Chapter 3: The Plains Peoples—Allies, Conflict, Adaptation
In the heart of the Prairies, not far from where the Saskatchewan River puddles into Cumberland Lake, the Cree—probably the Assin’skowitiniwak or Rocky Cree—came to blows with a people known variously as the Atsina, Gros Ventre, or A’aninin. The Piikáni (a.k.a. Stoney, Piegan-Blackfoot) despised them and called them “Snakes.” Their identity is uncertain, in part because they were in all likelihood comprised of individuals and families drawn from Tsétsêhéstâhese (a.k.a. Cheyenne) and Arapaho backgrounds: their language was distinct and reputedly difficult to pick up. They arrived on the plains and parkland sometime around 1200 CE, having been chased out of their Wisconsin-area homeland by the Anishinaabeg. With a range that extended deep into what is now Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Atsina were among the first on the Northern Plains to acquire horses. At Cumberland Lake in 1793, however, they were just in the way.
The Cree, enjoying a population boom (or possibly a rebound), were expanding westward in the early eighteenth century, bringing with them the bounty of European trade goods acquired at Hudson’s Bay. They found eager buyers for guns among the Niitsitapi (a.k.a. Blackfoot) who, for their part, could provide bison robes and hides, as well as the newest transportation technology in the West: horses. The Atsina, eager to exploit and expand their own position as horse traders and wanting to benefit from a regular supply of guns, too, tried to intercede. Rather than giving their immediate neighbours guns, however, the Nêhiyawak (a.k.a. Plains Cree) preferred to send guns deep into the Niitsitapi Confederacy. At the same time, they stepped up their raids against the Atsina, wearing them down and pushing them out of the Saskatchewan valleys. In 1793, then, a party of Nêhiyawak ambushed a sixteen-lodge band of Atsina, slaughtering almost the entire population. Just as soon as they could regroup, Atsina warriors turned their anger against traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC), the source of guns wielded by the Nêhiyawak raiders. In the two decades that followed, the Atsina retreated from the Northern Plains, some of them evidently settling into the Mandan-Hidatsa villages, the principal trade mart of the region.
Why does this matter? Strong fences make good neighbours, it is said, and the Atsina/Gros Ventre/A’aninin/Snake were a strong fence, a valuable buffer state on the Prairies between the Niitsitapi and the Nêhiyawak. Once that was gone, matters on the Northern Plains were bound to change dramatically. Cree and Piikáni raids on northern Atsina positions opened a corridor for improved trade between the two powerhouses and, with the arrival of smallpox on the Plains in the 1780s, the Atsina were pushed farther and farther south, largely by the Nakoda Oyadebi (a.k.a. Nakota, Assiniboine). Southern Niitsitapi depended on Atsina cooperation in obtaining horses for decades and bridled a little at Cree-Nakoda Oyadebi attacks on their sometime-trade partners. But, by 1800, the Niitsitapi had direct and more reliable access to supplies of horses, as did the Nakoda Oyadebi. (One Canadian trader wrote, around 1799, that the Nêhiyawak were so desperate for horses that “If they can procure a gun they instantly give it to the Assiniboines in exchange for a horse.”) The war with the Atsina opened space for the Nêhiyawak; it also meant that the HBC could venture farther inland without fear. Once Edmonton House was in place, the Piikáni in particular had no more need of their Nêhiyawak suppliers of guns. In 1806, the Niitsitapi Confederacy broke off their fragile alliance with the Iron Confederacy (the Nêhiyawak-Nakoda Oyadebi- Anihšināpē); conflict between these two parties sharply intensified over the seven decades that followed as each became better-supplied with guns and horses. Pushing the Atsina into the Mandan-Hidatsa camp, however, meant that there was less of a welcome for the Nêhiyawak and Nakoda Oyadebi at the trade marts. Nêhiyawak aggression and expansion was rapidly complicating life on the Northern Plains.
This chapter looks at the Indigenous peoples of the Prairies within the context of trade, resources, relationships, and competition across the interior of North America and how that was influenced by the addition of Atlantic commerce. We also consider the ways in which new technologies and environmental change transformed Plains cultures in particular into mobile food-production factories, mounted cavalries, and merchant brigades.
Finding the West
What Canadians today describe as “the West” or “the Prairies” is far from a monolithic landscape of grasslands. Rolling, tree-covered parkland covers enormous tracts, and whole nation-states could be lost in the vast expanse of lowlands and marshes around Hudson’s Bay. There are, as well, dramatically sculpted drylands, the resource-rich foothills of the Rocky Mountain range, and the Precambrian Shield of the North—a region that is so pockmarked with lakes as to be as much water as land. There is no natural boundary to the south, which means that the peoples of the parklands and plains in the North were residents, neighbours, relatives, allies, clients, and adversaries of peoples located across the Great Plains.
