A look at Canada’s First Nations People in honour of Aboriginal Day

When we first launched INUKT’s TALK we expressed that we are all about endorsing, celebrating and showcasing all that is hot and trendy on the Canadian fashion landscape.  We informed you how our online magazine is “your personal companion and tool to help you navigate through what the brand offers”. Through TALK you would also learn all about INUKT’s exclusive, sought-after products that are inspired by the First Nations people and you would meet the creative forces behind these.

Before we move forward as your personal style-guide and feature our products and the amazing artists and creators we work with, we deem it important to take a look at Canada’s history. Specifically at the first inhabitants who lived on this land before the French and English colonized it.

And what better time to focus-in on the First Nations people, but on National Aboriginal Day, which since 1996 is celebrated on June 21st.  The cultural significance of the summer solstice is the reason June 21st was chosen as a nationwide celebration. It’s a day when the Aboriginal peoples, which includes the First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis, come together to celebrate their heritage and their culture, and to recognize and honour their contributions to Canada.

In the past Aboriginals were referred to as “Indians” or “Eskimos”. But for over three decades now these terms have been considered pejorative and have been replaced with First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

The First Nations are the indigenous peoples of Canada, who settled and established trade routes across Canada by 500 BCE–1,000 CE. The Inuit are believed to be descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture. They emerged from western Alaska around 1,000 CE and spread eastward across the Arctic. Similar to the indigenous peoples, they live in the Canadian Arctic and subarctic. The Métis, whose history dates to the mid-17th century, are a people descended from marriages between Europeans, mostly the French and First Nations.

Today about 700,000 people make up the 630 First Nations bands across Canada. Each of these bands or communities has its distinct culture, language, art and music.

The First Nations of Canada have a rich history. Historically they were grouped by the six main geographical areas in which they lived-in. Woodland First Nations inhabited the eastern part of the country; the Iroquois the southern area; the Plains First Nations the Prairies; the Pacific Coast First Nations, who had access to salmon, shellfish and gigantic red cedar, the Western part of the country; the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins lived in harsh, dark, barren and swampy environments; and the Plateau First Nations, geography ranged from semi-desert conditions in the south to high mountains and dense forest in the north.

The First Nations were resourceful both materially and spiritually long before the Europeans’ arrival. For example, the Iroquois were excellent farmers who harvested food crops of corn, beans and squash annually. They were, therefore, capable of establishing permanent communities and had time to develop complex systems of government based on democratic principles. The Plains First Nations went as far as having military societies and a police system.

Their resourcefulness is particularly evident when it comes to their clothing. They used tanned animal skins (moose, deer, caribou, buffalo, antelope, elk and deer) to make tunics, leggings and moccasins.  Hats, rain capes, skirts and long robes were made out of cedar bark that was shredded to produce a soft fibre. To protect themselves from the cold winter months they either wore full fur robes or robes interwoven with goat wool or sea otter. They also decorated their clothing and moccasins. They used porcupine quills to embroider designs. Clothing was coloured red, yellow, blue and green with dyes that derived from flowers, fruits, roots and berries.

Life as they knew it changed for the First Nations people in the 1500s when the Europeans landed on the East coast of North America and settled here. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the Irish, the French and the English were all in contact and traded with the First Nations. But it’s the last two, the British and French that became the dominant powers. By the early 1600s the British had established several colonies and settlements developed on a large scale.  Soon after founding these colonies the two powers formed strong alliances with the First Nations. This supported their commercial interests, fur trade being the most vital one.

From the 16th century to now the history of the First Nations people is complex and filled with intricate events. They have lived through the Great Peace treaty signed in 1701 between France and 40 First Nations Groups; the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763; the 1800s where immigration and colonization created more and more pockets of land to be put set aside as reserves for First Nations peoples; and the Indian Act that came into legislation in 1876 and basically gave the Federal government control over the First Nations in regards to lands, resources, status and money.   The White Paper Policy, the Comprehensive Claims Policy, Bill C-31, the Oka Crisis and the Inherent Right Policy, which saw the return of self-government for Aboriginals, are the key events that marked their history during the 20th century.  Today the National Assembly of First Nations is the body that represents First Nations in Canada. The organization aims to protect the rights, treaty obligations, ceremonies and claims of citizens of the First Nations in Canada.

We at INUKT have a great respect and admiration for the history, culture and heritage of the First Nations peoples of Canada. We dedicate this article to them and to National Aboriginal Day. And we look forward to January 2014 when a landmark event, Bill 42 is to be implemented, and therefore, according to a Montreal Gazette article, see the creation of a new Cree Nation Government and a new Eeyou Istchee James Bay Regional Government.