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The impact of Western expansion on the Subarctic, with western Europeans advancing from the east and Russians and Americans from the West, changed the tempo and nature of indigenous warfare by creating new and intensified opportunities for young males to compete. The developing fur trade changed the demographics, trade networks, access to the sources of new goods, and the competitive structure among all subarctic societies. Western goods, as critical material resources, have been argued as being the objects over which warfare is instigated. We argue that these goods replaced indigenous goods as high-status items and that possession of them was another means to increase status and prestige among young males. This competition for access to goods considered to be high status, and sometimes just competition for status, formed the foundation for violent conflict in the western American Subarctic.

The investigation and analysis of Native American warfare has been an important part of ethnohistory and anthropology for many years (Burch 1974; Codere 1950; Lowie 1913; Slobodin 1960; Swadesh 1948; Turney-High 1971). While most early investigations were descriptive (McClellan 1975a, 1975b; Turney-High 1971) or brief footnotes in ethnographies (Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938), more recent works have attempted to place Native American conflicts in the context of modern anthropological theory (Chagnon 1988; Ferguson 1983, 1984, 1990, 1995; Maschner 1997a; Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998; Whitehead 1992). The result of these investigations has been two broad and nearly universal conclusions: that indigenous warfare has existed for thousands of years in the New World (Haas and Creamer 1993; Lambert 1994, 1997; Maschner 1992, 1997a; Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998; Mason 1998; Milner et al. [End Page 703] 1991; Wilcox and Haas 1994) and that the nature of that warfare changed dramatically with the expansion of European peoples and goods during the past five hundred years (Ferguson 1984, 1995; Whitehead 1992; Yerbury 1986). In few regions of the world is conflict more ubiquitous among Native groups, or the effects of the European expansion more perceptible, than in the North American Subarctic.

Figure 1. Map of the northwestern Subarctic of North America.
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Figure 1.

Map of the northwestern Subarctic of North America.

This article is an overview and analysis of warfare in the western Subarctic of North America (Figure 1). We are specifically concerned with the many groups of Na-Dene and their immediate neighbors who live in the boreal forests of western Canada and interior Alaska. 1 These peoples primarily had a mobile, hunting adaptation, although fishing played a significant [End Page 704] part in the annual subsistence found in most areas. The Tanaina of Upper Cook Inlet, the Eyak of the Gulf of Alaska, and the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska are the only coastal groups in this survey. The twenty-nine independent Na-Dene language groups 2 and the many bands within them provide the world’s largest sample of egalitarian3 hunters and gatherers in which warfare played a significant role in the history of their societies.

The goals of this article are to discuss and analyze the nature of warfare in the western Subarctic, to investigate its underlying causes, and to isolate causes that are indigenous to the region from causes that are a result of European expansion. We begin with a theoretical statement and present an overview of some of the pertinent data and resources pertaining to warfare in this region that begins in the central Canadian Subarctic and progresses westward to Alaska. A discussion and analysis explains subarctic warfare in the context of modern anthropological theory.

It is appropriate at this point to discuss what exactly we mean by “warfare.” Anthropologists and ethnohistorians are generally indecisive in their definitions, using the terms feud or raid instead of war (Clark 1974, 1975; de Laguna 1972: 580; Ferrill 1985; Keegan 1993; Osgood 1971: 65; Turney-High 1971), or by placing the word war in quotations (Clark 1974: 185–86, 1981: 596; de Laguna 1972: 580; de Laguna and McClellan 1981: 642; Gillespie 1975: 360; Guédon 1974: 149–59; McClellan 1975a: 518; McKennan 1981: 565). McClellan (1975a: 497) makes the distinction between feuding and warfare by fixing the limits of a feud as “a prolonged and serious dispute among those who consider themselves to be of the same social group. Usually some killing is involved.” She defines warfare as persistent intergroup raiding (ibid.: 518). On the other end of the spectrum, Ferrill (1985: 20–21) offers a purely Eurocentric definition, arguing that “true war” occurs when an organized army can form a line (Turney-High 1971: 26–28). We take a more practical approach. Following the work of Chagnon (1988), Daly and Wilson (1988), Keeley (1996), Wrangham and Peterson (1996), and especially Tooby and Cosmides (1988), warfare is defined here as any multimale coalition created for the purpose of organized aggression against another group of people.


The debates between Ferguson (1990, 1992, 1995) and Chagnon (1988, 1989, 1990) on the causes of Native American warfare are well known. Ferguson (1995: 11) contends that material deprivation is the primary motivation that inspires aggressive collective action and that other articulated motivations are simply “moral rationalizations for material interests.” Informants’ [End Page 705] explanations and accounts are dismissed as inadequate rationales, since the informant is assumed to also manipulate the anthropologist whom he or she considers another “source of trade goods” (ibid.: 13). Because there are few cases of “pristine” precontact warfare, Ferguson and Whitehead (1992: 15) have delineated a “tribal zone” around expanding states where their influence has penetrated. “Warrification” is Ferguson’s term for Native warfare that has been intensified, transformed, or generated by direct or indirect exposure to Westerners that precedes cessation altogether at the hand of Western domination, extermination, and diseases (Ferguson 1990: 239). For example, proximity or presence of Westerners in Yanomamö territory (in southern Venezuela) “has resulted in a lower threshold for war—a warlike disposition that makes violence more likely” (Ferguson 1995: xii, 12–13). Ferguson (1983, 1984) has applied these same concepts to the Northwest Coast with mixed results (Maschner 1997a).

