Subarctic Peoples

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

The term “Subarctic peoples” describes a number of different and unique groups, including the Dene, Cree, Ojibwa, Atikamekw, Innu and Beothuk. The Subarctic region consists largely of a five million square kilometre zone of boreal forest extending from the arctic tundra south to the mountains, plains and deciduous forest in the mid-section of the country. West to east, it extends from the Bering Sea to Labrador.

Most peoples of the Eastern Subarctic belong to the Algonquian language family, while those of the Western Subarctic are generally part of the Athapaskan (also known as Dene) family. Northern Subarctic Algonquians, including the Atikamekw and Innu of Québec and Labrador, speak Cree dialects, and Algonquians to the south speak Ojibwa dialects. The Beothuk of Newfoundland spoke a language of uncertain affinity. Linguists have identified more than 20 different Northern Dene languages within the Western Subarctic, including Alaska (see Aboriginal People, Languages).




Aboriginal peoples of the Subarctic lived by hunting, including large game like moose, fishing, trapping and gathering wild plants. Farming was not practical within their territory. Since game animals were thinly distributed over vast territories in the boreal forest, population densities were modest. Some scholars estimate that the entire area may have supported as few as 60,000 people.


Subarctic Aboriginal peoples typically lived in communities of 25-30 people. Each group moved frequently within a well-defined territory as game supplies changed from season to season and from year to year. A group's size and the nature of its annual economic cycle were strongly influenced by the availability of local resources.

Because of their mobile existence, northern forest peoples built shelters constructed of easily transported skin covers and of locally available materials such as bark. Dwellings varied considerably depending on local materials and traditions, but in all areas they were designed to be heated and lit by a single fire. They did not usually accommodate more than two families.

Most Aboriginal people of the Subarctic were organized into bands or groups of people who spoke the same language dialect and were related by kinship and common traditions. Most Subarctic bands did not have formal chiefs before European contact. People aligned themselves with individuals who manifested leadership and took the responsibility for specific tasks such as trading, war or communal hunting. Most adult men and women participated in decisions that affected the band. Families or individuals who did not agree with a particular decision were free to join another band or camp, or to act on their own for a time. Subarctic people were noted for the value they placed on personal autonomy as well as for the flexibility of their social organization. These characteristics helped them respond to the opportunities and limitations of their environment.


Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Aboriginal People: Subarctic