Aboriginal Perspectives


Background information for the 2010 grade 4 workshop

Vanessa Halas and Alexandra Poetker

Birch-Bark Biting

Birch-bark biting is an art form, where the artist used his/her eyeteeth to bite down on folded pieces of birch-bark to create intricate and symmetrical designs.  This ancient art form art form is native to the Ojibwe, Cree and other Algonquian peoples in North America. Traditionally, birch-bark biting was done by women. The artist folded up a piece of birch-bark small enough that it would fit into his/her mouth, and using a pattern visualized in his/her mind, he/she would bite along the folds of the birch bark to create intricate patterns and designs. Although the reason of birch-bark biting is undocumented, many theories have arisen, including using the art to create hunting and fishing maps, to pass cultural secrets between generations and as an equivalent of wampum belts to honor relations between groups. Birch-bark biting may also have been a means of experimenting with designs that might later be translated into porcupine quill or bead appliqué on bark containers or hide clothing.

For more information:

To see a different video than the one presented on the Aboriginal Perspectives website, check out:


Fur Trade and Trading Posts 

Before European contact, the Indigenous peoples of North America survived by using the resources off of the land. During this time, the system of government and culture were respected and celebrated.  In the early 1600’s, European ships sailed the coasts of the Americas, looking for a way to cross the land between Europe and China. In 1610, Captain Henry Hudson sailed his ship into a northern strait, which led into a wide bay. The next time Europeans came into the Hudson Bay, nearly fifty years later, the sailors were looking for fur, not China. King Charles of England asked the Frenchmen Radisson and Groseillier, as well as a number of wealthy Englishmen, to sail ships into the bay. They were hoping to bring back many furs, however storms and ice turned the first ship back to England. In September 1668, a second ship named the Nosuch reached the bay safely with Groseillier on board. The crew from the Nonsuch built a small fort where they lived for the winter, and in the spring, Indigenous people came to trade their furs. In June of 1669, the Nonsuch sailed back to England, arriving in October. The owners of the Nonsuch were so pleased with the furs that they decided to form a company that would send ships every year to trade on the bay. The king gave the newly formed company a monopoly of trade in the area. This meant that no one else would be allowed to trade there, and all of the collected furs must only be sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. At first, the Europeans returned to England with the ships each year. However, soon the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built trading posts that allowed the Europeans to live at the post all year round. Many of the European men developed relationships with the First Nations women and the resulting children would come to be known as Métis. Métis people were valuable during the fur trade as they could speak the languages of the Indigenous people and were reliable and resourceful.

Fur Trader’s at the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post

Trading was not a foreign concept to Indigenous people, as they traded everything from copper tools to pottery amongst themselves. The Indigenous people did not use money in their trading, but the Europeans used a currency system. In the trading between these two groups, the beaver pelt became the currency. The beaver has two kinds of fur. Next to its skin is a warm, woolly coat and over this wool grows long, silky guard hairs. Tokens were made and items to be traded were measured against the value of a beaver pelt. For example, four martens were equal to one beaver. European traders brought along with them a number of items, which they knew would assist Indigenous people in their daily lives. These items had a trading value in terms of beaver pelts. For example, in one list of goods, one gun cost twelve beaver pelts.

Fur traders from New France (Quebec) paddled their canoes southwest to trade. The main difference between these traders and the HBC traders is that they were mobile when trading and met the Indigenous people to trade, rather than waiting for them to come to a trading post. Among the traders who travelled west were Pierre Gaultier de Varenesse, Sieur de La Verendrye and his fifty men. La Verendrye built a number of trading posts along the rivers for the Indigenous people to bring their furs to the French instead of taking the furs as far as the Hudson Bay. The French soon became a strong force in the West and posts had been built as far as the Saskatchewan River. There was a constant battle for power between the French and the English. At one point, the French captured the English post on the Hudson Bay and the English captured Quebec. A seven-year war between France and England in the seventeenth century put the fur trade on hold. The Treaty of Paris in 1763, at the end of the seven-year way put an end to France’s position as a major colonial power in the Americas.

By this time, fur traders from the British colony began to travel into the western plains looking for furs. At first, most of these peddlers worked alone, travelling for long periods of time to the plains and back to Montreal. In 1784, a group of peddlers came together to form the North West Company (NWC) and a few years later, another large group of traders joined in as well. The NWC had two partners: the Montreal partners who sold furs and bought trade goods and the partners who stayed in the west and traded with the Indigenous people, known as the wintering partners.

Fur traders at Montreal
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1990-329-1)

In 1821, the HBC and NWC joined together under one name. The new company would still be known as the Hudson’s Bay Company because it was the HBC that, under the Royal Charter, still controlled the route from the Hudson Bay.

The fur trade slowly dissolved, partially due to the lack of furs and partially due to the lack of Indigenous people willing to assist in trapping and trading furs. The change in style in Europe from fur to silk was the final blow to the North American Fur Trade. At the end of the fur trade, many traders went to work in mines, in lumber and on the railroad.

