First Nations | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves

First Nations

The term First Nations, as of 2013, refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so who lived in America long before European contact.
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English — CA
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  • Social Studies
  • Genocide

The term First Nations, as of 2013, refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so who lived in America long before European contact. Historians have divided them into six geographical groups: Woodland First Nations, who occupy forested areas of eastern Canada; Iroquoian First Nations (also known as the Haudenosaunee) in the fertile southern part of the country; Plains First Nations in the Prairies; Plateau First Nations, who live throughout Canada’s inland; Pacific Coast First Nations; and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins. 1 Even within these geographical groups, there is a richness and diversity of identity, culture, and customs, although the communities share certain similar characteristics, languages, stories, and outlooks.

  • 1This information is largely based on “First Nations in Canada,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Government of Canada website, accessed September 10, 2014.

The Mohawk nation of Kahnawà:ke holds an annual pow wow on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec each July. Pow wows are open to all and celebrate the traditional dances, songs, and crafts of Indigenous cultures.

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First Nations have lived in what is now called North America for tens of thousands of years, surviving the harsh weather by developing extraordinary skills and knowledge of their surroundings, which is sometimes called indigenous knowledge. Some gathered fruits and vegetables and lived off hunting and fishing, practices that required seasonal relocation. In this sense many of the First Nations were “nomadic”; they moved around the vast plains and prairies, responding to the changing seasons and the natural migration of prey. Overuse of land and overhunting of animals were not common before increasing European economic demand for fur, meat, and other products pushed some nations to hunt and fish for commercial purposes.

Most First Nations had a defined territory within which they moved freely in search of food and shelter. Several nations, however, lived in more permanent settlements. The Hurons and the Iroquois, for example, were excellent farmers who lived on the rich land of what is now southern Ontario. A handful of other sedentary nations lived in Ontario, British Columbia, and elsewhere. Traditional First Nations communities were self-governed and supported by complex social structures, which included elected chiefs, healers, elders, and councils who led the bands more or less democratically. As in civilizations around the world, the First Nations sometimes fought each other, although many of these battles were ritualized; the sort of violence and death that occurred in European conflict was rare. Often, First Nations created alliances and lived side by side, respecting each other’s independence and traditions. 1

The Indigenous Peoples of North America developed rich spiritual and cultural traditions. As with every other culture, indigenous traditions provided meaning and values to their members, connected them to past, present, and future generations, and taught them about their place in the natural world. 2 These traditions were communicated from one generation to another by storytellers, traditional healers, group leaders, and elders, often through music, dance, and elaborate ceremonies.

Scholars call this method of communication an oral tradition, which means that most of the First Peoples did not develop a written language. That does not mean, however, that they were less developed or less important than civilizations that had written languages. 3 The unique languages of the First Peoples formed the cornerstone of their cultures. These languages were tightly connected to the indigenous worldview, expressing the most nuanced aspects of the speakers’ daily lives, their surrounding nature, and their spiritual and cultural traditions.

Many First Nations view the borders between Canada and the United States as more or less arbitrary. They view much of North America as their traditional homeland and sometimes reject the sovereignty  of both the US and Canada, claiming that they were, in fact, occupied or dispossessed (even though various treaties granted them self-governance and autonomy) 4 . Many First Nations, including the Dakota, the Ojibway, and the Huron, have roots in both countries. Others, such as the Mohawk, moved back and forth between them. Some nations migrated to Canada due to political alliances or during times of war and conflict.

  • 1We thank David MacDonald for this and many other points in this section.
  • 2“Canada’s First Nations: Introduction,” Canada’s First Peoples website, accessed September 10, 2014.
  • 3See, for example, Martin Moore, Memoirs of the life and character of Rev. John Eliot [1904–1690] (Boston: Flag & Gould, 1822), 17.
  • sovereigntySovereignty defines a state’s freedom to mind its own internal affairs and to govern its own people. Some notions of sovereignty are not exclusive: several notions of First Nations self-government can be (and in fact are) accommodated within the Canadian political system.
  • 4For example, the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke belong to the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, which at times controlled much of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada (extending beyond this region at the peak of its power). Viewing themselves as a dispossessed nation, they reject citizenship in Canada (and the US), which to them embodies acceptance of the colonizer’s sovereignty. The issue is explored in Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

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