Activities & Projects

Decorating Moccasins during the Fur Trade

Recommended by Cirriculum Services Canada

Level: Grade 6

Preparation: Create Trading Post; Print Hudson’s Bay Company Trade Goods List

Duration: 90 min.

Materials: Trade items, labeled, and “Beaver Pelts”, if using; costume components if desired

  • analyse the effect of interaction between Northern Athapaskan people and Europeans on clothing, specifically footwear
  • explain how the fur trade served the interests of both the Europeans and the Athapaskan people
  • use a variety of resources and tools to investigate different historical points of view about the effects of early contact between Northern Athapaskan people and European explorers

Begin: Ask students to choose an item from their knapsack, lunch bag or desk, and draw a quick sketch of it on a piece of paper. Send them around the classroom to find another item (not money) they would like to trade for their item. Are they able to negotiate with their classmates to make a fair trade? After 5 – 10 minutes, call a halt to the ‘trading’, and discuss some of the trades. Were they fair, or not, and why?

Have a discussion with the students about Northern Athapaskan life prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Explain that Europeans traders were eager to obtain furs in North America to satisfy fashion needs in Europe. For their part, Northern Athapaskans were accustomed to trade with one another and with other native groups, and were eager to acquire European goods.

Project the section Fur Trade Enters the North - Fur for Money in the exhibition Tradition and Innovation: Northern Athapaskan Footwear. Read the quote. Read the text that follows the quote, and the section on the arrival of the Métis, Influence of the Métis.

Read the class this quote for the fur trader’s perspective:

“We are French and we are good people…we wish to trade meat and furs in exchange for clothes and other articles which we shall give you,” said Peter Pond… Then he gave Dog’s Son many fine things – a red tailcoat, a tall hat with feathers in it, a big pot, a neckerchief, a drinking mug, an axe, a knife, some needles and thread and some tobacco. François Beaulieu (describing the arrival in 1780 of fur trader Peter Pond at Great Slave Lake)

from The Book of Dene Government of the Northwest Territories, Programme Development Division, Department of Education, as quoted in Thompson, Judy. From the Land: Two Hundred Years of Dene Clothing. Hull, Québec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994, p. 43

Why were the Northern Athapaskans accustomed to trade prior to the arrival of the Europeans? (because of existing native trade routes)

Be sure to look at the objects in this section, and those in the section Stepping into Womanhood: Embroidery, and Beading to see how Northern Athapaskan women created new ways to decorate their moccasins using the new materials and techniques. With the arrival of Europeans and the establishment of the northern fur trade, most items of Northern Athapaskan clothing gradually came to be replaced by Euro-Canadian garments. But European footwear would not withstand the rigors of a northern climate, so Northern Athapaskans continued to wear the traditional moccasins.

Learn: Distribute the Trade Goods List to the students. Identify items on the list that would be used in moccasin-making (beads, thread, duffels (cloth), lace, needles, awl blades, thimbles). Using the first two columns (AR), determine how many of these items could be obtained for one beaver pelt. Notice that beaver pelts form the basis of the system because the values of other animal skins are calculated in terms of their equivalent value to beaver pelts.

Set up a Trading Post in the classroom. Using the Trade Goods List, choose a number of items, and label them with how many beaver pelts would be needed to buy them. Make a number of ‘beaver pelts’ (pieces of fun fur, or paper if unavailable). (Alternatively, ask students to draw pictures of the items they will have to trade.)

Apply: Divide the class into pairs – one voyageur and one Northern Athapaskan per pair. Give the students time to prepare a role-playing trading vignette – see example below.

Emphasize that both sides must show respect for the knowledge of the other, and the goods to be traded. Respect is very important in Aboriginal cultures. It is vital that people, animals and the land be treated with respect.

Example of Fur Trade Role-play:

The Northern Athapaskan trader asks the Voyageur about one of the items, i.e. beads. “I have not seen these before. What are they for? How would I use them?”

The Voyageur answers, explaining how it is used. “These are beads. They can be sewn on anything in pleasing and colourful ways. It is possible to sew them on quite quickly.”

The Northern Athapaskan trader then chooses the item(s) s(he) wants, clearly stating the reasons the item(s) are needed: “I would like three packages of beads, ¼ pound each, in blue, white and green. They will make colourful designs on my best moccasins.”

The Voyageur could ask “I am curious. How would you decorate your moccasins without these?”

The Northern Athapaskan trader could explain that “We have used porcupine quills to decorate our clothing and moccasins. We use whatever is available to us from the land.”

The voyageur must then demand the correct number of pelts needed to obtain the items. “For three bags of beads, ¼ pound each, you need to give me three beaver pelts.”

The transaction is completed cordially, and the next pair of students commences their ‘trade’.

Research Project: Ask students to present the results of an Internet search on a specific Hudson’s Bay Company or North West Company trading post.

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