The Yanomamö waged war before the arrival of Europeans, but Ferguson argues that Western presence pushed them into an extreme mode of warfare that was previously unknown. Ferguson (1995: 343) states that “the Yanomami’s practice of war—along with such political matters as long-distance migrations, the splitting of population blocs during these moves, and the interrelated domains of trade, intermarriage, and political alliance—is primarily determined by local articulation with agents and aspects of European expansion.” He stresses the importance of Western manufactures, particularly steel tools, and the fact that they have been unevenly distributed among the Yanomamö. The location of villages and individuals, he argues, is in direct response to accessible supply lines of steel goods (ibid.: 344).

Chagnon’s view is simple. Following evolutionary biology, he hypothesizes that men participate in warfare because it is in their reproductive interests to do so. We would thus expect those who have become the best warriors to have more access to mates and therefore more offspring. Based on Chagnon’s (1988) data, this is indeed the case for the Yanomamö. Although this is a well-grounded, theory-based approach, Ferguson (1995: 358) rejects the view that unconscious inclusive fitness motivates individual behavior. Chagnon (1988, 1989, 1990), however, is quite willing to accept the fact that men often go to war over material goods, but he expects these goods to translate into fitness enhancement. During Western expansion an influx of European goods created new reasons to go to war and more opportunities for men to use war for status enhancement. What Ferguson never explained was why these goods, particularly European goods, were objects of resource competition when those same societies had gone for several thousand years in the same environment without them? What Chagnon [End Page 706] never made explicit is why do some people go to war when there are no obvious reproductive consequences involved?

In a previous article, we presented a more inclusive theory of warfare in nonindustrial societies that subsumes both Chagnon’s and Ferguson’s theories under the broader heading of status striving (Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998). We found that the only universal pattern of conflict was that males tend to increase their status from successful participation. This is similar to the concept of social or cultural success as described by Irons (1979), which is used by Chagnon (1997: 205) to explain an underlying theme of Yanomamö conflicts. The successful raid often leads to greater access to mates in many societies, as Chagnon has argued. But competition for material goods is also present, and the concept of “booty” is well defined in most hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, supporting Ferguson’s arguments. However, violence and warfare do not just lead to mates and goods through conflict; they are attained more often through the status gained from a successful conflict.

When goods—especially an influx of Western goods—are involved in conflict, a broader approach recognizes these rare and new items as high-status markers. We would expect males to compete for high-status items in the context of what was culturally considered high status at the time. In contact situations old items of status are replaced by new foreign items; the changing cultural dynamics that occur when there is a change in who has access to high-status goods should be understood as the underlying theme of all conflict over trade goods in the context of state-level expansion into tribal zones. The proximate manifestations of status striving—that is, the cultural rules for or against striving that dictate the appropriate outlets for doing so—are important.

On the Northwest Coast the presence of intense competition between individuals is seldom questioned, and this competition often results in violent conflict (Maschner 1997a; Maschner and Patton 1996). Those who became great warriors or achieved high status through other means did indeed have greater access to material goods (supporting Ferguson) and to mates (supporting Chagnon). In these cases we argue that there is a common and persistent competition between males (Wilson and Daly 1985). Sometimes this is manifested in nonviolent activities such as trade, feasting, or games; other times, males choose violence.

That males compete for status and that this is a basic structure of human psychology is well known (Alexander 1979; Barkow 1989; Goldschmidt 1991; Irons 1979; Leach 1954; Wilson and Daly 1985), and in relation to violence this competition has deep evolutionary roots (Wrangham and Peterson 1996). Participants in warfare are generally young males between [End Page 707] the ages of fifteen and thirty, the critical age when individuals are looking for outlets to increase status (Daly and Wilson 1988: 171; Lambert 1994: 140; Wilson and Daly 1985). 4 The reason this is most often the case is that many men over thirty have achieved enough social, political, and economic success that participation in risky behaviors no longer increases their status; it may even jeopardize their successes. Furthermore, by this time they have significant reproductive interests that require other efforts. Where there are sufficient skeletal data to investigate exactly who dies or is injured through violent conflict in mobile or village-based societies, it is usually young men. While there is often evidence that women and the elderly also die violently, archaeological studies from the Northwest Coast (Cybulski 1992, 1994), the California Coast (Lambert 1994), North Africa (Wendorf 1968), and throughout the world (Keeley 1996; Larsen 1997) clearly show that the typical victim is a male between fifteen and thirty. This is because young men take life-threatening risks to attain status and access to mates; thus they are more likely to be victims of violence. It is equally clear that wars were often led by older men, as they are in Western societies, and in this case study those older men were often relatives. Older male relatives are often more politically astute, discouraging unnecessary or dangerous conflicts and aggressively encouraging conflicts to protect the status of themselves, their kin group, or their community. But the end result is the same: those individuals most likely to participate in risky activities, and thus most likely to participate in warfare, are young males. Important for this discussion are the conditions under which males will choose violence over other means of status striving.

