Chapter 5. Indigenous Canada in the Era of Contact

5.5 Strategic Alliances

Indigenous nations’ diplomacy in the years between 1530 and 1867 was complex and fluid. Alliances between First Nations were formed, served for a while, and then sometimes shattered or slowly dissolved. Looking back along the timeline one might get the impression that these alliances were in many instances short-lived, showing instability or even fickleness among partners. One need only look at the brief shelf life of European alliances (or, indeed, any in the 20th century) to see, however, that Indigenous agreements were reasonably durable. For the European intruders, the character of these alliances might not have been clear, nor was their purpose always obvious. In an era when European nation states were increasingly emphasizing common language and culture (or enforcing the same on subject groups) the fact that Algonquian-speakers did not automatically share a common purpose or that Iroquoian-speakers were clearly at odds was perplexing for some of the newcomers.

The Wabanaki Confederacy

The area described now as the Maritimes, Newfoundland, Maine, Vermont, and the Gaspé Peninsula was among the first to experience sustained contact with Europeans. The Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Wuastukwiuk (Malecite), Pasamaquoddy, and Penobscot (Western Abenaki) together covered much of this territory — which they called Wabanahkik — and somewhat more. They shared many cultural features and traditions, including a suite of common ancestral stories. They also shared common enemies in the Kanien’kehá:ka of the Haudenosaunee League. Wabanaki tradition indicates that they invited the French deep into their territory along the St. Lawrence with an eye to positioning them against the Iroquois enemies.

Relations with the French were thereafter very good, although the same could not be said of the English. The Pequot War in New England in 1637 gave the Penobscot cause for alarm. Their neighbours, the Naragansett, had sided with the English against the Pequot whose main village was razed by the colonists with hardly a soul left alive. The brutality of the English disturbed even the Naragansett, but they carried on with their alliance, to the disquiet of the Penobscot. Subsequently in 1675–1678, large-scale conflict broke out again in Metacomet’s War (or King Philip’s War). This began as an attempt to push the rapidly growing English Puritan colonists back into the sea. An imbalance of numbers (there were already more than 80,000 New Englanders and Metacomet’s alliance was down to fewer than 10,000, thanks mainly to pandemics earlier in the century) and the hostility of neighbouring Indigenous peoples such as the Kanien’kehá:ka doomed the crusade from the outset.[1]

Some 3000 Naragansett Confederacy people died in this war and others were shipped off into slavery in the West Indies. It is believed that a large number fled north into the Penobscot and Pasamaquoddy territories. If the foundation of a Wabanaki Confederacy wasn’t already laid in 1678 it certainly was soon thereafter. The Wabanaki Confederacy viewed the English as their principal threat and conducted effective land and sea attacks for the next hundred years, earning the long-term enmity of the British regime in Halifax as well as that of their old enemies, the Puritan colonists of New England. In the 18th century, the Wabanaki Confederacy would prove to be the most important and valuable ally of the French. Catholic missionaries moved into their territories and spent at least as much time evangelizing the Wabanaki peoples as they did ministering to the Acadians. At no point in the century of conflict that followed Metacomet’s War were the Wabanaki doing the bidding of the French, however much the English might have thought that was the case. The Wabanaki agenda was consistently the preservation if not the restoration of their lands in the face of English colonial growth.

