CANADA'S FIRST NATIONS
B. Map - Native-European Encounters Preserved in Native Oral Tradition and
Arctic: Inuit and Beothuk
First Nations peoples of the Arctic region had only sporadic encounters with Europeans. The earliest Europeans to reach the Arctic were the Norse who arrived via Greenland around 1,000 C.E. They established a settlement in Newfoundland (considered part of the Arctic because the Beothuk who inhabited the island were considered descendants of a Dorset group) where they came into contact with the Beothuk. Europeans began exploring the Arctic as early as the sixteenth century. Inuit peoples who inhabited eastern or western coastal regions had the earliest and most direct contact with Europeans.
Inuit Encounter with Europeans
The narrative below was told by an Inuit named Qaqortingneq to the European explorer Knut Rasmussen during his expedition of 1921-24. This story tells of the Inuit encounter with what is believed to be either the Erebus or the Terror, the two ships commanded by Sir John Franklin during the 1845-1847 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, providing an insight into the fate of the failed expedition. It is an example of how historians utilise Inuit oral tradition to fill gaps in European historical record, and also to gain a different perspective of the past.
One spring sealing season off the coast of Qeqertaq (King William's Land), two brothers set off to hunt. They searched for seal breathing holes and discovered what appeared to be a black mass on the horizon. The mass did not move as an animal might and the brothers moved closer to see what was this large thing stuck in the ice. They determined it was a great ship of wood and returned to their people to tell of their discovery. After much discussion, a decision to search the ship for useable items was made. The group reached the ship the next day and searched for utilitarian goods. They found guns and used percussion caps as thimbles. Barrels were broken up and the metal was shaped into harpoon heads. The group of villagers was at first afraid to venture into the depths of the ship. Overcoming their fear they descended below deck where they discovered rows of white men dead on their bunks. Venturing into the dark middle of the ship, they found tools and began to cut a hole for a window. Unfortunately, the spot chosen for the window was below the waterline and water rushed in flooding the ship's hold. The villagers escaped before the ship sank into the ice, but they lost all of the valuable goods they had found. Later in that same year, a boat with six dead white men was found by caribou hunters. Knives, guns, and food were also discovered in this small boat.
European Encounter with Inuit
Inuit and Norse encounters are known through Norse legends and archaeological evidence. The Norse crossed Greenland to reach the Arctic and there they traded with the Inuit whom they called skraelings, Norse for heathen. In Newfoundland, considered part of the Arctic region because of the Beothuk who inhabited the island, the Norse built a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows. Norse documentation indicates that they settled there around 1,000 years ago to facilitate trade with the Natives. According to Norse legend, the Beothuk were open to trade and enjoyed the iron goods they received in exchange for furs. The L'Anse aux Meadows site was abandoned shortly thereafter, but the Norse continued to trade with First Nations peoples along the Atlantic coast. Timber, fish, walrus, and polar bear meat were sought after by the Norse traders, but this trade declined after the fourteenth century.
European explorers captured or lured Inuit, and later, First Nations, onto their ships and brought them back with them to Europe. The Gaspar Corte-Real expedition of the sixteenth century encountered the Inuit of Labrador. Several dozen Inuit were captured and taken to Europe. The captives were proof that the explorer had reached the lands he claimed to have reached. Captives were often taught European languages so that they could serve as guides and interpreters for future voyages. Unfortunately, many did not live long after arrival, dying as a result of unfamiliar European diseases, and a different lifestyle and diet.
Inuit peoples were nomadic hunters and fishers. In the Arctic, Europeans fished and whaled, but the initial effects of these activities upon the Inuit are difficult to measure. For example, stranded or lost ships were a fortunate find in the territory of an Inuit band. The wood and iron goods salvaged from the ship might have created sudden wealth and may have had long-ranging political implications for Inuit groups.
Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization
Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization
In the mid-1570s the Inuit of Baffin Island met Martin Frobisher, the first of many European explorers who sought a Northwest Passage to Asia. By the end of the seventeenth century, Moravian missionaries installed missions and fur trade posts on the Labrador coast, and during the 1700s and well into the 1800s, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) operated a trading post. The Caribou Inuit traded there until the HBC stopped sending ships to the northwestern Hudson Bay coast. The Inuit people moved back inland and remained relatively undisturbed until the twentieth century. For the most part, traditional lifeways remained unchanged in the eastern Arctic, with the exception of missionary activity and conversion to Anglicanism by certain Native groups.
In the western Arctic region, trade occurred regularly between the Inuit and the Russians, but it occurred through Kutchin middlemen. As a result, although European goods and social influence moved into the interior, the Russians did not have much direct contact with the Inuit. After the 1821 merger of the Hudson's Bay Company with the North West Company, the fur trade began to move further north. All parties competed for furs during the 1840s and the Inuit took advantage of this by leaving aside Kutchin middlemen and trading directly with both the HBC and the Russians. Yet, not all Inuit bands had direct access to Europeans. There is evidence that the Copper and Netsilik Inuit in the central Arctic encountered non-aboriginals for the first time as late as the twentieth century.
The Beothuk peoples inhabited Newfoundland when Europeans first made contact with them five hundred years ago. Alternating between coastal fishing and caribou hunting, the Beothuk also traded with southern agricultural groups for corn. There is no evidence of violence during the initial European encounters but this changed during the early part of the seventeenth century. A co-operative attitude did not form and attempts to trade with the French and English were thwarted by misunderstandings, which often ended in violence. European settlement forced the Beothuk away from their traditional summer camps. The Beothuk did not encourage relations with the English and retreated north to avoid contact. However, in self-protection, the Beothuk often interfered with the fishing activities of the Europeans. This struggle for land and food turned into violent clashes, and the Beothuk were hunted and killed. Tuberculosis also claimed many Beothuk. As the Europeans moved into the interior they claimed the land near winter villages and this effectively eliminated the Beothuk economy. The reduced food supply, imported diseases, and conflicts with the newcomers all contributed to the eventual extinction of the Beothuk.
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