Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Domestication of Animals by Canadian Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The Indian learned a great deal from and was helped in his efforts by the actions of animals in their wild state. The period of domestication began when he held them in captivity for the gratification of his desires or they became attached to him for mutual benefit. In this process there are gradations:


1. Commensalism begins when food is left for serviceable animals to devour, so that these may give notice of danger or advantage. The coyote is said to reveal the presence of the mountain lion. Small animals are tolerated for their skins and flesh. Plants would be sown to attract such creatures as bees, and tame animals would be regularly fed at later stages.


2. Confinement is represented by such activities as keeping fish and other aquatic animals in ponds; caging birds and carrying off their young, gallinaceous fowl last; tying up dogs or muzzling them; corralling ruminants, and hobbling or tethering wild horses so as to have them near, keep them away from their enemies, or fatten them for eating. The aborigines had no difficulty in breeding some animals in confinement, but few wild birds will thus propagate, and the Indians could obtain those to tame only by robbing nests. Lawson says of the Congaree of North Carolina that "they take storks and cranes before they can fly and breed them as tame and familiar as dung-bill fowls."


3. Keeping animals for their service or produce, as dogs for retrieving game or catching fish, hawks for killing birds; various creatures for their fleece, hides, feathers, flesh, mills, etc., and taming them for amusement and for ceremonial or other purposes, were a later development. Roger Williams says the Narraganset Indians of Rhode Island kept tame hawks about their cabins to frighten small birds from the fields.


4. Actually breaking them to work, training dogs, horses, and cattle for packing, sledding, hauling travois, and, later, for riding, constitutes complete domestication.


In pre-Columbian times the dog was the most perfectly subdued animal of the North Americans, as much so as the llama in W. South America. But other species of mammals, as well as birds, were in different degrees rendered tractable. After the coming of the whites the methods of domesticating animals were perfected, and their uses multiplied. Moreover, horses, sheep, cattle, donkeys, hogs, and poultry were added to the list, and these profoundly modified the manners and customs of many Indian tribes.


Domestication of animals increased the food supply, furnished pets for old and young, aided in raising the Indian above the plane of low savagery, helped him to go about, multiplied his wants, furnished a standard of property and a medium of exchange, took the load from the back of women, and provided more abundant material for economic, artistic, and ceremonial purposes.


Domestication had a different development in each culture area. In the Arctic region the dog was pre-eminent; it was reared with unremitting care, the women often suckling the puppies; all its life it was trained to the sled. As the dogs were never perfectly tamed, it was no easy task to drive a team of them; yet by the aid of dogs and sleds, in combination with umiaks, the whole polar area of America was exploited by the [Inuit], who found these an excellent means of rapid transit from Asia to the Atlantic . In recent years the successful introduction of the reindeer among the Alaskan tribes has proved a blessing (reindeer has also successfully been introduced in N. W. Canada and Labrador ). The Mackenzie-Yukon district is a canoe country, and domestication of the dog was not vigorously prosecuted until the Hudson's Bay Company gave the stimulus. But southward, among the Algonquian and Siouan tribes of the Great lakes and the plains, this animal attained its beat as a hunter and a beast of burden and traction. It was also reared for food and for ceremonial purposes. Not more than 50 pounds could be borne by one dog, but twice that amount could be moved on a travois. The coming of the horse to the Great plains was a boon to the Indian tribes, all of which at once adopted the new instrument of travel and transportation. The horse was apotheosized; it became a standard of value, and fostered a greater diversity of occupations. But the more primitive methods of domestication were still practised throughout the middle region. In the N. Pacific area dogs were trained to hunt; but here and elsewhere this use of the dog was doubtless learned from the whites. Morice writes of the Athapascan tribes of the interior of British Columbia: "Owing to the semi-sedentary state of those Indians and the character of their country, only the dog was ever domesticated among them in the common sense of the word. This had a sort of wolfish aspect, and was small, with pointed, erect ears, and uniformly gray, circumstances which would seem to imply that the domesticating process had remained incomplete. The flesh of these wolf dogs was relished by the employees of the North West and Hudson 's Bay companies, who did not generally eat that of those of European descent. In a broader sense, those aborigines also occasionally domesticated and have continued to domesticate other animals, such as black bears, marmots, foxes, etc., which they took when young and kept as pets, tied up to the tent post or free. Such animals, as long as they remained in a state of subjection, were considered as members of the family and regarded as dogs, though often called by the endearing names of 'sons,' 'daughters,' 'grandsons,' etc. Birds were never caged, but might be seen at times hobbling about with the tips of their wings out."


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 130-131.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College