You have entered the Canoe Saskatchewan suite

Human History in Far Northern Saskatchewan

Background | Introduction | Archaeological Investigations | Archaeological History | Early Historic Period | References


This section is based on a report authored by Dr. David Meyer, an archaeologist retired from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK which he prepared for MacLaren Plansearch Services Ltd., Saskatoon, in 1981 for the Department of Northern Saskatchewan. The report, published as Section 3.6, Heritage Resources, of a document entitled Stony Rapids Community and Resource Access Road, Stage II: Environmental Evaluation of Alternative Routes, was written as a contract consulting report by Dr. Meyer when he was employed by the Saskatchewan Research Council's archaeology research unit. The area covered is the far north of the province, adjacent to the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories boundary.

The original report authored by Meyer has been slightly edited and re-organized by Tim Jones, former Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, to appear in the form presented below. It is used here with the permission of Cochrane Engineeing Inc. of Regina, Saskatchewan


Heritage resources in far northern Saskatchewan consist, in the main, of remains found in locations occupied by Indian (and Inuit) peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans. In northern Saskatchewan these archaeological sites are generally shallow, only 20-30 cm in depth. Geophysical processes that may bury human occupations are uncommon in the forested regions and, as a result, stratified sites are rare. Because the archaeological sites are on or near the surface they are easily disturbed by human activities or natural erosion.

Archaeologists divide the sites which they find into three main periods:

  1. historic,
  2. protohistoric, and
  3. prehistoric.
These periods are defined in this way:

Sites of the historic period are those that contain artifacts which are almost wholly of European manufacture, that certainly date within the period in which Europeans were present in a region and for which period, therefore, we have some documentation. The protohistoric sites are those which contain a small number of European tools along with a predominance of prehistoric tools. During this period Europeans were not present, the trade goods having been obtained through Indian trade networks. Prehistoric sites are those which contain no European goods and, therefore, predate any sort of white influence on technology (Meyer 1977:20).

In far northern Saskatchewan the last glacier receded about 9,000 years ago. At this time flora and fauna were re-established on the newly exposed landscape and, about 8,000 years ago, the first people established occupancy. This initiated the period of prehistoric human occupation of this region, a period which did not end until about 350 years ago.

The Chipewyans of far northern Saskatchewan and the adjacent Northwest Territories are believed to have obtained some European goods as early as the 1620s. In the winter of 1619-20 Jens Munk sheltered in the mouth of Churchill River and, upon his departure, left cabins and boats. The metal from these was salvaged by both Inuits and Chipewyans and, presumably, some found its way far inland (Morton 1973: 32-33). By 1682 the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had established trading operations at Port Nelson on the Hudson Bay, south of the Churchill River; however, as the trade was mainly with the Crees, few goods fell into Chipewyan hands. The HBC did endeavour to establish permanent trade with the Chipewyans and sent trading missions to the Churchill mouth in the late 1600s, attempting to construct a trading post there in 1689.

In 1715 an expedition under William Stewart of the HBC was made into Chipewyan territory. At this time, therefore, direct European contact was established, to be quickly followed by the construction of a trading post at Churchill in 1717. After this time the Chipewyans came out to the coast to trade regularly. During the second decade of the 18th century, therefore, historic information on the Chipewyans becomes available. The Chipewyans of this region, then, lived in the protohistoric period for almost a century, from about 1620 to l7l7, in receipt of some European technological items but in the absence of Europeans in their territory.

Chipewyan documented history, therefore, begins about A.D. 1715. However, between 1715 and 1769 the Chipewyans in their territory were on the edge of history only. Effective European presence and documentation of life in this region only begins with the journey of Samuel Hearne in 1769-72 and the establishment of trading posts along the southern border of Chipewyan territory in the 1780s and 1790s. In far northern Saskatchewan and the adjacent Northwest Territories, therefore, the historic period actually begins about A.D. 1770.

For archaeological purposes the historic era is usually divided into two parts, the fur trade period and the contemporary period. The former begins at the time of European contact and is arbitrarily ended in 1900. The contemporary period begins in 1900 and continues through to the present. In summary, these periods and their ages are as follows:

  1. historic (a) contemporary. ca. A.D. 1900 to the present
  2. protohistoric, ca. 1620-1715
  3. prehistoric, pre-1620
Of the 8,000 years that Chipewyan territory has been occupied, therefore, historical records are available for only the last 275. Archaeological research is the major means of obtaining information concerning the occupation of this region during the protohistoric period and the thousands of years of prehistory which precede this.