Likewise, there is no monolithic “Western Indian” culture, despite the persistence of Hollywood images and the simplicity of some historical narratives. Partly the substantial differences one encounters within regions and across even a single language group reflect the variety of economic niches in which western and northern peoples operated. The Cree offer several useful examples.
No modern identity term can capture the enormity and nature of the Cree world. Their traditional territories extend from the Rocky Mountains (associated with the Nêhiyawak), across the parklands (dominated by the Nîhithaw and Assin’skowitiniwak, a.k.a. Woodland and Rocky Cree), to the lowlands around Hudson’s and James Bay (homelands of the Maskiki Wi Iniwak, Mushkegowuk, Maskekon, and Mōsōni, a.k.a. Swampy Cree), and into northern Québec and Labrador (the territory of the Innu, a.k.a. Montagnais and Naskapi). The Cree have been for centuries, if not millennia, mobile and interconnected peoples whose Algonquian dialects are distinct but related. Their collective territory is the largest associated with any one Indigenous people in what is now Canada, both currently and over the last six hundred years or so. On the Prairies they emerged in recent centuries as effective bison hunters, while in the parkland they survived on a much more varied diet, and in the lowlands on fowl and fish. These food sources did much to determine divisions of labour and social organization. A bison hunt requires—and, when effective, can feed—much larger numbers than snaring rabbits or weiring/spearing fish. The Montagnais (a.k.a. Neenoilno) and Naskapi branches of the Innu alone can be differentiated by the less migratory former and the caribou-hunting latter. Horses, too, are of much greater use on the Plains than in the swampy lands of the Northeast and across the Canadian Shield. These are superficial and obvious distinctions, but worth making at the outset because of the complexity of the Cree domain.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
It is interesting to note how the term “fur trader” has come to be used. Typically, it only denotes the European or Canadian who exchanges goods for pelts. The people who capture, prepare, and transport furs and hides across vast distances (as much as a thousand kilometres annually in some cases) are not, conventionally, called “fur traders.” And yet, that is their job description: trade furs. What’s more, when we look more closely at Indigenous participants, the trapping of some animals (especially smaller mammals, like rabbits) was explicitly women’s work, as was the scraping and treating of hides. This was true, too, of goods heading south to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages: many of those were prepared and—in the days of the travois, before horses—packed by women. The production—from catching to cleaning and presenting—of foods that sustained the HBC personnel around York Factory and elsewhere was also “women’s work.” This included involvement in local fisheries and the lively trade in swan meat and feathers. And yet, representations of so much of the fur trade, in print and in pictures, is of a men-only industry.
Borders between Indigenous peoples in the North and west have never been precise, nor have they been unchanging. The Niitsitapi, for example, are thought to have originated as far east as Maine and migrated—roughly in parallel with the Anishinaabe—west through the Great Lakes and then onto the Northern Plains sometime around 1300. Arriving in what are now the borderlands between Alberta and Montana, they eventually pushed the resident Ktunaxa (a.k.a. Kutenai, Kootenay) off the Prairies, over the foothills, and across the mountains into what is now southeastern British Columbia. The Anihšināpē (a.k.a. Nahkawininiwak, Saulteaux, Plains Ojibwa, Chippewa) extended their reach into the Red River Valley of southern Manitoba in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were pushed, as many nations were, by increased competition for land between Indigenous peoples in the Ohio Basin and settler societies. Similarly, the Atsina shifted gradually north and west into the Badlands and were followed in the late nineteenth century by the Lakota Sioux.
Rounding out the main peoples of this Indigenous landscape are the Athabaskan-speaking peoples of the North. Their territories reach from Hudson’s Bay west to the Yukon and the Pacific coast. Were it not for the presence of the Inuit around Mackenzie Bay, the Athabaskan-speakers would have waterfront on three seas. Of this complex and widespread people, the group that plays the most prominent role in the post-contact fur trade is the Dënesųlįné (a.k.a. Chipewyan), neighbours and adversaries of the Maskiki Wi Iniwak on northwest Hudson’s Bay.
