Hunting and trapping have always been essential to the way of life of First Nations and other Aboriginal societies. More than simply a means of providing food, hunting and trapping are central features of many First Nations' economic, social and cultural lives. Wildlife harvesting is a form of sustainable resource use that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Hunting and trapping encompass all wildlife harvesting, including marine mammals such as whales and seals.
It may be difficult for students in urban schools to appreciate the importance of hunting and trapping to the First Nations way of life. Indeed, many Canadians assume that the hunting and trapping lifestyle is a thing of the past. By putting hunting and trapping in a historical context only, the images of First Nations are frozen in the past. For this reason, the role of hunting and trapping in today's First Nations economies and cultures is largely ignored. Many people in Canada are only discovering now what Aboriginal people have been practicing for millennia — that sustainable use of resources is important to our community's well-being.
In this unit, students will learn why hunting and trapping are important to First Nations societies and how they remain an integral feature of life in many First Nations communities today.
The importance of hunting and trapping to First Nations varies because First Nations have diverse cultures and different historical circumstances.
Over thousands of years, each First Nation developed its own methods of surviving on their traditional lands. The Iroquois Confederacy had sophisticated farming skills and all First Nations relied upon fishing. But every First Nation depended on hunting and trapping as the primary means of subsistence. Although resources and environments varied, large game and fur-bearing animals provided the food, shelter and clothing that were vital to survival.
The historical circumstances of First Nations have also affected the role hunting and trapping play in community life. Today, many First Nations who live in southern Canada are unable to make a living from hunting and trapping because of urban settlement. First Nations in the relatively remote northern regions of Canada continue to rely on hunting and trapping for food and income. Hunting and trapping are therefore part of the social fabric of these communities.
First Nations who regard hunting and trapping as important reflect this throughout their cultures. First Nations have always had a close relationship with the animals and the land that support them. As a result, the importance of hunting and trapping is reflected in many of their traditional structures.
For example, many First Nations' traditional systems of land use are defined by their traditional hunting and trapping practices. Some First Nations had patterns of land use that reflected the well-defined hunting territories of families or clans. Others based their movements on the patterns of the animals they pursued.
Hunters often hold a great deal of influence in First Nations societies. Hunters who have proven their skills and knowledge of the land are consulted about many issues in the community.
Hunting and trapping also shape the traditional laws and customs of many First Nations. Here are some examples:
- Where families or clans have their own hunting territory, an essential law for some First Nations is that others may not hunt on the family's territory without permission.
- Plains peoples, such as the Blackfoot, had special societies responsible for managing the buffalo hunt. Individuals who interfered with the buffalo hunt, by disrupting it or not obeying the orders of the lead hunters, were punished.
- An important custom in some First Nations cultures is that the bones of an animal must be returned to the land or water, or hung in a tree.
These customs and laws are based on an attitude of respect that is required in First Nations traditions to manage the land and its resources properly.
Women play crucial roles in First Nations hunting societies. The work of men and women in hunting societies is both separate and overlapping. Generally, men hunt large game animals; women hunt smaller animals. Men's work focuses on killing and butchering, while women prepare the food and the skins. Some First Nations women work their own traplines. They snare, trap and skin, and prepare hides for trade.
In most First Nations hunting societies, none of these roles is exclusive. However, they do tend to be separated. One role or activity is not viewed as any less important than the other.
Many First Nations have maintained the cultural practices of their ancestors, and hunting and trapping continue to play a critical role in the First Nations way of life today.
Also, in many First Nations communities, hunting and trapping are critical to the economy. Some communities have estimated that bush or country food (food taken from the land) provides anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the food needs of the community.
Hunting and trapping also have tremendous social value. The traditional concepts of sharing are preserved, as families who hunt provide bush food to those who hunt less, or who are unable to hunt. Traditional hunting territories and concepts of stewardship have adapted to increasing First Nation populations and to the growth of "non-traditional" employment in communities. Finally, hunting and trapping continue to play an important role in the education of many First Nations youth.