Men most often choose violence when they have no alternative outlet to status and prestige or when the costs of participation are in their favor. We would thus expect that there were long-term animosities between groups involving revenge, suspicion of sorcery, women, trade, and just about anything else humans are interested in. Those men who suddenly found themselves in a more powerful position would most likely take advantage of their position, especially when guns were involved. As Ferguson and Whitehead (1992: 23) state, “The unequal acquisition of effective firearms by one side in an ongoing conflict can dramatically lower their risk in war, and so encourage them in new attacks.”

We disagree with Ferguson and Whitehead’s perspective that it is a fallacy to view warfare first recorded “among non-state peoples [as] a continuum of prestate warfare, rather than being a historical product of the state presence” (ibid.: 28). Competition for Western goods certainly changed the nature of warfare: new weapons allowed raiders to attack those they could not before, and the spoils of war certainly changed. The ultimate motivations, however, stayed the same—that is, males are still [End Page 708] striving for and protecting status, but with different proximate outlets and a new technology.

Smith and Burch (1979: 93) “contend that Hudson’s Bay Company intervention in Native affairs served to simplify a previously complex relationship that involved both peaceful and hostile contacts.” This is exactly what we argue. Rather than automatically assume that the changes wrought by Western expansion changed warfare and thus all warfare should be studied in a historical context (Ferguson and Whitehead 1992: 28), we argue that Western expansion changed opportunities. The opportunities for men to compete have always been variable: some are peaceful and some are violent. So when do they choose violence over other forms of competition? The answer is, when they have no other outlets or when they have a clear advantage in strength.

These are exactly the conditions that occur during state expansion into nonstate landscapes. As shown in the next section, those subarctic groups most likely to be aggressive toward their neighbors were those that had the most to gain from the newly introduced outlets to status and prestige and those that gained a clear military superiority by being the first to obtain new weapons of war. We would thus expect to see a westward expansion of conflict from the Atlantic area of contact, and an eastern expansion from the Pacific area of contact. As Smith and Burch have stated, there is every reason to assume that both war and peace were equally important modes of interaction prehistorically, but changes in access to weaponry altered a balance of power that might have existed in the Subarctic.

Our data begin with ethnographic chronicles of warfare in the North American Subarctic. We take a regional approach, following the geography of fur trade contacts, beginning in the central Canadian Subarctic around Hudson Bay and progressing westward. In the mid-eighteenth century we temporarily leave the trading business in the Rocky and Mackenzie Mountains and jump to the Northwest Coast, where foreign frigates had landed and launched new trade enterprises. We then move to the Alaska Plateau and the Gulf of Alaska, where Russian traders had a substantial impact. These three leagues of foreign traders, their goods, and the Native middlemen all met in the Subarctic Cordillera, where our final regional discussion begins.

“Unattached Young Men”: Warriors and Early Fur Traders in the Canadian Subarctic

The Chipewyan and Yellowknife of the Canadian Subarctic forest-tundra; the Dogrib from between Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes; the Bearlake and Hare of the Mackenzie Valley; the Beaver and Sekani of the Peace [End Page 709] River valley; and the Slavey and Mountain Athapaskans of the Mackenzie Mountains and Mackenzie River form the major Athapaskan societies of the Canadian Subarctic west of Hudson Bay to the Mackenzie drainage. These peoples were highly mobile, dependent on hunting large mammals, trapping, and fishing the lakes and rivers. Before contact they were not organized into tribal groupings but were identified as many distinct bands with named territories (Gillespie 1981a: 161). Their mobility and economic strategies were easily adapted to the fur trade, especially as trappers. Their mobility also brought them into contact with other groups, many of which were hostile contacts.

When Samuel Hearne (1958: 96–104) witnessed the slaughter of Inuits by the Chipewyan and the Yellowknife at Bloody Falls on the Arctic Coast in 1771, the fur trade was beginning to push farther west of Hudson Bay. During Hearne’s journey with Indians, “spies” had been sent ahead to scout out the Inuits and reported seeing five tents. The Native party, along with Hearne, crossed the river with guns, spears, and shields. Not wanting to participate but fearful of being caught alone and defenseless by the Inuits, Hearne was armed with a spear and a bayonet and stripped to the minimum in clothes; he soon found himself in the bloody thick of a stealthy night ambush. Twenty men, women, and children were killed all around him. These Natives then turned their attention to seven more Inuit tents across the river and began firing on them until the Inuits fled in their boats. “The poor Esquimaux on the opposite shore, though all up in arms, did not attempt to abandon their tents; and they were so unacquainted with the nature of fire-arms, that when the bullets struck the ground, they ran in crowds to see what was sent them, and seemed anxious to examine all the pieces of lead which they found flattened against the rock” (101). They plundered only the copper utensils from this camp and destroyed everything else (104). These Inuits later returned to their camp only to be set upon again. This time they all escaped except for an old man. “I verily believe not less than twenty had a hand in his death, as his whole body was like a cullender [sic]” (102). An old blind woman upstream suffered a similar fate, as every member of Hearne’s Native party thrust a spear into her body (102–3). Though the individual clearly died at the end of the first missile, participation of every member in filling a body with arrows or spears is common in band- and village-based societies, where status is conferred not on the number of people killed by the aggressors but in the number of people who participated in a killing.