Archaeological Investigations

The greatest part of northern Saskatchewan has never been subjected to any archaeological investigation. However, Black Lake was the object of archaeological research in 1972, 1973 and 1974. During this time Sheila Minni carried out a study of the shores of all of Black Lake, extending her research as far south as Cree Bay. At this time she also examined the banks of the Fond du Lac River between Black Lake and Stony Rapids. Most recently, Lifeways of Canada Limited has carried out heritage investigations in the Midwest Lake area and on Stage I of the Stony Rapids access road. In adjacent regions, Robert Nero, an ornithologist, investigated archaeological sites along the south shore of Lake Athabasca between 1960 and 1963. In 1971 and 1972, J.V. Wright examined archaeological remains along the north shore of Lake Athabasca and incorporated his findings and those of Nero in his final report published in 1975. In 1977 Bryan Gordon surveyed Cree Lake and the Cree River north to Black Lake.

The research conducted by Minni, Wright and Gordon has been oriented to very large rivers and lakes and, therefore, their findings may not be directly applicable to the inland region of smaller lakes and streams which characterizes most of the study area. However, sufficient archaeological research has now been carried out in far northern Saskatchewan to allow a broad synthesis of the cultural history and some generalizations concerning the types of terrain chosen for occupation.

Archaeological History

Throughout the prehistoric period far northern Saskatchewan has been occupied by peoples whose lives were oriented to hunting the barren-ground caribou. Into the present century the Chipewyans of this region followed the migrating caribou north to the barren-grounds during the summer and south into the forest in the winter. It is likely that this basic subsistence-settlement pattern was established by the first human occupants of this area, some 8,000 years ago.

The cultural chronology of far northern Saskatchewan is centred about four traditions (see Table following):

  1. Palaeo-Indian,
  2. Shield Archaic,
  3. Arctic Small Tool and
  4. Taltheilei

A tradition is defined as a (primarily) temporal continuity represented by persistent configurations in single technologies or other systems of related forms (Willey and Philips 1958: 37). In other words, a tradition refers to archaeological complexes within a given region which, although they change through time, are obviously related. An archaeological complex is the total expression of a number of assemblages left by the same group over a sufficiently narrow time period that the cultural expressions undergo only minor changes... It represents the remains of a group with a shared lifestyle, the same overall tool kit, the same technological attributes (Syms 1977: 71). As charted in the table, the dates of the traditions are shown, with those complexes which have been defined within each tradition. All of the traditions charted in the table are found over a huge area of far northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and north into the barrens of Keewatin and Mackenzie districts. Far northern Saskatchewan is just one section of the distributional range.

Cultural Chronology of Far Northern Saskatchewan
Time Period Traditions Complexes
A.D. 1700 Taltheilei Late
A.D. 1500 Taltheilei Late
A.D. 1000 Taltheilei Middle
A.D. 500 Taltheilei Middle
A.D. 0Taltheilei Early
500 B.C.Taltheilei Early
1000 B.C.Arctic Small Tool Pre-Dorset
1500 B.C. Arctic Small Tool Pre-Dorset
2000 B.C. Shield Archaic
2500 B.C. Shield Archaic
3000 B.C. Shield Archaic
3500 B.CShield Archaic
4000 B.C. Shield Archaic
4500 B.C.

5000 B.C.

5500 B.C. Palaeo-Indian Agate Basin
6000 B.C. Palaeo-Indian Agate Basin

The Early Historic Period

As was noted in the introduction, the historic period in far northern Saskatchewan was ushered in with Samuel Hearne's travels to Lake Athabasca in 1769-72. Following this, Peter Pond was the first European to establish a trading post in proximity to far northern Saskatchewan. In 1778 he crossed Methye Portage into the Clearwater River system and then travelled up the Athabasca River, establishing a post about 30 miles from the river's mouth (Smythe 1968:250). This post operated for about 10 years, when it was replaced in 1789 by Ft. Chipewyan I, which was built on the southwestern side of Lake Athabasca. In 1791 Philip Turnor of the Hudson's Bay Company travelled up the Athabasca River and across Lake Athabasca, surveying it to its eastern arm.