Many First Nations are seeking to protect and revitalize hunting and trapping in their communities. First Nations are using land claims settlements to establish co-management boards so hunters and trappers can have more say in how wildlife and the environment are managed in their territories. Some First Nations have created income security programs for hunters and trappers, so that families can pursue hunting and trapping as a way to earn income. And First Nations are increasingly sharing the hunters' traditional knowledge of the land to teach society as a whole how to relate to the environment in a more respectful manner.
First Nations hunters and trappers face a number of obstacles in pursuing their livelihood.
The biggest threat to the continued existence of hunting and trapping in First Nations communities is a shrinking land base. The land base of many southern First Nations has all but disappeared. Even in remote and less populated northern areas, resource companies are having an impact on traditional hunting territories.
Forestry, mining, oil and gas, and hydro developments are not the only intrusions on the traditional territories of First Nations hunters. With the extension of access roads deep into First Nations hunting territories and traplines, the popularity of sports hunting has also grown. First Nations hunters find themselves competing with other Canadians for game. The activities of groups opposed to the harvesting of animals for fur have also affected First Nations communities across Canada by drastically reducing the value of furs.
This unit may be more difficult to implement for teachers in southern, urban environments than it will be for teachers in northern, remote communities. Where hunting and trapping remain an important way of life for a community, teachers should seek to involve hunters and trappers in the classroom. Even more importantly, they should give the students an opportunity to incorporate life on traplines into their studies.
However, teachers who do not have ready access to hunters and trappers can still benefit from this unit. Teachers can guide students through the available research on hunting and trapping. They can have them consider how issues such as resource development, land claims, fur bans and sport hunting affect First Nations who seek to pursue traditional lifestyles.
1. A Hunter's Story
Read the following account of a First Nations Elder to your class.
"When I was young, we used to hunt all the time. We used to hunt moose, bear, caribou, ducks, geese. We hunted all the time, you had to hunt until you killed something. Sometimes we went hungry, but mostly we had country food all the time.
It's hard to hunt moose. You have to follow the tracks until you find the animal. Moose are smart. You have to be careful because they watch everything, and they run away fast. I shot my first moose when I was fifteen. I didn't know a lot about hunting, so an old man took me out in the bush. I saw some moose tracks, I was real excited because I wanted to shoot that moose. The old man ignored those tracks. He didn't even say anything, he just kept on walking. We walked for a long time, and we found more moose tracks. The old man said there was a moose here, so we went into the bush, and we found it and I shot it. I was happy. It was a good feeling because we took it back and everyone had fresh meat. That old man knew how to hunt and he showed me how to hunt.
In those days, everyone used to travel together and everyone would help each other. If someone killed a moose, they would share it with everybody. Today, people don't share as much as they used to. That was important in the old days — if you had meat, you never refused to share it with anybody. If you didn't share, then the hunting was no good. That's why people respected a good hunter, because he always shared everything.
We were trappers, too. That's how we used to make money. We trapped beaver, lynx, muskrat, mink. We used to take our furs to the store. We traded the money for groceries and then we would go back in the bush again.
I remember in the old days, my mother used to trap. She used to set snares for rabbits. She used to walk a long way, and come back with some rabbits in a bag. Sometimes she even set a trap for muskrat. I taught my granddaughter how to set a snare, and she brought me a rabbit last week.
Trapping is different from the old days. Now, they only stay one or two nights when they go check their traps. In the old days, we were gone a long time when we checked our traps. We travelled on snowshoes. We went really slow when there was lots of snow. Now they got skidoos and they check their trapline in one or two days.
Some of my kids would rather go to work than go trapping. It's hard on them going out in the bush and trying to make a living. But it's a good life. Even the tea tastes better in the bush."
When you have finished reading this short story to the students, encourage them to discuss their impressions of the Elder who was speaking. You may ask them some of the following questions:
- Why is it difficult to hunt moose? How did the Elder learn to hunt moose?
- How has trapping changed from when the Elder was young?
- Do you think that hunting and trapping are still important to the Elder?
- How are women involved in hunting and trapping?