Up to the point of this attack, the Hudson’s Bay Company had relied on annual visits from Native traders who exploited the fur-bearing hinterlands beyond the bay, while the company kept a healthy stock of [End Page 710] trade goods at each post. For decades the Algonquian-speaking Cree had blocked the Chipewyans from direct trade at Fort York on Hudson Bay, and traders there were making plans to expand their operation to trade with other groups (Ives 1990: 126). “Few Athapaskans could be persuaded to bring their furs past the Cree down to the factory” (Yerbury 1986: 21). Guns were distributed to the Natives around Fort York for defense and as hopeful lures to bring others to the fort (hbc B.239/d/8, fo. 6, in Yerbury 1986: 23). In 1717, Fort Churchill was built specifically for trade with the Chipewyan, but the Cree, hoping to retain their status as primary traders at the fort, threatened to wage war if the fort’s captain excluded or replaced them (Gillespie 1975: 358). The Inuit to the north and the Cree to the south were termed “enemy” by the Chipewyan in their own language (Smith 1981: 271). Annual visits to the fort by both Crees and Chipewyans resulted in a few clashes, but the European traders acted as mediators to prevent escalation into a revenge pattern of warfare (Gillespie 1975: 359–60). As a peace-keeping strategy, the captain appointed Native leaders with whom to trade and doted on those individuals with tobacco, spirits, and clothing, which became high-status goods (Yerbury 1986: 26). Possession of these goods quickly became a means for young men to enhance their position in their individual societies. In reference to the Caribou-Eater band of Chipewyan, Sharp (1977: 37) wrote, “The primary effect of the early fur trade would have been to draw Chipewyan, especially unattached young men, south into new areas of occupation beyond the range of the barren ground caribou.” These Chipewyan middlemen had gained a monopoly, though marginal at first, on traffic between Europeans at the Churchill post and the Yellowknife, Dogrib, Slavey, and Beaver peoples to the northwest. Approaches to the fort by these groups from the south were blocked by the Cree.

As the fur trade industry expanded and intensified, the Hudson’s Bay Company forbade Inuit-Athapaskan trade, conducted fickle trading practices with both groups, and may have given preferential treatment to the Inuit. For example, a trading vessel’s route sailed right up to several Inuit villages, whereas the Chipewyan had to walk 150 kilometers to Fort Churchill. Though there is some controversy over the details of this 1755 incident, one ship stopped close to Chipewyan territory but when the vessel ignored their signals and caribou pelts and traded only with the Inuit, the Chipewyan massacred sixteen to eighteen Inuits who traded with the vessel (Smith and Burch 1979: 81). Chipewyan-Inuit relations were alternately friendly and sour over the next several decades, enduring a smallpox epidemic and the French destruction of Fort Churchill, including the Bloody Falls Massacre. Chipewyans and Inuits were apparently trading peacefully [End Page 711] at Eskimo Point at the same time as this massacre (ibid.: 82). The forts gave different prices for furs to the Inuits and the Chipewyans. At one point in 1841 the two groups duped the Hudson’s Bay Company traders: Chipewyans brought Inuit fox and wolf pelts to Churchill and traded them on the Athapaskan standard instead of the lower Inuit standard. The difference was considerable (ibid.: 85). The reasons for the difference in trading standards are varied, but Athapaskan middlemen were certainly getting the better deal. The complaint that favorable treatment was granted to the Inuits may have been a matter of perspective but nonetheless provided an excellent reason to fight. Europeans occasionally took Athapaskan guides with them into Inuit territory and the Inuits often considered them to be allies (Graburn 1969: 89–92), which did nothing but fuel the animosity.

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly was short-lived. In 1763 the establishment of the North West Company, frequently called the xy Company after the smaller xy enterprise united with North West, introduced serious economic competition. Rum was used to diminish the potentially advantageous Native middleman position during company competition, gifts were lavished on Native traders to win their loyalty, and a debt system, in which Natives received European items and promised to pay for them in furs, was introduced at the posts. The Chipewyan were encouraged to expand their trapping territory, procuring all fur-bearing animals. They trespassed on lands far out of their way while trading furs at Fort Chipewyan. Chipewyans and Beavers traveled great distances to trap, eventually forcing the Slavey to hunt elsewhere (Krech 1983a: 133). Chipewyan middlemen heavily taxed the Dogrib and the Yellowknife in the 1770s (Hearne 1958: 176–77). Yellowknifes occasionally accompanied Chipewyans “in the capacity of servants” to Fort Churchill, where the Europeans bestowed presents on the Yellowknife to lure others to the fort. Chipewyans plundered all of these goods from Yellowknifes as soon as they retreated from the fort (ibid.: 179). Two competing companies thus caused Native middlemen to step up their trading tactics, to trespass, to impose taxes on other Natives, and to abuse their senior power as middlemen.

The North West Company employed the Iroquois to trap beaver pelts, and the Chipewyan and the Beaver adopted Iroquoian trapping methods for greater efficiency. Soon the depletion of the beaver north of Fort Chipewyan, the marked decline of caribou herds in the Arctic drainage, and the scarcity of large mammals around Forts Vermilion and Dunvegan in the 1820s began to take its toll (Krech 1983a: 132–33). Sometime in the first decade of the nineteenth century, jaded Chipewyans “tired of being bullied by the North West Company, turned violently on the traders and killed four” (Krech 1983b: 35). Aggression between the company and Natives was in [End Page 712] response to increased competitiveness, alcohol availability, and the “too-frequent ‘ravaging’ of native women” by company employees (ibid.).