While Europeans entered far northern Saskatchewan from its western side in the 1780s and 90s, they also approached from the southeast. By 1792 the Northwest Company had established a post at the head of the Reindeer River (Smythe 1968:226). In 1796 David Thompson of the HBC surveyed the route from Reindeer Lake through Wollaston Lake, to Black Lake and Lake Athabasca. Here, he discovered a stake set up by Turnor in 1791. Thompson and Malcolm Ross established a trading post, Bedford House (1796-1824), on the west side of Reindeer Lake. This post was located about half way up the lake, near the beginning point of a water route to Wollaston Lake (Smythe 1968:226-227). In subsequent years, although trading posts were not built on Wollaston and Black Lakes, posts were established on the eastern arm of Lake Athabasca, particularly in the vicinity of the present community of Fond du Lac. A summary of fur trade activities about the eastern arm of Lake Athabasca is extracted from Saskatchewan Research Council Report C 77-10 (Meyer 1977).

Chipewyan Ethnohistory and Social Organization - An OverviewThe Chipewyans first became known to Europeans through captives which some of the Crees brought with them when trading at York Factory on the Hudson Bay. These captives (termed slaves in the accounts of that period) were usually women and these individuals were bilingual as a result of their incorporation into Cree society. Because of their linguistic skills these individuals were very important to HBC attempts to contact the Chipewyans and induce them to trade with the company. The Chipewyans were known to the traders on the Hudson Bay as early as the 1680s; however, the first European known to have travelled into Chipewyan territory was William Stewart, in the winter of 1715-16. His guide and interpreter was a Chipewyan woman, named Thanadelther, who had been taken captive by the Crees. Stewart's mission was to establish peace between the Chipewyans and the Crees and to persuade the Chipewyans to become involved in the fur trade.

In 1717 a permanent trading post was built at the mouth of the Churchill River, specifically to cater to the Chipewyan trade. However, although the Chipewyans came to trade regularly, little information is available on the extent of Chipewyan territory or concerning their culture and social organization until the 1770s. Between 1769 and 1772 Samuel Hearne travelled with the Chipewyans and his observations are very useful.

James Smith, an anthropologist, has used Hearne's information and pertinent HBC documents for the l9th century, to detail the nature of Chipewyan social organization throughout the fur trade period. Smith has shown that Chipewyan social groups were adapted to the necessities of a subsistence economy based on the barren-ground caribou:

The Chipewyan (including the Yellowknife branch) traditionally exploited the taiga-tundra ecotone stretching from the Seal River north-westward in a great arc to the mouth of the Coppermine River on the Arctic ... Their environmental adaptation was to the migratory and nomadic reindeer or barren-ground caribou ..., the Chipewyan, ... spent the winters within the northern transitional zone of the boreal forest, the summers on the tundra. The periods of the great migrations, early winter and spring, were the times when the Chipewyan congregated in greatest numbers on the migration routes for the great kills utilizing the chute and pound. As the great herds dispersed into smaller bands in their foraging zones, so the Chipewyan dispersed in smaller hunting groups. As the Chipewyan exploited three major caribou populations, the Kaminuriak, Beverly and Bathurst ..., there were similar and equally amorphous socio-territorial units to exploit them, with minor dialect distinctions differentiating those exploiting the different populations - the Yellowknives with the Bathurst herd forming one, the bands between Great Slave Lake and Black Lake and the Beverly herd another, and those from about Lake Wollaston to the Bay following the Kaminuriak (Smith 1976:74).

Smith recognized two major social units, the local band and the regional band, as characteristic of Chipewyan society. In so doing, he employed concepts defined by June Helm, on the basis of her Dogrib research. Helm defined the local band in this way:

... it is distinctive as a spatial grouping together of kinsmen, characteristically structured around a core sibling set, including females as well as males, with their spouses. To nucleated-settlement pattern and core-kin focus must be added some degree of temporal duration to set the local band apart from a kind of task group (Helm 1968:121).