The Haudenosaunee League of Five Nations

No Indigenous political organization in North America was to play as important and as lasting a role in the post-contact period as the Haudenosaunee. Known to the French as the Iroquois and to the English as the Five Nations, the Haudenosaunee alliance came together sometime around 1450, which makes it significantly older than Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Original members of this cultural and ceremonial organization or League — the Kanien’kehá:ka (a.k.a. Mohawk), Onyota’a:ka (a.k.a. Oneida), Onondaga, Gayogohó:no (a.k.a. Cayuga), and Seneca — resolved long-standing differences by acceptance of the Great Law of Peace. The number of Haudenosaunee villages was not great at the time of contact, nor were they located close to one another. All were well fortified, an indication that peace between the League members hadn’t eliminated external threats. The Onondaga villages were the geographical centre of the Five Nations and they hosted the main council. Being a matrilineal culture, the council received much direction from the women in the community, a practice that was evidently recommended by the Great Peacemaker in the mid-1400s. This prophet arose in the Wendat villages of the north and he made it his goal to end the Mourning Wars between the Iroquoian-speaking peoples. In this he succeeded only partially, as the Wendat, Erieehronon (Erie), Tionontati (Petun or Tobacco), and Attawandaron (Neutral) remained on the outside of the League. The Five Nations were, however, increased to six in 1722 when the Skarù:ręˀ (a.k.a. Tuscarora) abandoned North Carolina and moved north to join the Onyota’a:ka.[2]

As a military organization, the League was highly effective. During the Beaver Wars (c. 1630–1701) they were able to expand their influence over much of the lands west of and some to the east of Appalachia. Indeed, it was the extension of League influence into the Carolinas that brought them into contact with the Tuscarora, a branch of the family that had been lost sight of, perhaps for centuries. The initial impetus of the Great Peace, of course, predates the arrival of the Europeans and so it has to be seen in the context of pre-contact circumstances. Although the Five Nations were arrayed across what is now upstate New York, their presence extended in the 17th century into the lands north of Lake Ontario. Their conflict with Algonquian-speakers to the east and north, and spectacularly with the Wendat to the west had its roots long before the Dutch and French ingratiated themselves into North American affairs. The strength of the French-Wendat-Omàmiwinini alliance, however, catalyzed Haudenosaunee mobilization. A century of relative success in the conflicts that followed enabled the Haudenosaunee to play a critical role in regional politics.

The Wendat Confederacy

The French called them the Huron, a term that either described the way they wore their hair or was derived from an Algonquin description. The Wendat (or Wyandot) were a loose but effective federation of four Iroquoian-speaking tribes or nations. The Arendarrhonons (People of the Rock), Attingueenougnahak (People of the Cord), Attignaouantan (People of the Bear), and the Tahontaenrat (People of the Deer) joined in an alliance probably in the 1500s. Archaeological evidence suggests that some of their lands were at one time along the north shore of Lake Ontario, but in the 16th century they coalesced around Georgian Bay.[3] By the time of Champlain’s visit to their villages in 1615, there were some 25,000 to 30,000 Wendat in Wendake, also known as the Huron Confederacy or Huronia.

Fear of Haudenosaunee attacks in the continuing Mourning Wars may have motivated the Wendat to relocate to new territories. Relocation to Georgian Bay could have arisen, too, from commercial interests as that locale is at the confluence of several key water routes running north, south, and east. As agricultural people, the Wendat moved from time to time to new, fresh farmland but this was an arduous business that involved dismantling and rebuilding longhouses, erecting new palisades, disinterring and reburying the dead, and so on. A long-distance move, therefore, was not undertaken lightly. Whatever considerations took them to Georgian Bay, the outcome was economically favourable. They were able to trade surplus maize, other food crops, tobacco (usually obtained from the Iroquoian Tionontati to the south), squirrel skins (traded on from the other Iroquoians in the region, the Attawandaron), and manufactured products like fishing nets for meat, hides, and, of course, furs. As their population grew they became the dominant military force in the region as well. They had the commercial and physical power to lay claim to extensive trading zones and to charge tolls for passage along the many canoe routes through the interior. As the French would discover, trade in and around Wendake (Huronia) was conducted in Wyandot (a variant of Iroquois), by Omàmiwinini, Anishinaabe, and other trading peoples. This was a sure sign of who held the most influence in the trade networks.[4]

As the dominant trading hub in the region, the Wendat had a close relationship with the Omàmiwinini and Innu (Montagnais) Their alliance — less formal and more functional — was a thorn in the side of the Haudenosaunee and governed much of what the French could do in the St. Lawrence for the better part of a century. For example, when, in 1626, the French established a pact with the Attawandaron, the Wendat moved quickly to sabotage it and force the French traders back into Wendat-controlled channels.