The Yellowknife and the Dogrib were frequently at war during this competitive period (Gillespie 1981b: 286–88; Smith 1981: 273). Europeans had strewn their trading posts across the Great Slave–Great Bear Lakes area, the territory of the Yellowknife, by the late eighteenth century. So aggressive were the Yellowknife to their Slavey, Hare, and particularly Dogrib neighbors, that they overran their territories, pillaged their women and furs, and limited their neighbors’ traditional ranges so that they were forced to sneak onto the barren grounds (Gillespie 1981b: 286; Helm 1981: 294). The Bearlake Natives were out of reach of the aggressive Yellowknife after their move away from Great Bear Lake (Gillespie 1981c: 310). The Dogrib were bullied out of trading with Fort Franklin (Helm 1981: 294) and Fort Simpson (Gillespie 1981b: 287), but soon they began to be a threatening presence. An 1815 Dogrib attack on the Hare left a dozen dead (Krech 1983a: 133). Still fearful of the Yellowknife, the Dogrib avoided them but tension and murder were recorded (Gillespie 1981b: 288). A successful revenge war against the Yellowknife by the Dogrib in 1823 induced the downfall of the Yellowknife after their initial loss of one-fifth of their people: four men, thirteen women, seventeen children, and a leader named Long Legs (ibid.: 286–87). Having lost their trading post during the consolidation of the two companies, and having lost a significant number of people, the Yellowknife concentrated in the barren grounds northeast of Great Slave Lake, where they starved while the Dogrib overtook parts of their former territory (ibid.). The fearsome Yellowknife chief leader Akaitcho died in 1838. By the 1900s, after trading with the same forts, occupying the same territories, intermarrying, and losing many people to influenza, the Yellowknife eventually became indistinguishable from the Dogrib and the Chipewyan and preferred to be called Chipewyan (ibid.: 288).

Possession of guns permitted groups to attack those that had none, since they found themselves unevenly matched. Gun-toting Crees confined the Beaver to the Peace River Valley, though Beavers to the east made a truce with the Cree in 1765 (Ives 1990: 127; Yerbury 1986: 34). The western Beavers fled up the Peace River and displaced the Sekani and Mountain peoples (Ives 1990: 129). In 1782 these Beavers had acquired firearms and attacked the gunless Mountain Athapaskans, whom they were certain to defeat, killing twenty-two (Krech 1983a: 133; Mackenzie 1971: 146). Several violent incidents between Beavers and Chipewyans, including one following the desertion of a Chipewyan woman to a Beaver camp, and between Beavers and Yellowknifes prompted a clerk from a distant fort to try and “restrict” the trapping territory of the Natives around that fort (Krech 1983a: 133). [End Page 713]

Alcohol, which was used by the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies to tempt Native traders to the posts, white men having their way with Native women, and fierce trading competition incited intense violence between Europeans and Natives. Slaveys were involved in the winter of 1812–13 massacre, where they lured traders out of Fort Nelson with the promise of returning with skins and then ambushed them (Krech 1983b: 35–37). They returned to the post the following morning and killed Alexander Henry, a trader at Fort Nelson, and his family. The 1821 merger of the Hudson’s Bay and North West Companies and the ensuing monopoly only exacerbated the situation. The massacre of many Inuits and more than ten Athapaskans around Great Bear Lake was blamed on traders from Hudson’s Bay, presumably over Native women (ibid.: 37). Plans to shut down Fort St. John and establish the Rocky Mountain Portage for more convenient trade with the Sekani did not sit well with the middlemen around St. John. Traders tried to persuade the band to switch their business to Fort Dunvegan for the following spring. But Fort St. John Natives were not affiliated with the Dunvegan Beaver and, being antagonistic, simply could not share territory or trade (ibid.: 38). In what became known as the St. John’s Massacre of October 1823, a lone European clerk was shot while others were off moving their wares from St. John to Rocky Mountain Portage. Four men who returned to the fort were also killed. Four unidentified Athapaskans were said to have been the murderers, though they had met with Fort Vermilion Beavers that winter. The Fort Vermilion Beaver, who were beginning to despise whites for their abuses of power, planted fear in Hudson’s Bay Company men by telling them that those same Athapaskans planned to attack other posts (ibid.).

The later peacemaking intentions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which included the establishment of posts in all Native territories, especially those home to the remaining bulk of fur-bearing animals, served the company’s business interests. The Hudson’s Bay Company furnished the Inuit with firearms to help give them the edge against Athapaskan raids and hoped to keep the groups separate and at relative peace (Graburn 1969: 108–9), and invariably they did the same for Athapaskan middlemen (Krech 1979a: 107). The Hudson’s Bay Company continued to encourage peace between groups that existed around its new forts in the Mackenzie Mountains. War was reported to Fort Norman from 1834–36 by the Mountain Athapaskans who fought unidentified enemies, although they affirmed killing Francis Lake Kaskas in 1843 (Gillespie 1981d: 328). Numerous wars between the Mountain Athapaskans and others along the Upper Yukon were instigated when the Mountain Athapaskans began exploiting the furs of the Yukon River (ibid.: 329). The Mackenzie Mountains apparently saw [End Page 714] their last war in 1886, when their Pelly River Athapaskan survivors joined the Mountain Athapaskans around Fort Norman (Field 1957: 48; Gillespie 1981d: 328).

