Chapter 5. Indigenous Canada in the Era of Contact

5.8 Summary

The significance of the Columbian Exchange and the sharing of foodways, technology, and cultures that resulted can hardly be overstated. While a profound social and economic revolution shook the Eastern Hemisphere as the influx of crops and mineral wealth made merchants and monarchs wealthy, the Western Hemisphere struggled to adapt to new diseases, animals, and neighbours. The arrival of new technologies — iron tools, copper pots, rifles, axes — both broadened and narrowed it Indigenous lives. As one scholar puts it, there was a “shift in subsistence strategies brought about by the fur trade as [pre-contact] exploitation of the total environment gave way to the specialized pursuit of fur-bearing animals.” Under these circumstances, food supplies sometimes suffered and Indigenous peoples turned to the fur trade posts “to offset the increased danger of famine that this switch in emphasis entailed.”[1] This dependence was something that the French and the English encouraged.

Similarly, traditional ideas about the structure and inhabitants of the world were put aside as Europeans and Indigenous peoples encountered and ultimately learned from each other. Genetic histories and futures, too, were inextricably intertwined. What is most important to note, however, is that these changes and adjustments did not occur in a short period of time. They are underway even now. There is a tipping point in the history of Indigenous North America, that moment at which the issue at stake is not the quality of the relationship between two peoples but how to strategize survival in the face of a European imperialism that was, ironically, bankrolled by Indigenous gold and silver and fed by New World potatoes. The shifting boundaries of conflict between the many peoples of North America is the subject of the next chapter.

Key Terms

Attawandaron: An Iroquoian people located in the contact and post-contact periods in what is now southwestern Ontario. Also known as the Neutral.

Blackfoot Confederacy: Also known as the Niitsitapi, an alliance centred in the western Plains, in territory that extended from what is now southern Alberta into Montana. Consisting of the Piikáni (Piegan), Siksika (Blackfoot), Káínawa (Kainai, Blood), Tsuut’ina (Sarcee), and A’aninin (Gros Ventre).

cayuse: Regional word for “horse” in the Cordillera and western Plains. Derived from the Cayuse First Nation, who were responsible for significant advances in breeding in the 18th century. Another variant is cayoosh.

Chinook: A trade dialect developed on the West Coast comprising elements from several Indigenous languages and subsequently adopting words from various European languages. Also known as chinuk wawa.

Columbian Exchange: The traffic of goods, ideas, matériel, foodstuffs, technology, knowledge, and bacteria from Europe and Africa to the Americas and vice versa.

disease vector: A living agent that transfers a virus or bacteria from one host to another. Examples include people and mosquitoes.

Michilimackinac: An important centre of trade in the pre- and post-contact periods, historically dominated by the Odawa and Ojibwe. Located at the narrows between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, Michilimackinac was used as a mission centre by the Jesuits and, later, as a trading post site by the North West Company.

miscegnation: Derived from the Latin verb for “to mix” and the noun for “kind,” the term that has been used for the last two centuries to describe interracial marriage or sexual relations between people of different races.

polygyny: Describes a plural marriage in which two or more women share the same husband.

Pontiac: Also known as Obwandiyag, Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) was an Odawa (Ottawa) leader who launched a campaign against the British at the end of the Seven Years’ War in the region around Fort Detroit.

virgin soil epidemic: Attributed to the anthropologist/historian Alfred Crosby, the term describing a situation in which a disease, bacteria, or virus discovers a population with no natural immunity arising from previous encounters with it. Very high mortalities are a typical consequence.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. What is the Columbian Exchange?
  2. How did the Columbian Exchange improve life for Indigenous societies? How did it benefit Europeans?
  3. How does our current understanding of exotic diseases in the Americas frame the history of Native-newcomer relations?
  4. What were the immediate and short-term responses of Indigenous peoples in the northeast to smallpox?
  5. How have historians come to understand motivations of Indigenous participants in the fur trade?
  6. Why would Indigenous women enter into marriages with European men?
  7. In what ways did Indigenous societies adjust to the intrusion of Europeans from the 1500s on?
  8. Why did the Wendat tolerate the “Black Robes”? Why did some Wendat accept Christianity? What impact did this have on the entire Wendat society?
  9. In what ways did Amerindians control the fur trade?
  10. What motivated the Haudenosaunee in their campaigns from the 1640s through the rest of the 17th century?

Suggested Readings

  1. Gilbert, William. “Beothuk-European Contact in the 16th Century: A Re-evaluation of the Documentary Evidence.” Acadiensis XXXX, no.1 (Winter/Spring 2011): 24–44.
  2. Moogk, Peter. “The ‘Others’ Who Never Were: Eastern Woodlands Amerindians and Europeans in the Seventeenth Century.” French Colonial History 1 (2002): 77–100.
  3. Moussette, Marcel. “A Universe under Strain: Amerindian Nations in North-Eastern North America in the 16th Century.” Post-Medieval Archaeology 43, issue 1 (2009): 30–47.
  4. Noel, Jan. “Fertile with Fine Talk: Ungoverned Tongues among Haudenosaunee Women and their Neighbors.” Ethnohistory 57, no.2 (Spring 2010): 201–223.
  5. Reid, John G. “How Wide is the Atlantic Ocean? Not Wide Enough!” Acadiensis XXXIV, no.2 (Spring 2005): 81–87.

Text Attributions


  1. Olive Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 3rd edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117.

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