bison: The largest surviving land animal in North America, believed to have numbered 30 million animals from Canada to Mexico prior to European arrival. Indigenous Peoples used them for food and raw materials for various technologies. As North American settler states expanded west, they targeted the bison and nearly caused their extinction for the use of their bones and hides; to clear the way for railroads; and to starve Indigenous Peoples so as to prevent resistance to removal to reservations and other federal policies.

chief: An English term used for leaders of Scottish clans that was applied to Indigenous leaders such as ogimaak, sagamores, and sachems whose titles and responsibilities and the hereditary, elected, or appointed route to such leadership varied by nation. Historically, colonial negotiators seldom understood the scope and limitations of these roles. The use of this term has masked the historical complexity of Indigenous leadership, but has become more pan-Indian in contemporary contexts under the Indian Act, which sought to create a common type of leader across all federally recognized bands with similar responsibilities.

chiefdoms: Societies where a (usually hereditary) paramount chief is the head over subordinate chiefs of multiple bands or villages and where delineated class structures exist.

clan: An English term adopted from its use in Scotland to apply to extended family structures in Indigenous societies that functioned as an additional kinship identifier. Generally, clans existed across national and confederation boundaries even if direct blood lineage could not be identified, and governed social and political obligations and, in some cases, leadership roles. The English terminology masks the incredible diversity and vitality of clan systems across different nations in North America. see doodem.

egalitarian societies: Communities characterized by a lack of distinction of social ranks, in which leadership is often assumed temporarily and for a specific purpose, and where social status does not accrue to material wealth. Economies of gift exchange placed value on relationships rather than commodities so that the skills needed at a particular moment determined leadership merit rather than hereditary or wealth markers.

fishing weirs: Stone or wood constructions used in rivers, tidal waters, and streams to trap fish or to support fishermen while they spear fish from them in deeper waters.

gift distributions: Indigenous people expected gifts from others for the use of lands, waterways, or resources, including building trading posts, colonial settlements, or sending their young men for military service that supported colonial interests. The gifts affirmed alliance between the parties and compensated for resources lost as a result of fulfilling the request being made of the community. In the case of the construction of permanent structures such as trading posts, the expectation was that gifts to the community would be given annually for as long as the post was in use because the post would continue to take up lands that could be managed for other purposes, and those living at the post would continue to hunt, fish, and use firewood and other resources belonging to the community. Settler trading houses and governments sought to end gift distributions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, assuming them to be a bribe rather than an ongoing political and economic obligation, particularly as assimilation to settler practice became a policy goal.

gift exchange: An economic system in which the social relationships forged by the exchange were more valuable and defining than the value of the objects exchanged. Among Indigenous people, these reinforced relationships within and between families were a part of cementing alliances and confederacies through diplomatic ritual. Colonial powers quickly learned that gifts were required to seal agreements with First Nations but never understood the difference between a practice that among Indigenous people affirmed care for one another and the use of bribes and mercenary fees in Europe.

Great Law of Peace: The governing system of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, originating from sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, which some believe influenced the form of modern democracies.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy: (The Five Nations and, after 1720, the Six Nations League) Founded sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries in the present-day Finger Lakes region of northern New York. They were, from east to west, the Kanien’keha:ka, Ony’ota, Onondaga, Guyohkohnyo, and Onondowaga. The league later became known as the Six Nations around 1720 when the Skarùren migrated north from the Carolinas to join.

Head-Smashed-In: Bison jump site in present-day southern Alberta with more than 30 mazeways along which buffalo were driven and 20,000 cairns that guided the direction of stampeding herds in use for more than 5,000 years. It was also a trade centre for the nations that used the site. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

hunters and gatherers: An economic strategy that involves hunting wild game and managing and gathering agricultural produce such as wild berries, roots, and the like, as opposed to European-style sedentary agriculture, for providing the required food for a community.

Indigenous Knowledge: Knowledge derived from Indigenous traditions, such as living on the land in a communal sharing context within nature, and expressed through Indigenous languages.

microclimate: An area from a few metres to a few miles where the weather is different from that of the regions surrounding it. For example, land is slightly warmer and thus more frost resistant near large bodies of open water. Mountains can also create microclimates due to their height impacting weather patterns.

Niitsitapiikwan (Niitsitapi Confederacy): Plains coalition composed of the Siksika, Piikani, Káínawa, Tsuu T’ina, and A’ani. At its peak, it extended from the North Saskatchewan River, south to the Missouri, and from the present Alberta–Saskatchewan border to the Rocky Mountains; also known as the Blackfoot Confederacy.

pemmican: Concentrated food used by Plains Métis and First Nations consisting of dried meat, pounded fine and mixed with melted fat and sometimes berries. It became a staple food of the fur trade. One kilogram of pemmican had the food value of four to eight kilograms of fresh meat or fish.

potlatch: Ceremonial feast of Northwest Coast First Nations involving the host’s lavish distribution of gifts in order to affirm or reaffirm one’s place in the social hierarchy. A means of redistributing wealth within communities, it was banned by the Canadian government in 1884 as being contrary to European values.

saqamaw: A Mi’kmaq term for a highly respected leader whose advice is valued, but whose authority is persuasive rather than autocratic. The term is saqama’sgw for women.

taiga: Subarctic coniferous (evergreen) forest at the transition zone from boreal forest to tundra.

“three sisters”: Corn, squash, and beans, the three crops central to Indigenous agriculture in eastern North America. They complement each other nutritionally and agriculturally, with the beans adding nitrogen to the soil, corn providing support for the beans, and squash providing ground cover to prevent weed growth and soil erosion and to preserve soil moisture.

Wendake: Territory in present-day south-central Ontario extending eastward from Georgian Bay that was controlled at the time of early European contact by a confederacy of ­Iroquoian-speaking communities whom the French called Huron but who called themselves Wendat. Known as Huronia in Euro-Canadian historiography.

Wendat Confederacy: An alliance of Attignawantan, Attigneenongnahac, Arendarhonon, Tahontaenrat, and Ataronchronon nations concentrated between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay who engaged in extensive agriculture and trade at the time of European arrival that was largely destroyed by smallpox and war with the Haudenosaunee, which intensified after 1649. Those remaining moved further west to Lake Michigan and referred to themselves as Wendat.

Back to top