Commerce and Conflict
Prior to the 1730s, peoples in the West moved about mainly by means of an extensive webwork of river systems. Where there were gaps, they walked. Homes were tipis, substantial conical tents consisting of long poles and sheets of animal hide. These were constructed, assembled, disassembled, and relocated by women—who were recognized as the tipi owners. Moving possessions over land from one seasonal location to another, from one trading opportunity to the next, involved carrying their possessions or dragging them—using a travois, pulled by dogs and people, usually women. Mostly, however, these were riverine peoples whose homelands drained either into Hudson’s Bay via the Saskatchewan Rivers or the Red and Assiniboine system, or south into the Mississippi from the Milk River and the Missouri. These river systems circulate through the interior of the continent, allowing Maskiki Wi Iniwak merchants along Hudson’s Bay to send goods into Niitsitapi territory, where the same goods might be carried south to the Milk and then to the junction of the Heart and Missouri, where the Mandan and Hidatsa trade marts were located. Or the Cree party could double back via the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine to Red River, and then south and west to the watershed between the Souris, the Sheyenne, and the Missouri, and then on to the Mandan villages. Another alternative was to square the circle from the Assiniboine/Red by heading downstream (north) into Manitoba’s lakes and home to Hudson’s Bay. If the Mi’kmaq can be said to occupy an “empire of islands,” the Western Cree dominated an empire of rivers. Their hold on this territory tightened after 1700.
Regional economic specialization didn’t stop at the forty-ninth parallel, not before or after contact with Europe. The Mandan-Hidatsa were the last remaining agrarian societies in the Northern Plains; consequently, goods reached their trade mart from every direction. The Mandan-Hidatsa were influenced by the Mississippian cultures and, much later, the expansionist Comanche Confederacy and their Shoshone (a.k.a. Shoshoni) relatives, as well as the French and Spanish intruders along the Mississippi in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The trade marts opened with two days of welcoming festivities and pronouncements of fair trading and goodwill, all of which was forgotten when the hardnosed villagers pressed their advantage in trade. It was thanks, in large part, to the Mandan-Hidatsa commercial system that horses reached the Northern Plains in the 1730s, initiating a revolution in economic activities, conflict, and human mobility. Shoshone bows, reckoned to be the best on the Great Plains, were also sold on through the trade marts, as were crafts, furs, and hides.
Access to trade good sources was assiduously guarded on all sides. The Shoshone dominated the horse trade in the Northern Plains (across what is now the borderlands between the US and Canada) and worked hard to keep horses out of the hands of their rivals, the Niitsitapi and Nêhiyawak. The Mandan-Hidatsa were consummate managers of supply lines and knew that a European/Canadian/American fur trade presence farther west would reduce their monopolistic control—onto which they held until smallpox undid them in the 1830s. Similarly, the Sioux taxed Nakoda Oyadebi traders—financially and physically—as they attempted to access the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. The Maskiki Wi Iniwak established “home guard” encampments outside the Hudson’s Bay Company’s York Factory post in the 1680s, and for the next two centuries charged fur-packing Indigenous merchants from farther west for the privilege of trading with the British, or they simply took on the role of full-time intermediaries and middlemen. As French, French-Canadien, and Anglo-Canadian traders appeared in the region west of the Red River Valley in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, other Cree and, later and farther north, Dënesųlįné set up similar buffers around new posts and forts. There were symbiotic elements to these relationships, home guards protecting the merchant forts while gleaning benefits from the trade opportunities that drew in other traders.
The movement of the Cree into the Prairies has been placed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, perhaps earlier. Certainly, the increased migration and acclimatization of the Swampy and Woods Cree to the Prairies was spurred by new commercial developments. Beginning in the late 1600s, European traders were anchoring their ships in Hudson’s Bay and James Bay. In the Eastern coves and river deltas, this allowed the Innu to choose between trade in the North and trade on the St. Lawrence. These two marketplaces were separated by significant distances, but seasonal migrations and networks of trade brought both within reach of the region’s Cree. To the west, the Mōsonī (a.k.a. Moose Cree) took advantage of the HBC’s Moose Factory, which gave them more direct access to European goods than they had enjoyed through the Wendat two generations earlier. A fourth fort—York Factory—was built in 1684 between the Nelson and Hayes Rivers. French naval and commercial interests attacked these positions and tried to lure away Cree traders with competitive trade goods. This put the Innu in a particularly good position to haggle and demand improvements on the quality of British goods. (It has even been suggested that insistent Cree consumers directed British gun-makers to significantly improve their product—mechanically and aesthetically—in a process that contributed to an emergent industrial revolution in England. Likewise, “the stuff of the Americas,” including beavers fashioned into top hats—and Indigenous people both real and imagined—helped make the city of London itself. )
For the Maskiki Wi Iniwak on the west shore of Hudson’s Bay, where there was no hope of whipsawing European traders against one another, their own long-established backward linkages were key to their success. For almost the whole of the eighteenth century, the HBC personnel “slept by the Bay,” not venturing further inland and relying on the various “Swampy Cree” to bring the furs to their posts. In most histories of Canada, this is pointed to as the British company’s critical failing; it is presented as a kind of entrepreneurial lethargy that gave the French and then Anglo-Montréalers an advantage in the West. For the better part of a century, however, it was the Maskiki Wi Iniwak, Mōsōni, and their lowland neighbours who enjoyed the real advantage. They were able to obtain European goods directly and in large quantities. These could then be traded on through their various networks to Niitsitapi, Nakoda Oyadebi, and Anihšināpē allies. The Nakoda Oyadebi—tough prairie fighters before and after the arrival of horses—were instrumental in getting those British goods through Sioux lines to the Mandan-Hidatsa trade marts. More and more lowland Cree were, as a consequence of the success of these trade expeditions, spending greater amounts of time farther in the western parklands and prairies.
