These are the women of the fur trade, the country wives, the mothers of a new nation. Above all else, the new world could not have been settled and the men could not have survived without these amazing women.
The economic role played by Indian women in fur trade society reflected the extent to which the European traders were compelled to adapt to the native way of life. The all-encompassing work role of Indian women was transferred, in modified form, to the trading posts where their skills not only facilitated the traders’ survival in the wilderness but actual fur trade operations.
At both fur trading companies (Hudson’s Bay and Nor’Westers) Indian women came to be relied upon as an integral if unofficial part of the labour force. This economic assistance was a powerful incentive for the traders to take Indian wives. Indian women exercised a role in the functioning of the fur trade that has been little appreciated by historians of this period.
The Nor’Westers had a first-hand knowledge of the usefulness of Indian wives, gained from the French, and this was an important reason for the Company allowing its men to inter-marry with the Indian women. Besides familiarizing the Frenchman with the customs and language of her tribe, the Indian woman had performed a wide range of domestic tasks. When the Jesuit Father Carheil castigated the French traders at Michilimackinac for keeping Indian women, the traders argued that their primary motive was economic necessity. Their wives ground the corn to make the staple food known as sagamit, made moccasins and leather garments, performed other essential services such as washing clothes and chopping firewood for the cabins. Given that the Nor’Westers with their large force of skilled engags still relied upon the services of Indian women, it can be appreciated that the Hudson’s Bay Company (with its limited and inexperienced personnel) had an even greater need for their assistance. Throughout the 18th Century, officers of the Bay argued with the London Committee that it was essential to keep Indian women in the posts as they performed important tasks that the British had not yet mastered.
Perhaps the most important domestic task performed by the women at the fur trade posts was to provide the men with a steady supply of Indian shoes or moccasins. The men of both companies generally did not dress in Indian style but they universally adopted the moccasin as the most practical footwear for the wilderness.
The first step in making moccasins or other leather apparel such as leggings and mittens was the labourious process of tanning the moose or deer skins. Large quantities were needed as moccasins wore out quickly. At York Factory in 1800 the women made 650 pairs for the men’s use in the summer season.
Closely related to the manufacture of moccasins was the Indian woman’s role in making the snowshoes that made winter travel possible. Although the men usually made the frames, the women prepared the sinews and netted the intricate webbing that provided the support. A man could not venture outside the post to collect firewood or hunt small game in winter without snowshoes. To be without women to make them was to invite disaster.
Aboriginal Women were the bridges from the old world to the new. These women provided the necessary links to the Aboriginal tribes and much needed Aboriginal knowledge of the land, the flora and the fauna. Without an Aboriginal woman to make moccasins and snowshoes, the men would not be able to survive the harshness of the land. These women provided the knowledge of which plants could be eaten, held the knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants, acted as pack mules, tanned hides and furs for clothing and were the mothers of the new nation: the Métis.
Métis children were sometimes sent to Eastern Canada or Europe to be educated. After receiving a formal education, they would return to the Northwest to be employed in the fur trade. Their accessibility to both their father and mother’s cultures made them valued employees of the fur companies. They rapidly became the middlemen who moved freely between the two cultures: trusted and respected by both.
These middlemen sometimes assisted the missionaries in spreading the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the New World. The Roman Catholic Church proved to be a highly influential force among the Métis and, like their voyageur fathers, the Métis helped to spread the teachings of the Church. The Church encouraged settlement and, during the 18th Century, the Oblate Missionaries who came west worked to promote the establishment of permanent communities.
During the 1800’s, after the wild new land had been tamed somewhat and settlers had begun to arrive, the importance of Aboriginal women plummeted. There no longer was a prominent need for new world skills, no need to have a country wife. The assimilation and genocidal practices were being put in place by both the Canadian and U.S.A. governments and most cathartic, non-Aboriginal women were entering the scene. What a shame that the incoming society had such little respect for the new world people, that we lost much of the knowledge that these indigenous women held.
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