Council of Three Fires

Known in Anishinaabe as Niswi-mishkodewin, the Council of Three Fires was a venerable alliance between the Odaawaa (Ottawa) of Lake Huron’s north shore, the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) of the Sault Narrows between Lakes Huron and Superior, and the Potawatomi of what is now Michigan. Algonquian-speaking and closely related by (sometimes strategic) intermarriage, the Council was a buffer between the expansive Haudenosaunee and the fur resources of the north. They absorbed many refugees from the dying Wendat Confederacy and experienced significant growth in the century that followed. It was an Anishinaabe population boom that drove the Council deeper into Dakota Sioux territory on the western shore of Lake Michigan, onto the Plains (where they adapted and emerged as a distinctive Plains Ojibwa culture), and into southern Ontario, replacing Iroquoian-speaking peoples and gradually pushing back the Haudenosaunee. This last move was, in some measures, a restoration of Wendat claims.

The Three Fires controlled a pivotal part of North America: the upper Great Lakes. This gave them access to the rivers of the north, the Plains of the West, the Mississippi and St. Lawrence river systems, and the economies in each of these regions. Headquartered seasonally at Michilimackinac, the Council generally sided with the French in the colonial wars, although individual member tribes/communities could set their own course and often did so. In 1763 the Odawa leader Pontiac led a challenge to putative British control over the Ohio Valley and the Pays d’en Haut.[5]

The Iron Confederacy

The alliance of Cree, Nakoda Oyadebi (a.k.a. Assiniboine), and Anihšināpē (a.k.a. Saulteaux, Plains Ojibwa, Chippewa) arose in the 17th century if not earlier. Driven in large measure by the technological advantages acquired during the early days of the fur trade, the Confederacy diffused rifles, metal blades, and metal tools across the Plains from northeast to southwest. The Cree had been at the tail end of trade originating in Canada in the 1600s, but the arrival of the HBC in their territory gave them access to newer and better quality goods. The brief advantage of their rivals (which included the A’aninin or Gros Ventres) who were first to acquire horses was reversed by the better-armed Iron Confederacy. This alliance was as much about economic power as it was about military resilience; the Confederacy could reach deep into the Missouri Valley to raid or trade for horses and also to exchange (at a considerable markup) British goods for the Indigenous products that mattered most to the Confederacy and, of course, furs.

Chipewyan Solidarity

The Dené nations to the north and west of Hudson Bay were placed into serious peril by the acquisition of guns by their Cree neighbours and enemies. The Dënesųlįné (a.k.a. Chipewyan) were the worst affected and earliest to respond strategically. Much of the credit for this repositioning has been attributed to Thanadelthur, a singular character in Chipewyan history. Captured in 1713 during an attack by the Cree, Thanadelthur made good an escape and, finding refuge at the HBC’s York Factory, developed a plan for the survival of her people. She persuaded the English traders that the Dënesųlįné had direct access to superior furs and copper and that establishing a post in their territory would benefit the company’s bottom line. This plan would only work if the Dënesųlįné could get breathing room from the Cree, so Thanadelthur turned her attention to a party of Cree who were amenable to seeking peace. The mission that Thanadelthur led north into Dënesųlįné territory nearly ended in disaster but she is credited with singlehandedly persuading both parties to agree to a lasting peace. The HBC established direct links to the northern peoples, providing them with guns with which they could at last counter the Cree.

