Native Americans in Canada: Chipewyan

  • June 16, 2018      Joy Marie Salgado

Edmonton – In northern Canada, different tribes regularly interact with each other. The diverse yet similar lifestyles of the various communities bring life to the region. One of these communities is the Native American Chipewyan. They make friendly interactions and even intermarry with the Beavers, while they alternately trade and fight with the Cree and Inuit people.

Who are the Chipewyan?

Chipewyan Indians are original inhabitants of northern Canada who mainly reside in Alberta, Northern Territories, and Saskatchewan. Their name means "pointed skins" in the Cree language. This refers to the Chipewyan's distinctive pointed tunics. However, within their own villages, they prefer to call themselves Denesuline or Dene Suline. This means "people of the barrens" in their own language.

The language of the Denesuline is the same as that used by other neighboring tribes, especially those of the Cree and Métis. The group's identification as Dene is a bit confusing when used outside of their own community because other tribes may misunderstand what they are referring to with that term. Thus, many of the members of the Denesuline tribe simply identify as Chipewyan when they interact with outsiders.

Over time, Canada changed into a big society that has to bring order to its constituents. With this, the organization of the Chipewyan First Nation led to the division of the communities into different bands. Each of these bands has their own land under their control. Within these societies, they create and follow their own sets of laws, have their own government, services, and acts just like a small country. In this type of rule, elected tribal councils govern the band, unlike in the past where there is a chief or headman leading the community. This chief was chosen by the clan leaders and was screened based on his ability to lead, his family's prestige, and even his medicinal power. Nowadays, all of the Chipewyan are citizens of Canada and must follow Canadian law.

Language and Stories

Currently, the Chipewyan people mainly use English for communication, but they still speak their native Chipewyan language. Their form of communication may seem difficult to understand by non-native speakers because many of the sounds made in their language do not exist in English. However, it's good that their vernacular is being preserved even through some problems in maintaining consistent use in the younger generation. As every member of the tribe tries to interact better with all of the other diverse communities of Canada, language is the one that bridges most of them. So, English continues to be one of the major spoken languages in the region.

Aside from the language though, there are also the traditional legends, folktales, and fairy tales that bind the communities together. This is brought about by the Chipewyan Indian’s culture of storytelling. Similar to various tribes and ethnicities, they keep their culture and identity through the stories they share with their young ones and with other tribes. Storytelling, after all, is a wonderful means to reach out to various generations by keeping them engaged and interested in stories of their people.

Image from Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, https://www.facebook.com/Chipewyan-Prairie-First-Nation-129623883737134/