- Why does the Elder feel it is important to share?
- Do you believe it is important to share? Why?
- What have you learned from this story?
2. Treaty Hunting Rights
The Chiefs who signed treaties with the Crown did not enter into the treaty-making process without a great deal of discussion and debate.
An important feature of many of the treaties was that the Crown agreed that First Nations could continue to hunt and fish in the manner in which they were accustomed. For example, the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850, which covers much of Northern Ontario, contains the following provision:
"Her Majesty and the Government of this Province hereby promises and agrees...to allow the said Chiefs and their tribes the full and free privilege to hunt over the territory now ceded by them, and to fish in the waters thereof as they have heretofore been in the habit of doing..."
During the signing of Treaty 8, the treaty commissioners reported that the Chiefs would not sign until they had been assured that their freedoms to hunt, trap and fish would not be restricted:
"Our chief difficulty was the apprehension that the hunting and fishing privileges were to be curtailed. We had to solemnly assure them that only such laws as to hunting and fishing as were in the interests of the Indians or were found to be necessary to protect the fish and fur-bearing animals will be made, and that they would be as free to hunt and fish after the treaty as they would be, if they never entered into it."
Some historical treaties may be found on the Treaty-Making in Canada page. Once you have reviewed some of the treaties with the class, ask students to enact a play, taking the parts of the Chiefs and the representatives of the Crown during the late nineteenth century. Select six students to prepare a short skit in which three leaders discuss their hunting rights with three representatives of the Crown.
Perform the skit in class, with half the class acting as community members who will be affected by the proposed treaty and half as non-Aboriginal settlers. Both parties may have questions as to their own rights according to the treaty's provisions on hunting.
3. The Hunter as a Steward
A steward is usually someone who is entrusted with managing the affairs of someone else. In First Nations hunting societies, stewards are responsible for managing and regulating their hunting territories. Not everyone can be a steward: stewards must hunt and trap for many years before they can assume such a role. A steward must be familiar with the conditions of the animals in the territory, and he will discuss these trends with other stewards and Elder hunters. Stewards will decide when the territory can be used, how many people may use it, which species may be hunted and where. If a steward neglects these responsibilities and over-hunting occurs, future hunting will be unsuccessful and the family and community will suffer.
Managing the land through stewardship is an example of traditional First Nations wildlife management practices. Another way that many First Nations societies traditionally managed game levels was by the selective use of fire. Hunters would burn small land fires in carefully chosen areas. The fires encouraged new growth in the spring. The new growth would attract the small animals, birds, and berries necessary to support greater numbers of larger animals. Some of the species which benefited from controlled burning were moose, deer, beaver, muskrat, bear, and different species of waterfowl.
To illustrate the discussion about First Nations stewardship, you may choose to have the class watch the National Film Board video, Cree Hunters of Mistassini. How does the family in the video show its responsibilities to the land? Do students think that this knowledge could be used to benefit Canadians as a whole?
4. Shopping List Investigation
Because of its cultural significance, hunting remains an important part of the livelihood of many First Nations. It is also an economical way of providing food. Wild game is a key feature of the traditional diets of some First Nations, who often prefer it to domestic foods like beef and chicken. Large game such as moose, deer and caribou may feed several families for weeks. When compared to the cost of purchasing groceries at a supermarket, particularly meat products, it is easy to see why hunting is crucial where jobs for First Nations members are scarce.
To understand the importance of hunting to contemporary First Nations economies, it is worth asking students to give some thought to the costs of the food on their tables each night.
Begin by asking students where their families get their food. Many students will simply say the supermarket. Encourage them to explore other sources, such as gardens, berry-picking, farms or fishing. There may be some students in your class whose families rely on hunting for some or all of their meat supply. They should be encouraged to share their insights during this discussion.
Once you have recorded this information on the board, tell students to prepare a short report on the cost of the food they eat. Over the course of a week, they are to record the meals eaten at dinnertime and approximately how much they cost. It is not necessary for the students to add up all of the ingredients that went into the preparation of the meal; the focus of this shopping list investigation should be on meat, or whatever main course protein source the family prefers.
