an immense but sparsely settled territory. In aboriginal times the Chipewyan were nomadic and subsisted primarily on caribou hunting. The Chipewyan language is in the Na-Dene family. By the 1960s settlement patterns were becoming more permanent and wage labor and commercial hunting and fishing were becoming more important economically.


Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.


North America --Arctic and Subarctic



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

The Chipewyan file consists of 58 English language documents, composed in large part of a series of community studies. These studies, when taken together with the more general texts in the file, provide the reader with a fairly complete picture of Chipewyan ethnology ranging in time from the prehistoric period to the 1990s. The principal communities and regional areas studied in the file are Snowdrift, the Great Slave Lake area, Elk River and upper Thelon River in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut; Wollaston Lake, Stony Rapids, Black Lake, Patuanak, Isle a la Crosse, Knee Lake, and Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan; Fort Chipewyan in Alberta; and Churchill in Manitoba. Major emphasis in the file is on the three communities of Patuanak (studied by Jarvenpa and Brumbach), Black Lake (studied by Sharp), and Snowdrift (by VanStone). Other documents deal with general Chipewyan ethnography and with the other communities and regions listed above -- e.g., the Wollaston Lake region (Irimoto, 1981, no. 4), the Isle a la Crosse region (Jarvenpa, 1984, no. 45), the Great Slave Lake region (Helm, 1993, no. 24; D.M. Smith, 1990, 1998, 1992, nos. 59, 33, 31); etc. There are five major works in this file which provide a comprehensive survey of Chipewyan ethnology. These are: J.G.E. Smith (1981, no. 1), VanStone (1961, no. 2), Birket-Smith (1930, no. 17), Hearne (1958, no. 39), and D.M. Smith (1982, no. 57). The two studies by J.G.E. Smith (1981, no. 1) and D.M. Smilth (1982, no. 57), are reconstructive ethnographies, using data from the eighteenth century to re-create traditional Chipewyan culture. These documents provide information on the Chipewyan language, the environment, territory occupied, the history of Indian-white contacts, and the effects of these contacts on the native culture. Although the wide range of ethnographic information presented in the VanStone document pertains primarily to the village of Snowdrift, it is equally applicable to other Chipewyan groups in the area. This work contains a great deal of information on the annual cycle, subsistence activities, trade, employment, and government assistance programs.

Birket-Smith's monograph is a "classic" study of Chipewyan ethnography relevant through the first quarter of the twentieth century. This document places heavy emphasis on material culture but also contains data on the subsistence economy, settlement patterns, geography, social organization, amusements, religious beliefs, mythology, and the cultural position of the Chipewyan in relationship to other ethnic groups. Hearne's study of the Chipewyans is of particular historical significance because it represents one of the earliest accounts of Chipewyan-European contacts. The author was an astute observer and recorder of Chipewyan culture during his lengthy journeys through Manitoba, what is now Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories of Canada during the eighteenth century. His notes on the various Chipewyan groups that he met in his travels represent one of the earliest accounts of traditional native American culture and society.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

This culture summary was written by Henry S. Sharp in December 1999. The synopsis and indexing notes were written by John Beierle in January 2000. The Human Relations Area Files also wishes to acknowledge with thanks the suggestions offered by Henry S. Sharp in the selection of additional bibliographical items for this file.

Overview by

John Beierle

camp -- a temporary aggregation of people at the same location; theoretically an aggregation of hunting units -- categories 596, 621

domestic unit -- an elementary family -- category 594

Hudson Bay Company -- categories 443, 366, 439

hunting unit -- siblings, their parents, and their spouses and children -- category 596

INKOZE -- supernatural knowledge as well as power -- category 771 as causality; category 778 as power

medicine fight -- category 754

minimal hunting unit -- a hunting unit which may correspond to a domestic unit which is typically but not always composed of an elementary family -- category 594

non-treaty Indians -- generally Metis -- category 563

Northern Cooperative Trading Service -- category 474

sasquatch (or Bigfoot) -- category 776

SILOT'INE -- bilateral kindred -- category 612

sub-chiefs -- category 624

treaty day -- categories 648, 527

Indexing Notes by

John Beierle

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