It was in the company of their Nakoda Oyadebi friends that these Cree adopted the principal features of Plains societies: bison hunting, larger and more tightly organized family units, and elements of a militarized culture. Because the “Plains Cree” as a culture evolved around the time of the arrival of horses, the Nêhiyawak were almost from the start a mounted society with an increased range and a competitive advantage. Cree leadership models were changeable under these circumstances. Smaller foraging communities might get by with a patriarch-style leader tacitly selected by dint of their ability to provide and protect; bison-hunting communities, by contrast, could consist of many lodges and upwards of 200 people, leading to a more specialized and even hierarchical civil leadership. In these Nêhiyawak societies, a leader’s credentials had to include ability as an orator, a provider, and a warrior. The Plains societies’ practice of “counting coup”—an act of courage in raids or battle—was a key part of a leader’s list of accomplishments. Nêhiyawak women, for their part, were conduits for cultural change. Whether voluntarily or otherwise, Plains women moved from one camp and one nation to another, bringing with them older Plains traditions in clothes-making, tipi design, and food cultures. In this last respect, Nêhiyawak (and Nakoda Oyadebi) women read the landscape as a larder with a huge array of nutrients and flavours, as well as strategic opportunities. One account from Pembina in 1801 describes women taking advantage of a bison herd frozen solid in the river: they “harvested the buffalo for the entire month of April, processing meat, tongues, and tallow until the weather warmed and the flesh was too decomposed to be useful.” Through extensive economic activity and the production of necessities like clothing, snowshoes, caulking for canoes, and tons of pemmican, Nêhiyawak women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries literally made the Plains culture.
Not to be left out of this picture, the Anihšināpē controlled access to the Red River (which provided another avenue into Mandan-Hidatsa territory) and links through the Council of Three Fires to Montréal-based trade lines. The Nêhiyawak/Nakoda Oyadebi/Anihšināpē alliance—the Iron Confederacy—thus had access to British and French guns, Shoshone bows, Mandan-Hidatsa trade marts, and clients among the Niitsitapi who could supply horses. The Iron Confederacy emerges in the eighteenth century as a powerhouse of commerce and a culturally vibrant, adaptive peoples whose population was growing faster than their neighbours’.
The counter-balance to Cree ascendancy on the Northern Plains—and a peoples who loom large in Western Canadian history—is the Niitsitapi (a.k.a. Blackfoot) Confederacy. Spread across what is now Alberta and some of western Saskatchewan, the Niitsitapi included the Piikáni (Piegan), Káínaa (Bloods), Siksika (Siksikáwa, Blackfoot), and the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee). They claim ancestral territories stretching from the North Saskatchewan River (at Edmonton) to the Yellowstone River in Montana. Like the Cree, their commercial interests pulled them into the Mandan-Hidatsa sphere of influence. But the Niitsitapi were geographically closer to the horse-trading and breeding nations to the southwest and so became a mounted people earlier. While horses provided obvious advantages in raids and in the bison hunt (although new skills had to be learned and drilled, of course), it was as a pack animal that the horse had the greatest impact. Able to carry or pull vastly more than dogs, the horse made it possible for the Niitsitapi to acquire and move material wealth. This catalyzed the production and display of the grand and splendid ceremonial wear that would become a prominent outward expression of Plains culture.