For more information:

  • Neering, Rosemary. The Fur Trade. Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1985.

    This book provides extensive information of the North American fur trade in an accessible way.
  • http://www.metisnation.ca

    This is the website of the Métis National Council which is dedicated to promoting Métis culture and providing history on the Métis nation.


Looms and Beads

A loom is a device used to weave cloth; a great deal of First Nations beadwork was done on looms. When Europeans first settled they saw that the native people had wool blankets that were made out of mountain goat wool or the hair of dogs. They used the looms to make these wool blankets.

Beading has been an important part of First Nations culture for approximately 8000 years prior to European contact. Beads were made of shell, pearl, bone, teeth, stone, and fossil stems. When Europeans first came to Canada they made an effort to develop good relations with the First Nations and beads played a significant role in these relationships. The beads that the Europeans gave and/or traded were large ceramic pony beads, glass beads, chevron bead and tiny seed beads. The pony bead was around 1/8th inch diameter and was used for bone chokers and breastplates. The chevron bead was also called the star, patermoster (our father’s), or sun bead. It was a colorful bead and was more of an oval shaped bead. The tiny seed beads were called Manido-min-esah, which means little spirit seeds, gift of the Manido. The first thing that First Nations began making when receiving these beads were necklaces. When smaller beads came around the beads were incorporated into loom weaving, Beads were then used in ceremonies, decorate clothing, baskets, dolls, which were then used to trade at the trading post.



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Métis Sash

The Métis sash holds deep meaning in the culture of Métis people across Canada, still today. Originally known as the L’Assomption Sash, named after the town in Quebec where it originated, the Métis sash was quickly adopted by the Métis people for its functionality and durability. Aside from being used as a tie to keep a coat closed or a scarf, the Métis sash served many other purposes, particularly during buffalo hunts. Men who ran into trouble while hunting often couldn’t simply go back to their tribe, since they were often in the deep wilderness. Therefore, hunters had to make do with what they had. The Métis sash operated as an emergency sewing kit, because of its fringed ends. It also worked as a first aid kit, towel, washcloth, key holder, emergency bridle, saddle blanket, and a timekeeper.

Francois Lucie- Métis Guide, Fort Edmonton, 1846

Beyond its practicality, the colors of the Métis sash also hold symbolic value. The Manitoba Métis Federation recently adopted a new Métis sash, adorned in blue, white, red, black, green and gold thread. The blue and white represent the Métis flag. The red and white combination is representative of the Métis hunting flag. The black represents the oppression and repression of the Métis people during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century by Canadians. The green and gold blend indicates the importance of fruitfulness, growth and richness for Métis people. Because of this important symbolic meaning, the Métis sash is also widely used during ceremonies and festivities.

For more information



Parfleche refers to a First Nations bag made of rawhide, which was traditionally used for storage. The word parfleche came from the French fur traders. In French, “parer” means “to defend” or “turn away”, and “fleche” is the word for “arrow”. The parfleche received its name because the hide was strong enough to be used as a shield.

The rawhide was prepared in a number of steps. First any hair was removed from the skin. Then the hide was stretched out. Finally, it was laid out in the sun. This process created both a strong and heavy leather. A parfleche bag was made using a single piece of rawhide, which was folded similar to that of an envelope, however, not every parfleche bag was folded in an envelope shape. Some were in the shape of a cylinder or a box. Parfleche bags were usually decorated with symmetric, geometrical shapes. There are records that indicate that the original bags had graphics, which symbolized maps and included pictorial records of the surrounding land. The art style seen on many parfleche designs is typical of the Plains Nations, as it tends to include geometrics, symmetric, and angular designs. Typically, no more than four colors were used in these art designs (i.e. green, red, yellow, and black). Colors were made from natural items such as plant material or minerals.


Calling the Buffalo
Contemporary 8 sided parfleche box
Created by Lauren Good Day Giago


              Parfleche bags were mainly used to carry dried foods, household items and clothing. Pemmican, a food made from dried meat, was often carried in parfleche bags. Pemmican is a prime example of Aboriginal people using what was found in nature for nourishment. The word Pemmican is thought to be based on the Cree words “pimii” (meaning fat or grease) and “kan” (meaning prepared). Pemmican is easily transportable and is a high calorie food, containing protein, vitamins and fat, making it a staple food on the fur trade. The ingredients depended largely on what was available; however, the meat was usually bison, elk, deer or moose and the berries were typically chokecherries, Saskatoon berries, currents, or blueberries.

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Plum Stones

Games play an important role in the cultures of Aboriginal peoples. Games were played differently depending on the tribe; they were different in the materials used and rules of the game. The different tribes had various opinions about who could play the game, times of the year that games were played, whether the game was related to a type of religious activity, ceremony, or festival. Some games even had certain purposes such as religion, amusement, for children to learn skills, social interaction between tribes, and gambling to distribute wealth. Native American women traditionally played the plum stones game in pairs.

