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Historically and going back into deep time, bison were an integral part of Tsattine land and culture. Yet in the space of only a few decades during the fur trade era, once-abundant bison in the Peace Region of Alberta were exterminated. This page provides general information about bison and explores their relationship with Beaver people.
Introduction to Bison
Bison have lived in North America for thousands of years. They are a keystone species that played a significant role in the many ecosystems they inhabited, and in the cultural lifeways of many Indigenous peoples (Buffalo Treaty; Olson & Janelle 2022; Knapp et al. 1999). Prior to the arrival of Europeans, bison ranged across North America and numbered in the tens of millions (COSEWIC 2013:v). When European explorer Alexander Mackenzie first arrived in the Peace Region in the 1790s, he wrote that the land was so abundant with animals (including bison) that it resembled a “stall yard” (Mackenzie 1921:275). However, with the onset and demands of the fur trade, along with settlers arriving in the area, bison were nearly exterminated by the late 1880s. Since then, bison have made a resurgence and are now being rematriated to their ancestral lands through collaborative efforts like the Buffalo Treaty. Although bison populations have expanded since their near extinction, they currently only occupy a tiny fraction of their former territory (COSEWIC 2013).
There are two types (subspecies) of American bison: wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) and plains bison (Bison bison bison). Physical differences between these two subspecies include their hair patterns and the shape and position of their hump.
Figure 1. Physical differences between wood and plains bison subspecies (Image credit: Wes Olson)
Prior to European settlement, wood bison occupied areas of the northern plains and boreal forest ecozones (Alaska, Yukon, Alberta, eastern British Columbia, north-central Saskatchewan). Plains bison ranged throughout the Great Plains, from Alberta/Saskatchewan/Manitoba to northern Mexico. Tsattine territory in northern Alberta is located near the transition zone between the historic ranges of wood and plains bison.
Figure 2. The historical range of the bison subspecies (adapted from COSEWIC 2013:12).
Along with skill and experience, relationships between bison and Beaver people were critical for successful hunting. Ridington (1979, 1982, 1988) and Mills (1982), who work with Beaver people in northeastern British Columbia, highlight how medicine power, a person’s knowledge and strength attained through their childhood vision quest, was fundamental to a successful hunt. Beaver people needed to maintain proper relationships with both the animals and each other in order to become successful hunters. For communal hunts, Beaver people would ask a medicine man/woman (Brody 1988:47-48), also called a Hunt Chief to dream ahead for everyone. This meant that the Hunt Chief would meet the animals beforehand in his dreams to know its location and how the hunt should be set up. There was also an element of consent, where hunts were only successful if the animal agreed to it.
Historical records suggest that among the Beaver of Paddle River, bison were hunted solely on a communal basis; solo hunting expeditions violated societal norms and led to severe consequences (Goddard 1916:214). For example, in one story (see below), the consequence for an individual hunting bison by himself was that his community threatened to kill him (Goddard 1916:240-241).
Beaver people had extensive knowledge of the land and animals, and did not require elaborate structures or weapons in order to be successful hunters (Ridington 1982). In terms of weapons, Beaver people used bows and arrows until they had access to guns. Snares were also an important tool used for hunting, and was the most common tool mentioned in certain historical records (Goddard 1916). Snares were an important tool for other Dene groups as well, such as the Shuhtagot’ine or mountain Dene. Their oral histories include survival stories about people being left alone with “nothing but a strand of sinew” to survive (Andrews et al 2012:26). Beaver people used snares for both small animals (i.e., rabbits) and large animals (i.e., moose). Snares were used for both communal and individual hunting.
According to the testimony of a Beaver individual named Ike, as recorded by Goddard (1916:226), hunters who wanted supernatural help to become good runners would only drink through the feather of a large bird, so the water would not touch their lips (Goddard 1916:226). Ike also stated that hunters would refrain from eating eggs, or meat/marrow from the legs of an animal they wished to kill. By following these customs, Ike explained that hunters would be able to get close to animals such as moose or buffalo, and shoot them with bows and arrows (Goddard 1916:226).
Below are Beaver stories involving bison (buffalo), as recorded by Goddard (1916).
These stories are reproduced from Goddard's (1916) ethnography, which was based on stories told to him by Beaver people of Alberta in the early 20th century. They recount close relationships between Beaver people and bison, and document aspects of their hunting lifeways and violent fur-trade era interactions with the Cree.
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