The local band, therefore, appeared as a greatly enlarged extended family. Everyone within the group had either a direct blood, or a marriage tie, with at least one other member. Throughout Subarctic North America in general, local band groups usually numbered from 12 to 50 persons. However, as is discussed below, Chipewyan local bands tended to be larger than this.

Helm defined the regional band as composed of all of the local bands and nuclear family units "within a recognized range or territory":

... the regional band has its social identity as a "people". The total territory yields sufficient materials for the necessities of life ... so that within its domain the regional band can endure as an identity for generations. ... Characteristically, the total constituency of the regional band is not physically together. The families that make up the regional band are most apt to come together when operating as a task group exploiting a resource which allows large assembly, as at a fall fishing camp" (Helm 1969: 119,121).

The regional band is a much larger group than the local band, and is often composed of 150 persons or more in Subarctic North America.

On the basis of the fur trade documents, Smith (1976:83) has determined that, for the Chipewyans, "the range for what may be considered the local band is from about 6 to 28 hunters, or about 30 to 140 persons. Most commonly, winter hunting-trapping bands consisted of from 10 to 20 hunters, or 50 to 100 individuals." According to Smith, the local band was maintained into the 20th century as a social unit important to the Chipewyan of northeastern Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba. In this region local bands were present through to the 1960s and after (Smith 1976:20-21).

For the late l9th century and the early 20th centuries Smith (1975:432-438) has recognized five regional bands among the Chipewyans resident in the area between Churchill and Lake Athabasca. These are, with their most frequently utilized hunting and trapping area:

  1. the Churchill or Duck Lake band centred about Little Duck Lake in northern Manitoba,
  2. the Barren Lands band oriented to Nueltin Lake and frequently resident throughout far northeastern Manitoba,
  3. the Hatchet Lake band occupying the area north of Wollaston Lake, with Charcoal Lake a particularly important location,
  4. the Black Lake or Stony Rapids Band, occupying the area north and northeast of Black Lake, and
  5. the Fond du Lac band whose territory was located north and northeast of Lake Athabasca.
These bands numbered between 200 and 400 individuals and their personnel are now resident in several communities which are located along the southern edge of their traditional territories.

Although these social units have been recognized as characteristic of historic and recent Chipewyan society, Smith and others have been careful to stress the flexible nature of Chipewyan social organization. Local bands frequently broke up and the members joined other local bands or travelled in smaller family groups through the summer. While we may assume that aggregations of several hundreds of people involved in ambushing or corralling caribou during the migrations may have been composed of all of the members of a regional band, at times these gatherings seem to be so large that "outsiders" also must have been present. Evidently, the personnel within social groups changed frequently and the concept of territorial boundaries was not strongly developed.

Northern Saskatchewan, therefore, is within that region utilized historically, and to the present, by the Black Lake/Stony Rapids regional band. It is possible that the eastern portion of the study area, nearer to Wollaston Lake, was sometimes hunted by the Hatchet Lake regional band. Historically and, we believe, prehistorically the Chipewyans occupied these regions in the winter, preying upon the caribou. In the spring they accompanied the caribou north into the barren grounds. Minni (1976 78-79) has summarized the likely prehistoric occupation of the Black Lake area by the Chipewyans in this way:

The basic adaptation of the Chipewyan has not been to a single environmental zone but to a single animal species whose range cross-cuts several environments. This information, along with the seasonal range of the caribou, suggests that the occupation of the Black Lake area by Chipewyan was primarily in the winter. The occupation coincides with the winter range of the Beverly herd and may represent the southern terminus of the major herd range. As such, it is suggested that the Chipewyan occupation of Black Lake relates to hunting of the foraging sub-groups or of the more widely dispersed males. Hunting along the major seasonal migration routes would have occurred farther north before the herds reached their winter range.

Minni's last comments probably apply to the whole of the study area and, therefore, we may expect that local archaeological sites should be small - much smaller than those left by the larger aggregations of people which took place farther to the north.


