Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights

So, the other day I made a thirty minute presentation to a science pub night on beavers and colonialism in the Masonic Hall in Cumberland, British Columbia. Yes, I did that. I was one of four presenters and I was the only one to talk about dead beavers. All the others talked about beavers in wetlands, their role in water retention, their dams, their family lives and their newer reputation as troublemakers, especially for municipal infrastructure, highways, farmers and others.

My job was to talk about the role of beaver in colonialism. My emphasis was on how the political structure we call Canada came about as a result of the spread of Western Civilization into and across North America. It’s a sordid tale of violence, intrigue, greed, adventure, religious proselytization, and general ineptitude wrapped around a cloak of rapidly spreading mercantile and industrial capitalist expansion and the attractiveness of new European tools and technology for the indigenous populations of North America. The globalization we experience today had its major early impetus in 16th Century European economics and politics. Everyone in Europe and North America experienced massive transformation during the period 1500 to 1900 AD but, I daresay, it’s possible to say that about virtually every period in human history (if it’s even reasonable to talk about ‘periods’ of human history, it being a process rather than a series of ‘periods’). What makes this four hundred year timeframe distinctive is how life and work in North America were transformed. It’s impossible to outline here how the various indigenous groups in North America experienced that transformation because there were (and still are) a number of distinctive biomes that demanded of the indigenous groups various and different forms of work and life. For instance, in the eastern part of North America at the time of contact, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were agriculturalists, who along with their northern cousins, the Wendat (Huron) and other groups to the west of them, grew corn, squash, and beans along with, in some cases, tobacco and other crops. The indigenous people of the prairies had very different lifestyles based largely on the bison herds that roamed all over the prairie regions of the continent. The northern indigenous peoples such as the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Chipewyan (Dene) had lifestyles based on hunting and trapping beaver, fox, wolf, and especially moose (although it’s true that some Cree lived on the prairies, some in the parkland and some in the boreal forest). This kind of lifestyle extends from just north of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on a diagonal from south in Manitoba to northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The lifestyle is dependent on wetlands, rivers, lakes, forests of birch and maple. The diet of forest peoples is largely animal protein from a large variety of fur-bearing animals and fish.

The wetlands of ‘Canada’.

The West Coast indigenous groups were, like the Haudenosaunee, longhouse dwellers because of their relatively sedentary lives based on a relatively stable source of animal protein, berries and other types of edible plants, roots and mushrooms. The northerly indigenous groups were not agriculturalists, but the ones in what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were. The Hopi especially lived in Pueblo villages and practiced agriculture much like the Haudenosaunee. The Apache, Comanche and Sioux lived in teepees, portable and easily erected. That said, getting the poles for teepee construction required yearly displacements to more forested areas. Living in villages and settlements requires very different social institutions than are required in forest dwelling indigenous groups.

Beaver fur, the staple product par excellence that drove the colonial exploitation of the northern half of North America was preceded in its importance to Europeans only by cod fish and other marine species both mammalian and fish. Hundreds of European fishing vessels occupied the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th Century. The beaver trade was incidental to the fishery for most of 16th Century and it wasn’t until Samuel de Champlain arrived in ‘Canada’ in 1602 that the beaver trade became a force in its own right.

Next post will deal with the importance of beaver for the indigenous populations around the St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard in the 17th Century. The hunt for beaver was to change forever the lives of the peoples of North America and those of Western Europe creating Canada along the way in its pre-war configuration.

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