The arrival of traders in the central Canadian Subarctic, and the goods and services they provided, replaced the old reasons to go to war with new ones that revolved around the items, especially guns, that the traders offered. Intertribal relations and relations with whites tensed as individual middlemen attempted to maximize their status and to control the exchange of goods. Almost a century after the onset of fur traders west of Hudson’s Bay, similar processes occurred on the Northwest Coast of North America with the first arrival of traders there.

Trade Opportunities on the Northwest Coast

On the Pacific edge of the continent, first contact with Northwest Coast societies came in the mid-eighteenth century by way of Spanish ships that sailed as far as Cook Inlet, French ships led by La Pérouse in southeast Alaska, and British ships carrying such captains as Cook and Vancouver. 5 The furs these navigators returned home with inspired further exploration. Farther west, Siberian fur hunters immersed themselves in the sea otter and fur seal trade and competitive exploration on the north Pacific Rim from 1741 until 1799, when the Russian-American Company was granted a trading monopoly by St. Petersburg over what is now Alaska. Depletion of fur-bearing animals in the Aleutians and around the Alaska Peninsula soon prompted the Russian-American Company and their newly recruited Aleut hunters to advance east, first to the mouth of the Copper River, then to southeast Alaska. The Tlingit and the Tanaina on the coast, however, and the Koyukon and the Ahtna in the interior were not so readily compliant with Russian methods. Chronic violence and authority—which was successful in subjugating the Aleut, the Koniag (now called the Alutiiq), and, to some extent, the Chugach (also called the Pacific Eskimo or the Alutiiq of Prince William Sound today)—was less successful against the Athapaskans.

At contact the peoples of the northern Northwest Coast were organized into ranked matrilineages, several of which composed each large, sedentary, patrilocal village. Slavery, potlatching, warfare, trade, territoriality, and kinship were integrated into structured systems of rank and prestige (de Laguna 1983, 1990a). The peoples of the northern Northwest Coast played an integral role in the management, maintenance, and control of trade and exchange between the coast and the interior (Bishop 1983, 1987). These groups, especially the Tlingit and the Tsimshian, had monopolies as [End Page 715] middlemen between the coast and the interior, using their large populations, military might, and systems of rank to control trade and to influence the political worlds of their neighbors in the subarctic interior (Ferguson 1984).

British and American traders reached the Tlingit and, since the Americans had no intention of setting up residence, traded firearms, small cannons, powder, and ammunition (de Laguna 1972: 170; Townsend 1983: 14). But it was against Russian policy for the Russian-American Company to sell or trade guns, and they opposed trading weapons to Natives (ibid.). The Tlingit and the Haida, with the occasional help of some marooned American and British seamen who wanted to eliminate Russian competition, destroyed Fort Novoarkhangel’sk on Sitka Island in 1802 and the Yakutat Bay settlement in 1805 (de Laguna 1972: 159–76). Afterward, the Russians seized Tlingit hostages and tried forced labor techniques. For example, the Russians organized sea otter hunting parties of Native men for long trips and were known to take hostages from hunters’ families to ensure that there were no disruptions (VanStone 1974: 96).

De Laguna (1972: 580) has argued that recurring Tlingit warfare against the Prince William Sound Alutiiq and Eyak was often the most violent, whereas wars between Tlingit groups, like the Chilkat or Yakutat, were less serious because they were relatively equal adversaries. Again, wars were fought over slaves, women, revenge, booty (ibid.: 583), and territory (Ferguson 1984). In addition to the victors taking hostages (who were called “deer”), trophy heads, scalps, crest objects, and weapons, “rights to the designs for facial painting, personal names, and presumably other prerogatives were acquired by killing the owner” (de Laguna 1972: 584). That is, the prestige of the slain individual was conferred upon the killer. Furthermore, access to larger or new territories directly increased the status and prestige of the victors because resources from those areas could be used in status-enhancing pursuits, such as the potlatch. Another means of maintaining or gaining status was through access to exotic trade goods. Trade access to these goods for status purposes was vigorously defended (Ferguson 1984; Maschner 1997a).

Trade goods from the interior, or simply the knowledge of them, had already reached coastal Native groups before American and Russian traders arrived on the coast. Tlingit middlemen, knowing the profits to be made in trafficking furs from the interior (since the sea otter was virtually depleted on the coast), placed themselves on the supply lines. The Tlingit kept the Southern Tutchone and the Tagish away from the coast and the source of goods; the Tlingit also held back the Upper Tanana and Northern Tutchone bands. Trade items had made their way up the river valleys [End Page 716] before Europeans but by 1900 most Natives had encountered Europeans, though more isolated groups still had not (McClellan 1964: 6). Among trade goods passed along the trails was of course the gun. Among the Yakutat Tlingit “the gun (‘una, ‘something to shoot’) was often called ‘war gun’” (de Laguna 1972: 589).