At the end of a week, ask the students to prepare a simple chart that totals the amount of money spent on meat or meat substitutes. The chart may look like this:
Totals of amount of money spent on meat or meat substitutes
The last line of the chart should indicate the total costs of the primary ingredients of their family's foodstuff over the past week.
Students do not need to display these charts or share the amount with the rest of the class. You need only ask them to consider the total amount spent by their family on meat or meat substitutes, and imagine what else the money could be used for. The point to emphasize is that hunters who provide wild game for their family and others have a tremendous impact on household income. This is especially important in areas where employment income is low and the cost of living is high.
Students should not be left with the impression that the sole value of hunting to First Nations is economic. Nor should they be left with the impression that wild game is "free". Traditional First Nations hunting practices emphasize the hunter as a guardian of the land, and animals are honoured as sacred gifts for the nourishment of people. If the land is not managed wisely, the gifts will be taken away. Furthermore, like all self-employed individuals, hunters have associated costs, such as guns, clothing, transportation and gasoline.
5. Classroom Visit
Invite a First Nations hunter or trapper to speak to the class about the role of hunting and trapping in First Nations cultures. You may also wish to invite a First Nations woman who is familiar with hunting lifestyles to discuss a woman's role in a hunting camp. Or invite a First Nations person who is involved in contemporary styles of ecological management. Many First Nations administer their own wildlife management programs and there will be people such as wildlife officers who are very knowledgeable about contemporary and traditional First Nations conservation practices.
If your school is in the city and it is difficult to reach people who are familiar with traditional hunting lifestyles, contact someone from the local Friendship Centre. Another option is to contact a provincial environment ministry, which will have various wildlife and natural resources departments. It may be possible to invite to the classroom a conservation officer who has some knowledge of First Nations hunting and trapping issues. Be sure that students prepare some questions for the speaker. The students should also present the speaker with a gift, preferably one that they have created themselves.
6. Hunting and Trapping: Our way of life
If students in the class are involved in hunting and trapping, teachers may wish to complement the activities in this unit by creating a wall display that shows the students' hunting and trapping knowledge.
Items in the display could include:
- a map by the students showing their families' traditional hunting territories;
- a display of animal pelts, with a description of the animal and its characteristics;
- photos and drawings of hunting trips;
- stories and poems about the students' experiences in the bush;
- descriptions of methods of snaring or trapping particular animals; e.g., a step-by-step account of how to set a rabbit snare; and
- recipes for the preparation of traditional foods.
7. The Hunting Committee
Students who live in communities where hunting and trapping are practised will understand, and likely be very respectful of the variety of skills of hunters and trappers. Wherever possible, students should be encouraged to spend time with hunters and trappers so they can observe these skills first-hand.
Skillful hunters or trappers must know a great deal about the animals they are hunting or trapping, but this is only one of many skills they must master. They must be able to build shelters when they and their families are in the bush. They must be prepared to repair their snowmobiles, trucks and outboard motors, if they break down.
Trappers must be sensitive to the price of furs in the larger economy and what types of fur will fetch the highest price. They must be prudent businesspersons, to ensure that their income will meet their families' needs. First Nations trappers and hunters are often also highly sensitive to the spiritual teachings of their people, which may include being responsive to dream teachings. Hunters are occasionally required to practise their medicinal skills, both traditional and modern, when they or members of their families are ill out on the trapline or hunting territory. Hunters can also pass on a great deal of traditional knowledge of the land from one generation to the next through stories.
This activity is designed to encourage students to explore, albeit in an artificial way, the variety of factors that a hunter or trapper must consider in making a sound and wise hunting choice.
Tell students that they are going to simulate a decision that must be made by one hunter and one trapper. The hunter is hunting for a moose and the trapper is planning to set his or her traps for beaver (feel free to change these animals to any large game animal or any fur-bearing animal common in your area). The families of the hunter and trapper would like to leave for the bush seven days from the date of the assignment.