Having suffered badly in the smallpox epidemic of 1781–83, the Niitsitapi Confederacy found itself targeted by its principal enemies: the Shoshone and Ktunaxa. In response, the Niitsitapi mounted a highly effective counterassault that cleared the region of all competition and replenished their own numbers with captives. The turmoil of these years introduced a period of growth and authority in the Prairie west for the Niitsitapi. In 1795, they had direct access to European manufactured goods at what the Niitsitapi variously call omukoyis, titunga, and nasagachoo: Fort Edmonton, an HBC post. Because of the barriers erected and maintained by the Iron Confederacy, and because of the distances involved, the Niitsitapi had been insulated from direct contact with Europeans. Now regular contact with Europeans was a reality, and the Niitsitapi were suddenly freed from dependency on the Nêhiyawak for guns.
When historians look at this period of Nêhiyawak ascendancy in particular, the focus is often on the conflict it aroused. The Nêhiyawak-Niitsitapi alliance unraveled in 1806, and raids across the southern Prairies accelerated. In part, this was a continuation and even an extension of the status-winning business of “counting coup.” It also reflected changed demographic and economic conditions. Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains in general were rebuilding post-epidemic population numbers and pursuing the bison herds with unprecedented energy, both for food and for trade. Competition from the Métis of the Red-Assiniboine valleys and the Lakota Sioux occupied the southeastern flank of the Plains, while the Atsina held on by their fingernails to the Cypress Hills. American traders and cavalries became a new factor in the West, bringing with them the smallpox that destroyed the Mandan-Hidatsa villages in the late 1830s and pitching everyone into even more tense competition and instability. It was also in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that employees of the HBC and the NWC were killing one another in the literally cut-throat “fur trade wars.” Despite this long list of conflict-laden developments and ruptures, what deserves to be emphasized is continuity, fluidity, and adaptability. The eighteenth and the nineteenth century was a period of fast-moving economic, social, and technological revolutions in the West and the North. People were being asked to make choices quickly as to how best preserve and advance their lives, cultures, and interests. It is, therefore, an exciting and possibly unparalleled historical era.
Reorienting the fur trade from the colony-to-nation narrative familiar to students of Canadian history to something that is more completely Indigenous is challenging. In part, it’s due to the sources of original information, informants, and the huge pile of historical literature that obscures other storylines. On the Pacific coast and in the Cordillera—that area between the Rockies and the sea—there are both additional challenges and tremendous resources for a closer understanding of commercial and political systems before, during, and after contact.
The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this chapter:
Bird, Louis. Our Voices. Last modified 2019. https://www.ourvoices.ca/index
Carlos, Ann, and Frank Lewis. Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. See esp. pp. 69–105.
Colpitts, George. “Peace, War, and Climate Change on the Northern Plains: Bison Hunting in the Neutral Hills during the Mild Winters of 1830–34.” Canadian Journal of History 50, no. 3 (2015): 420–41.
Ferguson, R. Brian, and Neil L. Whitehead. “The Violent Edge of Empire.” In War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, 1–30. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1992. (Pay special attention to pp. 23–25.)
Kheraj, Sean. “Dr. Sean Kheraj Question 2 – Transfer of Biota to Canada.” TRU, Open Learning. November 18, 2015. Video, 2:33. https://youtu.be/72mP5Y9JXUg
Kheraj, Sean. “Dr. Sean Kheraj Question 3 – Animals Introduced to Canada.” TRU, Open Learning. November 18, 2015. Video, 2:31. https://youtu.be/XPXQtdGKFX8
Lytwyn, Victor P. “The Lowland Cree before European Contact: Images and Reality.” In Muskekowuck Athinuwick: Original People of the Great Swampy Land, 27–40. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2002.
Milloy, John S. The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988.
Podruckny, Carolyn, and Laura Peers, eds. Gathering Places: Aboriginal and Fur Trade Histories. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.
Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Ray, Arthur J., and Donald Freeman. “Give Us Good Measure”: An Economic Analysis of Relations between the Indians and the Hudson’s Bay Company before 1763. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978. See esp. pp. 44–49, 218–28.
St-Onge, Nicole. “‘He Was neither a Soldier nor a Slave: He Was under the Control of No Man’: Kahnawake Mohawks in the Northwest Fur Trade, 1790–1850.” Canadian Journal of History 51, no. 1 (2016): 1–32.
- Alexander Henry the Younger, quoted in John Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War, 1790 to 1870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988), 35. ↵
- Mary E. Malainy, “The Gros Ventre/Fall Indians in Historical and Archaeological Interpretation,” Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXV, no. 1 (2005), 166–7. ↵
- Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis, Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 69–105. ↵
- Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (Princeton: Yale University Press, 2016), 15. ↵
- Sherry Farrell Racette, “Nimble Fingers and Strong Backs: First Nations and Métis Women in Fur Trade and Rural Economies,” in Carol Williams, ed., Indigenous Women and Work: From Labor to Activism (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 151. ↵