The Subarctic Indians and the Fur Trade, 1680-1860Book - 1986
Using the accounts of fur traders, explorers, officials, andmissionaries, Colin Yerbury documents the profound changes that sweptover the Athapaskan-speaking people of the Canadian subarctic followingEuropean contact. He challenges, with a rich variety of historicaldocuments, the frequently articulated view that there is a generalcultural continuity from the pre-contact period to the twentiethcentury.
Leaving to the domain of the archaeologists the pre-historic periodwhen all the people of the vast area from approximately 52N to the edgeof the tundra and from Hudson Bay to Alaska were hunters, fishers, andgatherers subsisting entirely on native resources, Yerbury focuses onthe Protohistoric and Historic Periods. The ecological andsociocultural adaptations of the Athapaskans are explored through thetwo centuries when they moved from indirect contact to dependency onthe Hudson Bay trading posts. For nearly one hundred years prior to1769 when North West Company traders began to establish tradingrelationships in the heart of Athapaskan territory, contacts withEuropeans were almost entirely indirect, conducted through Chipewyanmiddlement who jealously guarded their privileged access to theposts.
The boundaries of the indirect trade areas fluctuated owing tointertribal rivalries, but generally, the hardships of travel overgreat distances prevented the Athapaskans from establishing directcontact with the posts. The pattern was only broken by the gradualexpansion of the traders themselves into new regions. But, as Yerburyshows, it is a mistake to believe significant sociocultural change onlybegan when posts were established. In fact, technological changes andeconomic adjustments to facilitate trade had already transformedAthapaskan groups and integrated them into the European commercialsystem by the opening of the Historic Era.
The Early Fur Trade Period (1770-1800) was characterized by localtrade centered on a few posts where Indians were simultaneously posthunters, trappers, and traders as well as middlemen. But the followingCompetitive Trade Period before the amalgamation of the fur companiesin 1821 saw ruinous and violent feuding which had devastating effectson traders and natives alike. During these years there were greatqualitative changes in the native way of life and the debt system wasintroduced.
Finally, in the Trading Post Dependency Period, monopoly controlbrought peace and stability to the native population through theformation of trading post bands and trapping parties in the Athapaskanand Mackenzie Districts. This regularization of the trade andproliferation of new commodities represented a further basictransformation in native productive relations, making trade a necessityrather than a supplement to furnishing native livelihoods.
By detailing this series of changes, The Subarctic Indians andthe Fur Trade, 1680-1860 furthers understanding of how theHudson's Bay Company and then government officials came to play anincreasing role that the Dene themselves now wish to modifydrastically.