The game provided in the kit uses stars and moons to mark the 5 plum stones. Though this is one way to play other tribes used different symbols on stones, and there were games that used more then 5 plum stones. For examples Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota uses six plums stones. Two are marked with a spider and the reverse is a vertical line with 3 horizontal lines crossing the vertical line, two have a lizard and on the reverse are three horizontal lines, and two are blackened and their reverse is plain.

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Red River Cart

For the Métis people the buffalo hunt depended on the Red River cart. For many years the Métis drove hundred of carts west, through the prairies and Great Plains to the site of the buffalo herds. The Red River cart was used to transport a number of different products to various nearby markets. The products included furs, robes, hides, vegetables, and pemmican.

At the elbow of the North Saskatchewan River, September 1871

The Red River cart was constructed entirely from wood and tied together with leather. This made it easy to repair with trees found en route and the cart could easily adapt to prairie elements. Initially horses pulled the carts however cattle were introduced to Red River in 1821 and then oxen were also now used to pull the cart. When a horse pulls a cart it can hold a load of 500 pounds (227 kg) for approximately 50 miles (80 km) in one day. When an ox pulls the cart it can hold 1000 pounds (454 kg) of cargo, however only 20 miles (32 km) can be travelled in one day.

Carts laden with furs arriving at Calgary 1888

The wheels contributed to the uniqueness of the Red River cart.  The cart had two large wheels with spokes, and two shafts that were fastened to the axles with wooden pins. No nails were used at all. The wheels could not be oiled as the dust would have stuck to the grease and affected the mobility of the carts, therefore the wheels created an ear piercing screeching noise as it travelled. Another advantage of the Red River cart was that there were not many tools required to construct the cart: an axe, a saw, wooden pins, leather strings and hide. The whole cart could be taken apart, put on the dished wheels and rowed across a deep stream with all belongings piled on top. Red River carts were most widespread between 1820 and 1880 and very popular until the time when buggies became available to everyone. Red River carts are seen at various Métis festivals and gatherings as the carts serve as a reminder of the identity and unique culture of Métis people.

For more information:

For a video on the Red River cart:


Star Quilts

Lakota women began making quilts in the late nineteenth century. The Lakota incorporated many of their traditional symbols into quilts. The star is known to the Lakota as the “Great Spirit’s Breath.” Stars were often seen painted on buffalo hide robes and soon appeared on quilts. Most Lakota star quilts have a single star; however, multiple and broken star pattern are not uncommon. The single star is made of small diamond-shaped patches pieced together in eight sections. When these sections are joined together, the eight-sided star is formed. The traditional lone star pattern is an eight-pointed star, made up of eight large diamonds. Each large diamond is in turn made up of 25 small diamonds. Altogether, the star collage has 200 small diamonds. Each large diamond in the quilt below is made up of 36 small diamonds. Altogether, the star collage has 288 small diamonds.

Lone Star Quilt

As the buffalo numbers were depleting, the Lakota had to find other materials for making bedcovers, clothing and so on. The Lakota people were already skilled at sewing, so the adaptation of materials was an easy transition. The star quilt took on the role of replacing the buffalo robe in ceremonial and religious life.

Similar to the resourcefulness shown through the uses of the buffalo, when the Lakota people quilt, all the scraps and pieces of fabric are used. Also, Lakota quilters preferred to work alone, rather than in groups, and typically the only time they came together were in times of crisis, when quilts needed to be produced quickly.

Over time, star quilts came to be used in many celebrations, such as the birth of a new baby. They have become an important way of honoring sports players, graduations, death and other ceremonies. The most important use of star quilts in contemporary Lakota society is as a gift at a memorial for the deceased, called a Giveaway. A Giveaway is a time to share food, quilts and goods at a memorial.

For more information:

  • Bateson-Hill, Margaret, Christine Fowler, and Lakota Philomine. Shota and the Star Quilt. New York, NY: Zero to Ten Unlimited, 1998.

    This books is full of short folk tales for children about the star quilt.



Thanadelthur was a Denesuline slave woman. In 1713, the Cree attacked a party of Chipewyans capturing Thanadelthur when she was a teenager, h owever she was able to escape and make her way to York Factory trading post. It was there that she told the traders that the Denesuline wanted to trade furs too. She also told the traders of the many furs found in the north. The traders agreed to map and voyage the area and asked Thanadelthur to be their guide. The group then embarked on a journey that took just under a year. On her return from York Factory, Thanadelthur taught the Denesuline which furs were most valued by the British and she showed them how to prepare the furs to get the highest prices in return. Thanadelthur’s role in the fur trade helped the fur trade to expand and she earned respect from both the Aboriginal people and the British fur traders.

Artist: Amanda Dow
Ten-day trek in search of Dene countrymen
Artist: Franklin Arbuckle
“Ambassadress of Pease” shows Thanadelthur mediating between the Chipewyans (left)
and Cree (right), while William Stewart watches from the sidelines


For more information: