Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Camping and Camp Circles Among 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.]



Each North American tribe claimed a certain locality as its habitat and dwelt in communities or villages about which stretched its hunting grounds. As all the inland people depended for food largely on the gathering of acorns, seeds, and roots, the catching of salmon when ascending the streams, or on hunting for meat and skin clothing, they camped in makeshift shelters or portable dwellings during a considerable part of the year. These dwellings were brush shelters, the mat house and birch-bark lodge of the forest tribes, and the skin tent of the plains. The rush mats of different sizes, woven by the women, were rolled into a long bundle when a party was travelling. The oblong frame was made of saplings tied together with bark fibre. The longest and widest mats were fastened outside the frame to form the walls, and smaller ones were overlapped to make a rain-proof roof, an opening being left in the middle for the escape of the smoke from the central fire. For the skin tent, 10 to 20 poles were cut and trimmed by the men and preserved from year to year. To tan, cut, fit, and sew the skin cover and to set up the tent was the special work of women. Dogs formerly transported the long tent poles by means of travois, but, in later years, they were dragged by ponies.


Hunting, visiting or war parties were more or less organized. The leader was generally the head of a family or of a kindred group, or he was appointed to his office with certain ceremonies. He decided the length of a day's journey and where the camp should be made at night. As all property, save a man's personal clothing, weapons, and riding horses, belonged to the woman, its care during a journey fell upon her. On the tribal hunt the old men, the women and children, and the laden ponies formed the body of the slowly moving procession, protected on either side by the warriors, who walked or rode, encumbered only by their weapons. The details of the camp were controlled by the women, except with war parties, when men did the work.


When a camping place was reached the mat houses were erected as most convenient for the family group, but the skin tents were set up in a circle, near of kin being neighbours. If danger from enemies was apprehended, the ponies and other valuable possessions were kept within the space inclosed [sic] by the circle of tents. Long journeys were frequently undertaken for friendly visits or for intertribal ceremonies. When travelling and camping the people kept well together under their leader, but when near their destination, the party halted and dispatched one or two young men in gala dress with the little packet of tobacco to apprise the leading men of the village of their approach. While the messengers were gone the prairie became a vast dressing room, and men, women and children shook off the dust of travel painted their faces, and donned their best garments to be ready to receive the escort which was always sent to welcome the guests.


When the tribes of the buffalo country went on their annual hunt, ceremonies attended every stage, from the initial rites, when the leader was chosen, throughout the journeyings, to the thanksgiving ceremony which closed the expedition. The long procession was escorted by warriors selected by the leader and the chiefs for their trustiness and valour. They acted as a police guard to prevent any straggling that might result in personal or tribal danger, and they prevented any private hunting, as it might stampede a herd that might be in the vicinity. When on the annual hunt the tribe camped in a circle and preserved its political divisions, and the circle was often a quarter of a mile or more in diameter. Sometimes the camp was in concentric circles, each circle representing a political group of kindred. The Dakota call themselves the "seven council fires," and say that they formerly camped in two divisions or groups, one composed of 4 and the other of 3 concentric circles. The Omaha and close cognates, when on the annual buffalo hunt and during the great tribal ceremonies camped in a circle. Each of the 10 Omaha gentes had its unchangeable place in the line. The women of each gene knew where their tents belonged, and when a camping ground was reached each drove her ponies to the proper place, so that when the tents of the tribe were all up each gene was in the position to which it was entitled by the regulations that were connected with ancient beliefs and customs. For particular ceremonies, especially the great annual sun dance, the Kiowa, Cheyenne , and others camped in a circle made up of the different political divisions in fixed and regular order.


The tribal circle, each segment composed of a clan, gene, or band, made a living picture of tribal organization and responsibilities. It impressed upon the beholder the relative position of kinship groups and their interdependence, both for the maintenance of order and government within and for defense against enemies from without, while the opening to the E. and the position of the ceremonial tents recalled the religious rites and obligations by which the many parts were held together in a compact whole.


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. 75-76.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College