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The First Settlers, Early Contact and the Fur Trade

The First Settlers, Early Contact and the Fur Trade

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Published by: ritam_dutta on Dec 19, 2012
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The First Settlers, Early Contact and the FurTrade:
An Overview of the Early History of the AmerindiansThe First Settlers:
“Sometimes between 20,000 and 35, 000 years ago, a group of people crossedthe now submerged Siberia-Alaska land bridge to migrate from Asia to America. They made North America their home, and from 10,000 BC, started settlingalong the Pacific coast of present-day British Columbia, a region with extremetopographical and climatic variations. There were at least twelve major languagegroups among these ancestors of the North American indigenous people, andeach language group had its own political and cultural divisions. They were alsoself-governing and independent... When Europeans began settling in what is nowCanada (late in the 18
th
century), there were about 2,00,000 indigenous people. Two hundred years after the first permanent European settlement, these peoplehave lost their culture, their sense of history and belonging, their language andtheir home. Rapid Europeanisation had succeeded in tearing them apart fromtheir roots, and in many cases, resulted in an amnesia of their own culture andcivilisation, a phenomenon that is perhaps not so uncommon in other histories of colonisation.” [Seemantini Gupta, ‘Introduction’,
Unified Self, fracturedidentities?,
CSPSP Vol –I, ed., Suchorita Chattopadhyay and Seemantini Gupta,Dept. Of Comparative Literature, J.U.] The Native elders commonly assert that the First Nations have been hereforever, since the creation of the world. This view is seen as being in conflict withthose of the archaeologists, some of whom place the original peopling of theNew World as recently as 12,000 years ago, although it is best to bear in mindthat archaeologists themselves are no less divided on the issue. “The generaltime frame of 12,000 B.P (Before the Present; and I use this unit because I’veincreasingly come across this unit in books relating to Canada) was establishedin 1927 when a magnificently crafted stone spear point, to be named Folsom,was found still embedded in the ribs of an extinct form of bison, itself lying in adateable geological formation.” Since then till up to this date the debate, whichhas now popularly come to be known as the “Clovis
1
Debate” in the academiccircle, has continued unabated and is now “centered on the question of whetherthere is really good evidence for an earlier date.” The researchers have conclusively found (particularly with the aid of present daystate-of-the-art DNA research technologies) that “all present day Amerinds cantrace their descent to one of four maternal lineages originating in Asia,” whichconfirms the anthropologists’ longstanding suspicion that the first Americanscame from Asia and also, possibly, the idea that “the evolution of human beingstook place primarily in Africa, secondarily in Asia and Europe and not at all in therest of the world.” However, the point to be made here is that the first people of 
 
this continent probably came from somewhere around what is now known asSiberia, sometimes between 20,000 to 12,000 years ago, via the now submergedSiberia-Alaska land bridge, known as Beringia, that existed intermittently from70, 000 to 12, 000 B.P, and started settling down first along the Pacific coast andthen into the continent’s interior.In North America, the first comprehensive attempt at classifying Aboriginallanguages was made in 1891 by John Wesley Powell of the Bureau of AmericanEthnology. He classified the aboriginals of North America into 58 (later revised to51) different stocks. We can now see that his classification was very much aproduct of the times: there was virtually no information on some of thelanguages; he assumed that all Amerindian languages represented a singlestage of evolutionary development and therefore ignored grammar as a factor indetermining relationships; and, because the primary purpose of making theclassification was to provide a basis for the placement of tribes on specificreservations, there was no particular interest in the degree of relationship butonly in the fact of a relationship. In spite of these rather severe defects it is stillregarded as a foundational, if conservative, statement. Powell’s classificationwas later further revised in 1921-1929 and in 1987 by Edward Sapir and JosephH. Greenberg respectively. However, today it is generally believed that withinthemselves the Canadian Amerinds can be divided into eleven linguistic groups.Six of these are found on the Pacific coast: the
Tsimshian
, the
Wakshan
, the
Haida
, the
Kootenay
or Kutenai, the
Tlinkit
and the
Salish
. These six tribeshad several common cultural traits; they lived in limited areas and had aneconomy based primarily on Salmon and Cedar. The most noted manifestation of this culture is the totem pole, particularly the tribal totem, which represented theeffigies of the guardian spirits, or family emblems.
The First Contact:
European immigration began with at least one aborted attempt at settlement bythe Norse almost a thousand years ago. However, it was the 16
th
century thatsaw the start of European expansion into the New World. European explorers,fishermen and traders produced the occasional logbook, letter or publishedmanuscripts, with notes on what and whom they encountered. The Portugueseare thought to have established a settlement at Cape Breton Island by 1521,with Micmac place-names appearing on Portuguese maps by 1550. By the end of the century, much of the Gulf of St Lawrence, and even the Atlantic shores of Maritimes, had been visited by Basque whalers from Spain or France, and by theEnglish and the French. The history of the First Nations of Canada in the face of that massive immigration of Europeans is one of survival. It is first of all a historyof physical survival, given the effects that European diseases had on indigenouspopulations. The current discussions about indigenous peoples’ inherent right toself-government are a 20
th
century manifestation of that struggle. While therewere encounters, both friendly and hostile, with the Micmac, descriptions of these original inhabitants of the New World are sparse – only one individual
 
name is recorded. It was a century of action more than of the written word –many of the newcomers probably couldn’t even write their own names. Whatlittle Old World documents there are, however, is interspersed with Micmac oraltradition, musing on what life was like before these European disruptions began.
Our Fathers were hardy We knew no want We were the only owners of the landWhen there were no people in this country but Indians, and before any othersbecame known, a young woman had a singular dream ... A small island camefloating towards the land, with tall trees on it, and living beings. [The Shamans
4
 ] pondered the girl’s dream but could make nothing of it. The next day an event occurred that explained all. What should they see but a singular little island, asthey supposed, which had drifted near the land and become stationary there.There were trees on it, and branches to the trees, on which a number of bears ...What was their surprise to find that these supposed bears were men.
[From the legends of the Micmac]Another:
Shortly after the country was discovered by the French, an Indian namedSilmoodawa (Silmutewey) [this is the second Micmac name on record, fromhistorical documents of 1604 and 1607] was taken to Planchean (France) as acuriosity. Among other curious adventures, he was prevailed upon to exhibit theIndian mode of killing and curing game. A fat ox or deer was brought out of abeautiful park and handed over to the Indian; he was provided with all necessary implements, and placed within an enclosure of ropes, through which no personwas allowed to pass, but around which multitudes were gathered to witness thebutchering operations of the savage. He shot the animal with a bow, bled him,skinned and dressed him, sliced up the meat, and spread it out on the flakes todry; he then cooked a portion and ate it, and in order to exhibit the whole process, and then to take a mischievous revenge upon them for making anexhibition of him, he went into a corner of the yard and eased himself beforethem all.
Another description of a similar incident is penned down by the Okanagan writerHarry Robinson. This one particularly illustrates the helplessness of theaborigines against the cunning of the ‘white men’ who only sought profit fromthe land and its inhabitants. The story goes like this:
Sometimes in 1880s an Okanagan Indian by the name George Jim and belongingto the Ashnola Band gets involved in a drunken brawl with a ‘white man’ by thename Shuttleworth and beats him up badly. Though Shuttleworth was badly hurt 

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