Ebell, Biron S.
1980 The Parkhill Site: An Agate Basin Surface Collection in South-Central Saskatchewan. Pastlog No. 4. Saskatchewan Culture and Youth, Regina.
Gordon, H.S. Bryan
1976 Migod - 8,000 Years of Barrenland Prehistory. Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 56. National Museum of Man, Mercury Series.
Helm, June
1969 "The Nature of Dogrib Socioterritorial Groups", pp. 118-125 in Man the Hunter, ed. by R.B. Lee and I. Devore. Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago.
Meyer, David
1977 Prehistoric and Historic Archaeology. In Environmental Overview for the Proposed Mining of a Uranium Ore Deposit near Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan, ed. by J.R. Willard, pp. 56-72. Report No. C 77-10, Saskatchewan Research Council, Saskatoon.
978 Prehistoric Pottery from Northern Saskatchewan. Napao 8(1&2): 5.30.
1979 Appendix IX: Archaeology. In Key Lake Project Environmental Impact Statement. Beak Consultants Ltd., Calgary. September.
1981 Heritage Resources. In Stony Rapids Community and Resource Access Road, Stage II: Environmental Evaluation of Alternate Corridors. MacLaren Plansearch, Saskatoon.
Meyer, David and Doug Frey
1995 A trip to Reindeer Lake, July 1994. Saskatchewan Archaeological Society Newsletter 16(4): 78-82.
Meyer, David, James S. Wilson, and Olga Klimko
1981 Archaeological Mitigation Along the Key Lake Access Road. Saskatchewan Research Council Publication No. C-805-11-E-81, Saskatoon. March. 187 pp.
Minni, Sheila J.
1976 The Prehistoric Occupations of Black Lake, Northern Saskatchewan. Mercury Series Paper No. 53, Archaeological Survey of Canada, National Museum of Man, Ottawa.
Morton, A.S.
1938 A History of the Canadian West to 1870. (2nd ed.). University of Toronto Press.
Rich, E.E., ed.
1938 Journal of Occurrences in the Athabasca Department by George Simpson, 1820 and 1821, and Report. Champlain Society, Toronto.
Smith, James G. E.
1975 "The Ecological Basis of Chipewyan Socio-territorial Organization", in Proceedings: Northern Athapaskan Conference, 1971, ed. by A.M. Clark. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper 27, National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Ottawa.
1976 Local band organization of the Caribou Eater Chipewyan. Arctic Anthropology 13(1): 12-24.
Smythe, T.
1968 Thematic Study of the Fur Trade in the Canadian West, 1670-1870. Agenda Paper 1968-29 of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board Meeting in St. John's, Newfoundland, June 19-21.
Syms, E. Leigh
1977 Cultural Ecology and Ecological Dynamics of the Ceramic Period in Southwestern Manitoba. Plains Anthropologist 22(76), Part 2, Memoir 12.
Tyrrell, J.B.
1895 Report on the Country between Athabasca Lake and the Churchill River. Geological Survey of Canada Annual Report, Vol. 8, n.s., Report D. Ottawa.
Wettlaufer, Boyd and William J. Mayer-Oakes
1960 The Long Creek Site. Anthropological Series No. 2, Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, Regina.
Willey, Gordon R. and Philip Philips
1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology. University of Chicago Press.
Wormington, H. Marie
1957 Ancient Man in North America. Popular Series No. 4, 4th ed. Denver Museum of Natural History.
Wright, James V.
1972 The Shield Archaic. Publications in Archaeology No. 3. National Museum of Man, Ottawa.
1975 The Prehistory of Lake Athabasca: An Initial Statement. Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 29. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Ottawa.

For Further Information

See the two bibliographies that deal with the archaeology, prehistory and ethnology of the aboriginal peoples (Chipewyan, Cree, and Inuit) of northern Saskatchewan (essentially the northernmost half of the Saskatchewan land mass, roughly from Prince Albert, at the southern edge of the heavily forested area of the province, northward to the Northwest Territories border at 600 N. Lat. These bibliographies contain the main relevant and accessible published references on these topics. For further information contact:

Saskatchewan Archaeological Society
#1 1730 Quebec Ave.
Saskatoon, SK S7K 1V9
Phone: (306)664-4124
Fax: (306)665-1928

Human History in Northern Saskatchewan
Stories | Aboriginal Rock Art | Saskatchewan Archaeological Society | Bibiographies

Saskatchewan Archaeology | Canoe Saskatchewan Home Page

Page creation by Rebecca Kennel Consulting
Send questions to the
Modified on 20 November 2012