The Subarctic culture area spans the entire North American continent; it covers most of Canada as well as much of Alaska’s interior. In clockwise order, it is bordered by the Far West, Northwest, Arctic, Eastern Woodland and Plains culture regions. The widely spaced and few original inhabitants of the Subarctic stubbornly dealt with long, tough winters, as well as short summers alive with big mosquitoes and black flies.
The Subarctic natives can be divided into two groups. The Algonquians* lived generally east and south of the Hudson Bay. The more numerous Athapascans lived in the extensive Yukon and Mackenzie river drainages and in the valleys of other streams that drain into the Gulf of Alaska, Pacific and Arctic oceans. The Athapascans farthest west lived near the Eskimos to the north and were influenced by them. Both the Algonquians and Athapascans consisted of small, self-sufficient bands.
The main language of the interior and west was Na-Dene; the main language south and east of the Hudson Bay was Algonkian. There were numerous dialects, which, along with kinship, gave each band its cohesion. In all, approximately 23 tribes existed in the area before European contact.
Routines centered around obtaining food. Most peoples were nomadic hunters, fishers and foragers who got around on foot with mocassins in the warm months and snowshoes in the winter. They also used canoes and sleds in the warm months and toboggans in the winter. For many bands, life turned around the seasonal migrations of big game between the tundra and taiga. They hunted for moose, caribou, musk oxen, bear and elk. They also pursued beavers, porcupines, rabbits and other smaller animals. Fur for warmth was as prized as meat for food. The little bands arrived at regular fishing sites in season and augmented their diet with waterfowl and other birds, berries and roots. They used bows and arrows, clubs, spears and snares. None of the Subarctic inhabitants practiced agriculture.
As a rule, Subarctic tribes utilized wood, bone, horn and antler more than stone for utensils. For ropes and thongs, they used rawhide and root fiber.
Across the Subarctic regions, apparel was similar, consisting of the skins of moose, caribou, rabbits and other animals. Leggings and moccasins (sometimes all of one piece) were often graced with quill or beadwork of colorful, flowery designs. Natives also traded for blankets from Pacific Coast tribes.
In the far west of Canada and much of Alaska, the natives built plank houses. Some winter houses were built under ground. Sweat houses also were used in the winter. In the summer, some tribes built houses without walls roofed by spruce bark. Elsewhere, dwellings consisted of conical armatures covered with bark, brush or skins.
Perhaps it was the stark and lonely land that gave rise to a powerful spirit life among these peoples. Land features were haunted, mystery abounded. Ill fortune was attributed to an unseen world. Dreams revealed a separate reality. A multitude of nature spirits resided in animals. Contact would be established with these spirits, sometimes creating links between people and animals. The shaman (medicine man) was an authority figure whose intercessory incantations were offered for healing and other needs.
Warfare was more prevalent among some native groups than others. The most fierce were the Athapascan Tahltans and Chipewyans of interior Canada, and the Algonquian Crees. The most timid were the interior Canada Athapascan Hares and Slaves (or Slaveys). Warfare would become more brutal and frequent with the European introduction of firearms.
From the 17th to the 19th century, French and British traders recruited many Subarctic peoples in the fur trade as trappers. The exotic introduction of guns and ironware altered their simple economies. The European presence would prove disastrous to their way of life and numbers, especially with the havoc wreaked by smallpox, influenza and other epidemics. Only some of the Athapascans in Alaska would remain untouched—until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.