Divide the class into two committees, the Moose Committee and the Beaver Committee. It is the responsibility of the committees to gather all of the information required for the hunter and trapper to make a decision as to whether or not the family should depart seven days from now.
On each committee, you will need a student to provide the following information:
- animal expert — provides a report on the animal being pursued, including its habits and habitat;
- weather person — provides a report on the weather seven days from now and a prediction of what the weather will be for the duration of the two-week trip;
- businessperson — provides a report on the current cost of furs or hides;
- storyteller — provides a legend or story regarding the animal being pursued;
- mechanic — provides a report of the steps taken to prepare the pick-up truck and the snowmobile or outboard, and the cost of the necessary fuel for a two-week trip;
- carpenter — provides a report of the tools and wood required to build a 7x7 storage shed at the camp and a rough estimate of the costs; and
- dreamer — (in some hunting cultures, a good hunter is someone who can interpret dreams) this student should provide a report on how his or her dreams can assist the hunting trip.
Some of this information is not conventional library research, and students may have to use their ingenuity. For example, the student who is doing the report on carpentry may have to phone a local lumber store; the students researching the weather forecast or the fur rates may find the Internet useful; the student assigned to interpret dreams will have to research some First Nations mythologies.
Once all of the students have gathered their information, they should prepare it in a brief summary to present to the rest of the committee. After hearing all the reports, it is up to the committee to reach consensus as to whether or not they should depart on the designated day.
8. The Fur Wars
In recent years, First Nations hunters and trappers have found themselves at the centre of a highly controversial debate: the use of animal fur for fashion. Animal rights groups have launched campaigns to try and stop the use of animal fur in the fashion industry. In some markets, the anti-fur lobby has been very effective, resulting in either import restrictions or a lessening of the appeal for fur as a fashion item. Many First Nations people have found this controversy to be perplexing, as some of the third groups which present Aboriginal people as "the original environmentalists" then criticize their traditional hunting and trapping of wildlife. As a result, First Nation communities who rely on wildlife harvesting have become actively involved in lobbying for their own rights to hunt and trap.
From the perspective of animal rights groups, non-human animals have a right to live according to their own natures. This includes a right to be free from any human use. Animal rights groups have particularly focused on the use of "leg-hold traps," which at one time was the most common type of animal trap used by trappers. While there are over a thousand different types of leg-hold traps, the "steel-jawed" type has been the one used most often in anti-trapping ads. This type of trap has not been widely used in Canada since the 1970s. Their use has been banned in most provinces and territories for most terrestrial fur-bearing animals since that time. Animal rights groups have called for a ban on all traps and, ultimately, an end to the use of furs for fashion.
Trappers – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal — have responded by using quick-killing traps specially designed for each species, which are much more selective and humane than older methods. Nonetheless, the anti-fur activities of the animal rights groups threaten to undermine the ability of many First Nations communities which have depended on trapping to provide some of their cash income.
Aboriginal hunters and trappers argue that their traditional hunting practices are based upon respect. In traditional First Nations hunting societies, animals are more than food that sustains people's bodies. Animals are considered to possess intelligence, are capable of independent action and have their own way of living. A successful hunt is not simply the result of the work of the hunter. It also rests with the intention of the animal to be slain. In this way, animals are "received" and are considered gifts from the Creator. In fact, many Aboriginal communities believe that to refuse these gifts — i.e. not to hunt them — would be seen by the Creator as ingratitude and result in some retribution against the community. This belief is found in all Aboriginal cultures across Canada. To view an animal in this way means that hunters have special obligations. For example, they must share this gift with others, they must manage the land wisely and they must maintain a spiritual balance. If they are sensitive to all of these responsibilities, hunters believe that they will receive what they want when they are in need.
Students will likely have strong views on this subject. Students could be asked to share their views on the following question: Do you think people (specifically First Nations) should be allowed to trap animals for their fur?
If students have not had exposure to the role of hunting and trapping in First Nations, it may be difficult for them to appreciate the First Nations perspectives. The National Film Board video, Pelts: Politics of the Fur Trade, may serve as a basis for discussion before beginning this activity.