In addition to cogent Native groups forbidding other Natives to participate in the trade networks, the Hudson’s Bay Company was likewise barred from interference with the inland trade routes, especially by the untouchable Chilkat Tlingit (Ferguson 1984: 275). Russians conducted most of their business on the coast at their Sitka Island fort of Novoarkhangel’sk, which was rebuilt in 1804. They traded directly with the neighboring Sitka Tlingit, who reaped benefits from their proximity to the fort and who hesitated to participate in the Tlingit uprising. But as the American traders began to heavily furnish the Tlingit with firearms, “it was natural that with such arms the Sitka Tlingit soon became bold” and quickly changed their disposition and made threatening gestures at the Russian fort (de Laguna 1972: 170). The Russians could not offer to exchange as much as the American traders for their furs and certainly did not pay the Natives in weaponry. Native middlemen found it worthwhile to ignore the Russians and wait for American ships or to make their way to Fort Simpson, where furs commanded a higher price (ibid.). Consequently, the Russians often bypassed Native middlemen altogether and hunted for themselves (ibid.: 172), escalating conflicts and competition.

Much like the central Canadian Subarctic, the introduction of guns changed the regional political dynamics. On the northern Northwest Coast guns were traded to be used against other traders, but like elsewhere, they were also used to avenge old animosities. The demand for furs by the Russians, Americans, and British put the Tlingit nobility in an excellent position to maintain their rank by controlling trade between the coast and the interior. But access to trade and guns created new opportunities to increase status and prestige for many people, especially commoners. The result was European and Russian competition for access to Natives who used their middlemen status to extract high prices for furs, often competing more effectively than the Americans, Hudson’s Bay Company, or the Russian-American Company.

The effects of the fur trade on the northern Northwest Coast also created a new state of affairs in the social milieu of opportunities that already existed. The control of trade, warfare, and rank were structures already entrenched in Northwest Coast society for two thousand to three thousand years (Ames and Maschner 1999). It was a simple transition to incorporate new goods and traders into such a system and the immediate culturewide [End Page 717] effects were less severe than among more mobile, egalitarian groups of the interior.

The Alaska Plateau and the Gulf of Alaska

The six major groups of the Alaska Plateau and the Gulf of Alaska consist of the Tanana bands on the Upper Tanana River; the Koyukon of the Yukon, Koyukuk, and Lower Tanana Rivers; the Ingalik of the Lower Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers; the Kolchan of the Upper Kuskokwim River; the Ahtna of the Copper River valley and the Upper Talkeetna, Susitna, and Matanuska drainages; and the Tanaina of the Kenai Peninsula, Cook Inlet, and the areas north and west of there. The modest population of the Holikachuk on the Innoko River form the seventh group. Most Plateau Athapaskans were nomadic throughout much of the year, primarily hunting large mammals and other game, with seasonal villages along salmonproducing rivers. A regional band’s territory could span as much as five thousand square miles, where local bands used the same rivers, intermarried, shared a dialect, and even cooperated in warfare against other regional bands (Hosley 1981a: 540–41). Athapaskans of the Gulf of Alaska and the Copper River basin, the Tanaina and the Ahtna, moved to and from semipermanent villages and fishing and hunting camps. These societies were more politically complex than their neighbors, with incipient systems of rank and economic redistribution. Competition and warfare were common on the Alaska Plateau throughout the historic and late precontact periods.

The Ingalik and the Koyukon were in close contact with the Yupik and the Inupiaq, hence their cultures contain elements of Yupik and Inupiaq influence (Clark 1981: 582; VanStone and Goddard 1981: 559). 6 Soon after a devastating smallpox epidemic, Lower Yukon Koyukon and Inupiaq allies massacred the Koyukon group of Kelroteyit on the Lower Koyukuk River in 1846. 7 The Russian post at Nulato on the border between these two territories was attacked in retaliation; a number of lower Yukon Koyukon and Russian traders were killed in 1851 in what was later called the Nulato Massacre (Clark 1981: 586, 596; VanStone and Goddard 1981: 559).

Muzzle-loaders were obtained through Native trade in the years between these two massacres (Clark 1981: 586). Various Koyukon bands often allied against other Koyukon bands and the Nulato Massacre may have been one of many divisive raids (ibid.: 586, 596). The Russian lieutenant Lavrentiy Zagoskin stated that the Lower Yukon Koyukon kept up a “two-faced policy,” whereby they traded with the Russian forts meanwhile undercutting their prices, then “terrorized the credulous Yukon natives with the name of the Russians.” Finally, after telling their kinsmen to kill [End Page 718] the Russians, they sent out a message to ensure themselves against revenge (Michael 1967: 137). The Kutchin may have been the most dangerous neighbors of the Koyukon, while their least hostile neighbors seem to have been the Kobuk and the Nunamiut Inupiaq (Clark 1974: 186–98, 1981: 596). The Koyukon role in warfare—raiding other Koyukons, neighboring Athapaskans, and Inupiaqs—spanned from precontact to about 1870, when Roman Catholic missionaries began baptizing Natives at Nulato (Clark 1981: 586, 596).

Zagoskin recorded trade and warfare in the 1840s between the Yukon River Ingalik and the Lower Yukon Koyukon bands, who appear to have been traditional enemies (Michael 1967: 190–91; Snow 1981: 603). The Kuskokwim Ingalik also fought the Yupik and the Kolchan (Osgood 1958: 63; Snow 1981: 603). Russian trading posts were established on the Kuskokwim River in Ingalik territory just a few years before the 1838 smallpox epidemic that grimly overcame the communities (Snow 1981: 611).

