Thoughts on the Semester so Far

I can’t believe how fast this semester is going by! Considering I am already a third of the way into my Native Peoples of North America class, now seems like a great time to reflect on some particularly interesting information I have gained over the semester, and share my opinion on how it is relevant to Native American life today. 

For the past few weeks we have been studying American Indian tribes in the far north and in the northwest. So far we have read about and discussed the Netsilik, the Chipewyan, the Lower Kootenai and the Tlingit. Although I have only had the opportunity to learn about a few tribes so far, it is already evident that American Indians have distinct cosmologies, cultural practices and values. What has really impressed me thus far however has not been the specific cultural differences between tribes, but the similarities. While all of these tribes are from mostly contiguous geographic regions of the North American map, each specific environment is different in terms of climate, animals, and natural resources. The Netsilik homeland is within the arctic circle, far above the tree line, where there are only about 20 frost-free days each year, while the Lower Kootenai live much further south on land that crosses the political boundary between Canada and the United States. The differences between these two environments are astonishing to someone like me who thinks Buffalo, New York is “The North” and everything beyond that is no man’s land. Yet with these notable differences, there is an important quality shared by all of the tribes – ingenuity.

The ingenuity evidenced in the material cultures of the tribes studied so far has been fascinating to me. Consider the following examples:

When living in an environment as variable as the taiga the Chipewyan traditionally called home, ingenuity is a vital resource. The temperature in this area ranged from 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and featured no completely reliable sources of food. Fortunately, this country of the Chipewyan was dominated by a key resource that made Chipewyan life possible – the caribou. Caribou were used for food and clothing, and their antlers were used for knives and drills. Almost every part of the animal was utilized. Even more impressive than this is the way the caribou were caught. Using timber poles, large funnels were created in the wild. At the end of these lines of timber poles were snares. When a caribou wandered into the opening of one of these funnels (which our text says could be 3 miles apart), Chipewyan herded the caribou towards the end of the structure where they were caught in the snares. The use of traps such as deadfalls, nets, and the aforementioned snares are another fascinating example of ingenuity. These traps permitted caribou to be caught when people were not around, effectively multiplying the efficiency of hunters. Additionally, they were much safer than direct confrontation. Having a bear find its way into a deadfall is vastly preferable to fighting it with a spear. By hunting caribou effectively with traps and maximizing its potential as a resource, the Chipewyan were able to survive in a variable and difficult environment.

This map shows where the Chipewyan, who in their own language are the “Dene,” meaning people, lived traditionally relative to other neighboring tribes. Credits on map. 

While the Chipewyan are incredible, the most impressive example of ingenuity I have learned about so far comes from the Netsilik, who lived in the frozen arctic tundra with minimal resources. The most notable source of timber, according to our text, was driftwood that washed up from the south. This was used to make kayaks. Most famously, the Netsilik used snow to build igloos. I found it especially interesting that the interior temperature of igloos was deliberately kept below freezing so the snow would not melt and then immediately turn to ice, thus lowering the interior temperature even further. Despite the impressiveness of driftwood kayaks and snow homes, neither of these are my pick for most impressive example of ingenuity. That honor goes to the Netsilik sled. If you have ever heard the phrase “where there is a will, there is a way,” the Netsilik sled is a testimony to its validity. How do you build a sled without metal and minimal wood? Well if you are the Netsilik, you cut sections of sealskin and soak them in water. Then you place fish in a row on the edge of the sealskin. You proceed to roll those fish up and allow the cylinder of sealskin and fish to freeze. You now have runners. Then you fashion crosspieces from frozen meat, and protect the runners with moss, snow and water frozen to the bottom. Finally, using polar bear fur like a rag, mouthfuls of water are squirted onto the fur and rubbed on the runners to create a surface that travels smoothly over the snow. You now have a sled. For me, creating an efficient means to travel across the landscape using materials as unthinkable as fish and moss is extremely impressive, yet to them it was likely practical and nothing more.

Through these examples of resourcefulness, as well as many more unmentioned here, I have been convinced this semester that the effective use of available resources for survival is not a trait only certain cultures or groups of people have, but instead is a characteristic shared by humanity. This information has been made apparent to me across multiple readings and class discussions. But this information is not just heartwarming. I believe that it has practical utility.

The Netsilik have not needed to make a sled for a long time. The Chipewyan do not depend as heavily on caribou as they did in the past. Life is different today. The Netsilik now live in danger of having their homeland taken over by Canadian government-supported mining companies interested in massive diamond deposits discovered underground. While the money generated from this mine could potentially support the Netsilik, it is more likely that the money will be funneled away from their territory and they will never see it. Things are not much better today for the Chipewyan. They are largely dependent on government welfare. Drug and alcohol abuse are common. It seems evident to me that many of these difficulties could have been avoided if the government and Native Americans had viewed each other eye to eye. In numerous instances the government has made legislature that adversely impacts tribes or is insensitive to the reality of their circumstances. With prejudiced bureaucracies so commonly making poor decisions about how to interact with different tribes, it becomes clear that ethnocentrism plays a key role. If traditional Indian life was considered, it would hopefully become apparent that they are all capable of living according to their own customs and values, no westernization necessary. If these people could live off of caribou or make sleds from fish, then surely they can manage themselves today with modern conveniences. All they need is a good starting point.

I hope that this entry has made it apparent that Indian tribes are not incapable of adapting to difficult circumstances. But today many of them face needless hardship stemming from ethnocentric and inconsiderate outsider actions. While the past cannot be rewritten, I hope that it will be read by those with the ability to make a difference in the future.

The semester thus far has provided me with a lot of new information about Indian culture and modern circumstances. In the upcoming segments of the semester, I am looking forward to academic field trips we have planned in class. I will definitely be writing about them here. 

Until next time,