It is estimated that when the Europeans arrived in North America, the land that makes up Canada was already populated with 500,000 native people. Each tribe had its own hunting and fishing grounds and lived pretty much to themselves. They had learned to live with what was available to them and had rich cultures which they developed and passed down through the generations.
The Inuit lived, and still do, in the far north where it is cold and snowy most of the time. Their main food was meat and blubber. They built igloos (houses built of snow blocks) and also lived in tents made of caribou or seal skin. They burned seal oil for heat and to cook their food. They used dog teams to pull their sledges. They also invented the kayak and the umiak. The kayak was a one-person boat made for hunting from skins stretched over a bone framework. The skins would draw right up around the waist of the person so that it would be water-tight. The umiak was a larger boat also made from skins stretched over a bone framework. It could fit entire families and could be used for hunting whales.
The Subarctic People lived in the cold northern forests all across Canada. They were nomadic following the animals they depended on for food as they migrated. They hunted moose, caribou, and deer and some smaller animals such as rabbit and beaver.
The East Coast People depended on the wildlife of the forest for their food. They moved their camps whenever it became hard to find food. They lived in wigwams during the winter that looked like the tipis of the Plains people but were usually covered with birch bark or rushes. They made canoes constructed of spruce and covered with birch bark.
The Eastern Woodlands Farmers lived in villages in large longhouses made from a framework of poles and covered in birch or elm bark. Although they did hunt small animals, they were farmers and therefore didn’t move around very often. The women looked after the longhouses and did the farming. They grew three crops: beans, squash and corn which they called the Three Sisters. They recorded the history of their tribe and the laws and customs on Wampum belts using beads made from sea shells. The keeper of the wampum belt memorized the visual and symbolic stories and relayed them to the next keeper of the belt.
The Plains People lived on level, grass covered country. They lived in tipis made of poles and buffalo skin which could be easily folded for carrying whenever they decided to move on. They followed the buffalo herds which they depended on for food, clothing and shelter. Originally they kept dogs who could drag heavy loads with the use of a travois. When the Europeans brought horses to North America, they quickly learned to use them. The different tribes spoke different languages so they developed a sign language that had around 750 different signs so they could communicate with each other.
The Mountain People lived in the valleys and plateaus of the Rocky Mountains. They left mysterious paintings on the sides of cliffs and boulders that can still be seen today.
The Totem Tribes lived along the Pacific coast. They lived in large one-room cedar lodges that housed 40-60 people. They carved majestic totem poles that told the history of the clans who carved them. They made colourful masks for ritual dances and ceremonies. Their main food was the salmon which came up the coastal rivers every year, but they also hunted sea otters, porpoises, seals and halibut in cedar dug out canoes.
Sadly the population of native people dropped rapidly when Europeans arrived bringing new diseases and taking over traditional hunting grounds.
PROJECT: What native people lived or lives close to you? Find out more about them: their way of life, their legends, their crafts, and how they keep their culture alive today.