Their inner culture, that is their social customs, political organizations, their ideas, art, religious concepts, and attitude towards their neighbors and their surroundings were less likely to change. These internal things were the products of a long evolution in which their history and their psychological background played the leading role.
As Jeness in Indians of Canada comments, “Even outward material culture derived more from historical causes than from geographical environment.” How else, for example, could we account for the great differences between the Iroquois of Eastern Canada and the Beaver Indians of the Peace River Valley? The former were agricultural peoples with semi-fixed homes and well-made cooking vessels of pottery while the Beaver were nomadic hunters who cooked their meat in vessels of birch bark or of woven spruce roots with the aid of hot stones. Yet the Peace Valley is no less fertile than Southeastern Ontario, and contains as many clay deposits suitable for making pots.
If, then, the geographical environment fails to explain many of the apparently simple features in the economic life of the aboriginal peoples, how can we make it our guiding star in discussing their social and religious life? This part of their life and culture was so much more complex and varied so greatly from one tribe to another. We seem, indeed to be entering almost a new sphere, where causes and explanations lie concealed in a long chain of events and phenomena far beyond our vision.
The refusal of the Beavers to farm their original reserve near Fort St. John is explained by the above comments. The Beaver just weren’t farming people. The use of their reserve in summer because it provided many berries and food plants was the limit of their ambition, although the land was so fertile as to make white farmers covet it. Their ages-long tradition of meat eating made them take to ranching in recent years on their new reserves. The fact that the Doig band alone advertised an auction sale of five hundred beef cattle in the fall of 1972 shows that they can adapt to a form of “white” agriculture when they must, but it is still keyed to their traditional affinity with animals. These bands also exploit their wandering and hunting skills as guides and outfitters, in which pursuits they also raise large numbers of horses.
No matter what tradition they adhere to, the basis of their organization has always been the band. This included the biological family, the man, his wife, their children, and often their children’s children to several generations, where they lived to great age. Frequently other kinsmen adhered to a good hunter, but shortages of food would disperse such expanded groups into family units again.
Each band had a leader. In the Peace River area, the Indians did not recognize a “chief” in the usual sense of the position. The position was not hereditary, or even for life. The “headman” simply won his position by courage, force of character, and preeminently by skill in hunting. Theoretically, every individual in a band was equal to every other. Therefore a leader had few, if any, special privileges among his own people and held his position only as long as he had popular support and respect.
There was no “chief” of an entire tribe or formal organization of bands into larger political units. There were no central organizations, shrines or “holy places” to which numbers of bands would rally. This apparent lack of a sense of unity seemed like weakness, other tribes and to the white man too. Actually, the Athapaskan bands seemed to have had a strength of will that kept them separate from their neighbors, white or Indian. Some white men like Phillip Godsell misinterpreted their pride as hostility. In truth, in such incidents of hostility as are recorded like the killing of Guy Hughes and the episode at Fort St. John the Beavers had suffered ample provocation, and even injustice.
In other words, the word “tribe” when applied to the Beavers, Sekanni, Chipewyan or other Athapaskans, is just a convenient way for the white man to refer to a number of bands collectively. In the same way “chief” has much more significance to the white man than to the Indians of this area.
Each family lived to itself. There being no chiefs to settle quarrels — only public opinion — the men fought among themselves to get what they wanted. The only brake on this way of settling things was always the chance that an apparently weak enemy might prove to be a great medicine man who would take his revenge by magic, or that his family would start a blood feud that could go on for years. Magic, of one sort or another, was constantly in their minds and almost everybody was thought of as a possible magician.
Intermarriage among bands enlarged the common interests. It is reported by Mr. Richard Belcourt, based on the observation of the Crees who lived near and among the Beavers, that the Beavers regarded marriage within the band as desirable, or at least, preferable to capturing wives from other tribes. Hence, the bands tended to remain small. If, however, a hunter was skilled enough to need more than one wife to cure the meat and tan the hides he brought home; he was at liberty to take as many as he could support. “Chief” Wolf (white mans translation) of Fort St. John had six wives and would be recognized as a mighty band leader.
The bands, as we have said, were composed of families of near kindred, but kinship was reckoned in ways that Europeans generally did not always approve or understand. In the East some stressed male descent, others female descent. Among nomadic hunting people like the Beavers and other Athapaskan-speakers, where the woman followed the husband, the male line was more stressed.
The Athapaskans had even less idea of formal government than the Inuit, if that is possible. Small bands of people, who were usually closely related, traveled and hunted together and acknowledged the leadership only of the more experienced and successful hunters. Even these had no authority at all and the people took their suggestions or ignored them as they wished. The strongest link that joined these bands into tribes was language; all the Dogribs, for instance, could understand each other. Bands who could not speak the Dogrib language were not Dogribs but must be something else. Sometimes there would be differences in the language of a single tribe; among the Kuthcin, the Han people speak a language somewhat different from the Loucheux, but they can understand each other fairly well, especially after a little practice.
Some bands laid claim to certain hunting territories but the system was not as well organized and fully accepted in the northern people as among the eastern woodland tribes. Today the trap lines are registered and each man knows just where he may trap and where he may not.
The Slaves did appoint chiefs if war was expected, but these lost their authority as soon as the emergency was over.