Three consequences arose from Thanadelthur’s actions. First, the Dënesųlįné tightened the loose alliances between their own peoples, building commercial and military solidarity where before there had been little. Second, by driving the Cree back the Dënesųlįné found themselves expanding into boreal forests; soon they were adapting the canoe-based systems of transportation familiar to their enemies (which superseded their pedestrian and dog-haulage systems wherever it made sense to do so). Finally, better transportation, arms, and mutual support meant that the Dënesųlįné themselves became expansive, pushing the Dené and other western groups farther inland while exhausting beaver stocks all the way to the Mackenzie River.[6]

The Blackfoot Confederacy

The Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsitapi) is of uncertain age. Linguistic evidence (with Algonquian roots) suggests an origin in or near what is now New Brunswick and Maine. The population shifted west at least 400 years before contact with Europeans and so were well established as a Plains culture by that time. The Káínaa (or Kanai, Blood), the Siksika (or Blackfoot), and the Piikáni (also known as the Piegan or Pikuni) occupied the core of the Confederacy, which was enlarged by alliances with the A’aninin and the Tsuu T’ina (or Sarcee) made during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Niitsitapi would come to epitomize the bison-hunting cultures of the northern Plains and were early adapters of horses. Their aggressive defence of their territories and what neighbours complained of as overcharging for access to resources and travel corridors earned them the enmity of the Ktunaxa (Kutenai) in particular, who were forced out of the western Plains and into the cordillera. Niitsitapi leadership, as in many Plains societies, was more corporate and less individualistic than in some eastern woodlands societies. This made the Confederacy better equipped to counter attacks on any member and, in later years, to negotiate with a single voice when it came to diplomacy and, indeed, treaty-making.

Across the Rockies

Alliances emerged and shifted between the Indigenous peoples of the interior plateau during the proto-contact and early contact periods. Three examples are of special importance.

The early 19th century alliance of the Syilx (a.k.a. Okanagan), Secwepemc, and Nlaka’pamux reflects a process of Interior Salishan consolidation. Years of conflict between the Syilx and Secwepemc in particular had obliged the latter to tighten their own internal alliances against their southern neighbours. Itinerant Syilx made contact with Euro-Canadians in Montana in the late 18th century and may have been motivated (and enabled) by new trade goods and access to horses to bind together their erstwhile enemies. By about 1810 the alliance was secured under the military and hereditary leadership of N’kwala.

While the Nuu-cha-nulth and Tla-o-qui-aht (a.k.a. Clayoquot) peoples were consolidating their hold on the west coast of Vancouver Island by (sometimes brutal) military means, the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Johnstone Strait were becoming a federation in every way but name. Their raiding parties pushed neighbours farther south, allowing them to colonize vacated territories. By the early 1800s their numbers were rising and the villages were many. In both cases, political realignments were underway before the arrival of Europeans, but it seems likely that the newcomers provided a further stimulus as local leaders sought to establish monopolies in trade.

Finally, and in response to Kwakwaka’wakw raids, the Hul’qumi’num-speaking peoples of the southern Salish Sea abandoned long traditions of village autonomy and established a working alliance in the early 19th century.

Key Takeaways

  • Indigenous societies forged alliances among themselves against their neighbours and against the European newcomers.
  • Many noteworthy alliances existed among post-contact Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada, including the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Wendat Confederacy, the Council of Three Fires, the Iron Confederacy, and the Niitsitapi/Blackfoot Confederacy. Some of these predate contact. Another alliance, the Haudenosaunee League of Five Nations, was centred to the south of Canada but had an enormous influence on Canadian history.
  • Some of these alliances were motivated by or strengthened as a result of contact with Europeans.

  1. Harold E.L. Prins, “Children of Gluskap: Wabanaki Indians on the Eve of the European Invasion,” in American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, Emerson W. Baker, Edwin A. Churchill, Richard D’Abate, Kristine L. Jones, Victor A. Conrad, and Harald E.L. Prins, editors (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994): 95–117.
  2. Richard Aquila, The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701–1754 (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1983): 29–42.
  3. James F. Pendergast, “The Confusing Identities Attributed to Stadacona and Hochelaga,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1998): 3–4.
  4. Bruce G. Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered (Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1985): 157–161.
  5. See Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  6. Alan D. McMillan, Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988): 230–235.


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