Aboriginal Peoples


Northeastern woodlands
Plains Indians
Nations of the Pacific
Subarctic Peoples
The Inuit

Terminology is a sensitive issue when dealing with Aboriginal peoples, as explained here:

"First Nations is the name used by Canada's Aboriginal or indigenous peoples, which refers to INDIAN peoples and may sometimes include the MÉTIS and INUIT. Terminology referring to Aboriginal or NATIVE PEOPLE is complex and is not always what Aboriginal persons would call themselves. The term "Indian" is defined as either a member of any of the Aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere (but excluding the Inuit and the Métis), or in the legal sense of the INDIAN ACT. The term "Inuit," replacing the term "ESKIMO" during the 1970s, identifies the people of northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and eastern Siberia. The Métis are Aboriginal people of mixed ancestry, Indian and French, English or Scottish background. Some Métis regard themselves as the only true Aboriginal or "original" peoples, since they alone emerged as a new group in North America."

From The Canadian Encyclopedia, "First Nations", http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-nations/


Today, to designate a first nation, the tendency is to use the term used by the native people of this nation. However, in the past, first nations were most often known by names chosen by Europeans, or borrowed from other native nations. For example, the term "Iroquois" is in fact an Algonquian term used to designate an enemy, Iroquoian-speaking nation. The appropriate term used by this nation to refer to itself is “Haudenosaunee”. There might therefore be differences in terminology between older maps and texts, and very recent ones.


In the same way, modern terminology no longer includes terms such as "the new world" or "discovery". This acknowledges the fact that these terms were misleading, since human habitation in North and South America has a long and complex history that predates by far the first contacts with Europeans.




The question of the origin of the first nations is politically and emotionally pregnant: Aboriginal peoples argue that their ancestors have always lived on the American continent and tell many different versions of a creation myth which says that life began on the American continent (see Iroquois creation story). This interpretation legitimizes and strengthens the Native Canadians’ claim to the land. But archaeologists and social scientists believe that aboriginals descend from Asian immigrants who crossed the Bering Strait fairly recently, about 15,000 years ago,  during the last ice-age when the sea-level was much lower than today.


More on Native creation stories: http://www.indians.org/welker/legend.htm









Estimates of the Native population of America at the time of the first contacts with Europeans vary greatly - from 30 to 100 million (the same figure as that of the population in Europe at the time). Canada included somewhere between 500,000 to 2 million people. Canada included at least 50 cultures, traditionnally classified into 12 linguistic groups.



Map of Indian Tribes and Linguistic Groups

Lawrence J. Burpee, editor, AN HISTORICAL ATLAS OF CANADA, Toronto, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1927 (map 7, p. 2)













Native peoples are often classified according to regional/cultural factors, since adaptability to a specific environment was an essential condition of survival and therefore shaped the social customs and the way of life of the group. Cultural identities therefore reflected how groups of people survived together and adapted to local environments to produce social systems, warfare and diplomacy patterns, as well as economic and trade practices.



Scholars generally consider that the Aboriginal peoples of pre-contact Canada can be classified into 6 main geographical/cultural groups:

  1. Arctic

  2. West Coast

  3. Plains

  4. Plateau

  5. Western Subarctic

  6. Eastern Woodlands


This classification is based on the categories developped in 1910 by Edward Sapir, the head of the Anthropology Division at Geological Survey of Canada, which later became the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Sapir established a new classification system based on the anthropological concept of culture area (that is, a geographical/cultural region whose peoples share important cultural traits, for example, they speak related languages and have similar material cultures and social structures). Sapir's classification was later adopted by the Smithsonian Institution’s 1978 Handbook of North American Indians, and continues to be used widely in scholarship.




Sources :

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Aboriginal Peoples: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people/

Canadian Museum of History, Gateway to Aboriginal Heritage, About the Map Divisions: http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/tresors/ethno/etb0101e.shtml

Canadian Museum of History, Gateway to Aboriginal Heritage, Map, Culture Areas, http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/tresors/ethno/etb0000e.shtml




This presentation will follow the traditional classification into several regional/cultural groups. However, it should be noted that despite the diversity in way of life and social customs that stemmed from their adaptation to the region where they lived, most North American Aboriginal peoples shared some features:

  • The central place of religion: there was a widespread belief in a divinity residing within living creatures as well as all natural objects, which explains the Native people's closeness to Nature

  • An excellent understanding of the natural world (botanical knowledge, medicinal use of plants, ingenious use of plants for transportation: birch canoe, snowshoes ...). This knowledge was passed on to the European newcomers and was crucial for their survival

  • A highly developed trade system based on established water routes, forest and prairie trails later used by Europeans.

  • A strong war tradition,  linked to Native rituals (male training). Torture and enslavement of captives was common

  • A relaxed attitude to sex and childrearing. No guilt, easy divorce, tolerance for homosexuality, little discipline for children


For detailed presentations of the Canadian First Nations, try those websites:




A wealth of exhibits on the cultures and histories of the First Peoples from the Canadian Museum of History



First Nations in Canada is an educational resource to help readers understand the significant developments affecting First Nations communities from the pre-Contact era (before the arrival of Europeans) up to the present day



The Canadian Encyclopedia's general article on Aboriginal Peoples, with links to articles on each of the 6 cultural areas



The Canadian Museum of History's resource documenting the histories and cultures of the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.