Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


The Environment of the Indians of Canada



[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 natural phenomena that surrounded the aborigines of North America , stimulating and conditioning their life and activities, contrasted greatly with those of the European-Asiatic continent. The differences in the two environments do not lie alone in physical geography and in plant and animal life, but are largely meteorologic, the sun operating on air, land, and water, producing variations in temperature and water supply, and as a result entirely new vegetal and animal forms. The planets and stars also affected cultural development, since lore and mythology were based on them. Within the American continent N. of Mexico there were ethnic environments which set bounds for the tribes and modified their industrial, aesthetic, social, intellectual, and religious lives. Omitting the [Inuit], practically all the peoples dwelt in the temperate zone. Few impassable barriers separated the culture areas, as in Asia. In some respects, indeed, the entire region formed one environment, having easy communications N. and S. and few barriers E. and W. The climate zones which Merriam has worked out for the U. S. Department of Agriculture in regard to their animal and vegetal life correspond in a measure with the areas of linguistic families as delimited on Powell's map. The environmental factors that determine cultural   development of various kinds and degrees are (1) physical geography; (2) climate, to which primitive peoples are especially amenable; (3) predominant plants, animals, and minerals that supply the materials of drink, food, medicines, clothing, ornaments, houses, fuel, furniture and utensils, and the objects of hunting, war, the industrial arts, and activities connected with travel, transportation, and commerce. Twelve ethnic environments may be distinguished. There are cosmopol­itan characters common to several, but in each area there is an ensemble of qualities that impressed themselves on their inhabitants and differentiated them [Only those pertaining to the Canadian environment have been reproduced.].


(1) Arctic. - The characteristics of this environment are an intensely cold climate; about six months day and six months night; predominance of ice and snow; immense archipelagos, and no accessible elevations: good stone for lamps and tools; driftwood, but no timber and little fruit; polar bear, blue fox, aquatic mammals in profusion, migratory birds, and fish, supplying food, clothing, fire, light, and other wants in the exacting climate


(2) Yukon-Mackenzie. - This is Merriam's transcontinental coniferous belt, separated from the arctic environment by the timber line, but draining into arctic seas. It has poor material resources, and barren grounds here and there. Its saving riches are an abundance of birch, yielding bark utensils, canoes, binding materials, and houses, and of spruce, furnishing textile roots and other necessaries; caribou, musk-ox, bear, red fox, wolf, white rabbit, and other fur-bearing mammals, and porcupines, migrating birds, and fish. Snow necessitates snowshoes of fine mesh, and immense inland waters make portages easy for bark canoes. Into this area came the Athapascan tribes who developed through its resources their special culture.


(8) St. Lawrence and Lake region. - This is a transition belt having no distinct lines of separation from the areas on the N. and S. It occupies the entire drainage of the great lakes and includes Manitoba , E. Canada and N. New England . It was the home of the Iroquois, Abnaki, Chippewa, and their nearest kindred. The climate is boreal. There are a vast expanse of lowlands and numerous extensive inland waters. The natural products are abundant - evergreens, birch, sugar maple, elm, berries, and wild rice in the w.; maize, squash and beans in the S.; moose, deer, bear, beaver, porcupines, land and water birds in immense flocks, whitefish, and, on the seacoast, marine products in greatest variety and abundance. Canoe travel; pottery scarce.


(7) Plains. - This environment lies between the Rocky mts. and the fertile lands W. of the Mississippi . To the N. it stretches into N. Alta. and Sask. , and it terminates at the S. about the Rio Grande . The tribes were Siouan, AIgonquian, Kiowan, Caddoan, and Shoshonean. The Missouri and Arkansas and many tributaries drain the area. The plants were bois d'arc, and other hard woods for bows, cedar for lodge poles, willows for beds, the pomme blanche for roots, etc., but there were no fine textile fibres. Dependence on the buffalo and the herbivorous animals associated with it compelled a meat diet, skin clothing and dwellings, a roving life, and industrial arts depending on the flesh, bones, hair, sinew, hide and horn. of those animals. Artistic and symbolic designs were painted on the rawhide, and the myths and tales related largely to the buffalo. Travel was on foot, with or without snowshoes, and transportation was effected by the aid of the dog and travois. The horse afterward wrought profound changes. The social order and habit of semi-nomadic wandering about fixed centres were the direct result of the surroundings and discouraged agriculture or much pottery. No canoes or other craft than the Mandan and Hidatsa skin boats.


(8) North Pacific coast. - From mount St. Elias to the Columbia mouth, lying along the archipelago and cut off from the interior by mountains covered with snow, was the area inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimeshian, Nootka, and coast Salish. It has a moist, temperate climate, a mountainous coast, with extensive, island groups and landlocked waters favourable to canoe travel. The shores are bathed by the warm current of the N. Pacific. The days in different seasons vary greatly in length. The material resources are black slate for carving and good stone for pecking, grinding and sawing; immense forests of cedar, spruce and other evergreen trees for houses, canoes, totem-posts, and basketry; mountain goat and bighorn, bear, beaver, birds, and sea food in great variety and in quantities inexhaustible by savages. This environment induced a diet of fish, mixed with berries, clothing of bark and hair, large communal dwellings, exquisite twined and checkered basketry to the discouragement of pottery, carving in wood and stone, and unfettered travel in dugout canoes, which provided opportunity for the full development of the dispersive clan system.


(9) Columbia-Fraser region. - This includes the adjoining basins of these streams and contiguous patches, inhabited principally by Salishan, Shahaptian, and Chinookan tribes. In the S. is a coast destitute of islands. At the headwaters of its rivers it communicates with the areas lying to the N. across the mountains. Rich lands, a mild climate, good minerals for industries, textile plants, excellent forests, and an abundance of edible roots and fruits, fish, molluscs, and waterfowl ready at hand characterize this environment, with skin and wool for clothing. The manifold resources and varied physical features fostered a great variety of activities.


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. 144-145.







© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College