Yet in Canada alone there were over fifty separate tribes who spoke different languages or dialects, and had their own manners and customs. They had no common name for the country, or for its inhabitants. In fact, many names accepted by the white men were not the tribe’s own name for itself, but a nickname, often derogatory, given to a group by a hostile tribe. An example of this is the name “Slave” or “Slavey” Indians
The fur traders, especially the Hudson’s Bay men, had for a century been in contact with the Woods Crees who were middlemen between the Athapaskans and the white men. The Crees were making a handsome profit by bartering with the Athapaskans for fine furs, then selling them to the traders. The Crees called themselves Kinistenoags “men of the woods” which the French voyageurs first changed to Kristenaux and later shortened to “Kris”, which the English later wrote phonetically as “Cree”.
When the white men began to get curious about the territory of the men from whom the Cree obtained such superior furs, the last thing the Cree wanted was to encourage the traders to visit their source of supply. Hence, tradition says, they answered “Huh! Worthless men. Fit only to be slaves.” The gullible white man accepted the story – hence the odd names “Great Slave” and “Lesser Slave” Lakes so far north of the area in which slavery, as such, was an issue in Southern United States.
Eventually the white men, like Peter Pond, reached the Athapaskans. “How do you call yourselves?” they asked, to which the Athapaskan speakers replied, “We are the MEN, THE PEOPLE.” What they called the Cree seems not to be recorded. One must remember that the Athapaskan tongue is perhaps as different from the Cree’s Algonkian as Chinese is from Canadian. Early interpreters would likely be Crees, or Iroquois, long associated with the white traders. It is unlikely that they understood or spoke Athapaskan fluently. Did one ever find one tribe or race of men speaking well of another with whom they could not communicate? We have only to think of the nationalistic prejudices among so-called “civilized” men, expressed in the nicknames they assign to others, to answer the question. We can see that what men call other groups may often be of little value in determining who they actually are. Oddly, the descriptive names from neighboring tribes seem to have stuck to Indian groups, especially in the North.
For example, while the Beavers called themselves the Tin-eh, the Crees gave them the name “Beavers” in scorn. According to Cree informants (all Metis) Richard Belcourt, [Cree]; Isadore Mercredi, [Cree-Beaver]; and Peter Campbell, [Cree-Iroquois] they called certain tribes “Beavers” because these men did not go outside their own exclusive tribe or land for wives. In the course of centuries everyone was related to everyone else. Hence the Crees called the Beaver’s marriage relationships “incest”, and likened their practices to the mating habits of Beavers, the animal, which are said to mate only with others in the same pond.
Alexander Mackenzie in his Journal speaks of “Beavers” in an area northwest of Great Slave Lake on the Mackenzie River, and marked them in that area on his map.
He called those living where the Peace Region Beaver have lived since early times the “Rocky Mountain Indians”. In another entry June 23, 1789 he says, “Slave and Beaver Indians as well as others of the tribe would not be here (Great Slave Lake) till the time when the swans cast their feathers”. Again, on July 1, 1789, “saw poles of four lodges standing – concluded that they belonged to the Kristeneaux on their war excursions 6-7 years ago (into Beaver Country) just by the River of the Mountains Mouth.” (The Peace River). Note that Mackenzie included Slaveys and Beavers in one tribe as if they were just different bands.