The Kolchan reportedly raided the Kuskokwin Ingalik, although the name “Kolchan” refers to stranger or enemy, typically people inland from those using the name. For lack of a better term, the Kolchan seem to have consisted of similar yet autonomous bands (Hosley 1981b: 618; Snow 1981: 603; VanStone and Goddard 1981: 558–59). Mutual raiding with the Koyukon, the Yupik, and the Tanaina eventually confined the Kolchan to a smaller area along the Kuskokwim River (Hosley 1981b: 618). They traded with the Russians through Tanaina middlemen for decades until the 1840s, when Russians traveled up the Kuskokwim to trade with them directly (ibid.: 620).

The twelve bands of the Tanana Athapaskans were contacted relatively late, at about 1880 as the natural southern boundaries of the Alaska Range and the Wrangell Mountains limited contact with Russians and Europeans as well as the Tanaina and the Ahtna. The Upper Tanana bands may have been the most warlike in their region, carrying out “vendetta” warfare and “indiscriminate slaughter,” especially against the Kluane and the Southern Tutchone (McKennan 1959: 95, 1981: 565). McKennan (1959: 95) alleges that “even then, the attacking party was not a fighting unit but contained some members . . . who went along not to fight but simply to watch the fun.” Tananas traveled to the mouth of the Tanana River to make indirect and occasional direct trade with Russians from the Nulato post and Hudson’s Bay Company traders from Fort Yukon (McKennan 1981: 567). At the turn of the century, following the discovery of gold, many trading posts were established on the Upper Tanana River, and Native seasonal villages arose around these posts eventually becoming permanent villages (ibid.).

The archenemy of the Tanaina were the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island (Osgood 1966: 109–13, 183), [End Page 719] although they also fought with the neighboring Ahtna. Flanked by the Alutiiq and the Yupik around Iliamna Lake, the Tanaina contended that the Alutiiq were after their skins for clothing and all of their women and children. This provoked the Tanaina to wars of revenge (ibid.: 109–10). The Tanaina and the Prince William Sound Alutiiq already possessed beads and iron when Captain James Cook encountered them in 1778 (Townsend 1979: 164, 1981). The Tanaina went north into Tanana territory to raid (Guédon 1974: 156–57) and crossed the Gulf of Alaska to reach the Kodiak Archipelago (Black 1977: 86). They launched offensives against the Alutiiq of Prince William Sound and were eventually defeated (Birket-Smith 1953: 139–40). At the outset of the conquest from the west in 1786, Russian subjugation was not passively accepted. The Alutiiq fought thirty of Baranov’s men in 1793, killing one-third of them (Osgood 1966: 193). The governor of Russian America, Alexander Baranov, sent forces into Tanaina territory again in 1801, and the Tanaina fought diligently until smallpox consumed the majority of them (ibid.: 193–94).

Ahtna Athapaskans fought primarily with each other and with the Alutiiq of Prince William Sound, and the usually friendly relations with the Eyak, the Upper Tanana, and the Southern Tutchone occasionally erupted into war (de Laguna and McClellan 1981: 642; McClellan 1975b: 223–24). Russians were blocked from entering their territory, especially after news of Tlingit warriors razing the Russian post at Yakutat in 1805 (de Laguna and McClellan 1981: 643). Russian trader Andrie Klimovskiy was able to establish Copper Fort near Taral in 1819, but this was closed temporarily after every other Russian party was met with hostility (ibid.). Ahtna social organization embodies levels of status differences that were not present among other interior Athapaskans, and Ahtna population densities were higher, which may be the reason why they were so successful in keeping foreigners at bay. The Lower Ahtna monopolized the main source of copper, which was highly prized and required special knowledge and religious formalities to handle and shape it, and they were middlemen between the Eyak and the Tlingit, and the Upper Ahtna, Upper Tanana, and Athapaskans on the White River (ibid.: 645). The Ahtna are said to have made native copper bullets for their firearms (Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938: 151).

To maintain their status in trade, the Ahtna killed most members of the fur trading party of Russian Nikolai Samoilov in 1794–95, after suffering at the ends of their whips and after Ahtna women were taken as slaves (Kari 1986: 75–86). The second Ahtna massacre of Russians, which probably arose out of fear of retaliation from the previous attack, was against Ruff Sereberinikoff (who was half Aleut and who explored the Lower Ahtna territory in 1847–48) and his small party, which included an Eyak man in 1848 [End Page 720] (ibid.: 107–14). This incident deterred Russians from further accessing the interior.

The Eyak inhabited the Pacific Coast from south of Yakutat Bay up to Controller Bay in the eighteenth century. The Alutiiq of Prince William Sound maintained the islands off the coast. Wars over women and territory often occurred with these Alutiiq (Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938: 144–48). At the end of the century, the Tlingit expanded to Yakutat Bay and dominated and intermarried with the Eyak there, hence the phrase “Tlingitized Eyak” (de Laguna 1990b: 189). The final battle with the Prince William Sound Alutiiq was recorded at Hawkins Island, where the Eyak killed most of the enemy involved (Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938: 147, 149). Eyaks and Tlingitized Eyaks attacked Baranov’s party in 1792 in Prince William Sound. Russians immediately raided several Eyak villages and took hostages. Eyaks massacred several Russians and their Aleut and Alutiiq slaves in 1799 at Cape Suckling (de Laguna 1990b: 195). In retaliation, Russians tortured an Eyak to death. Eyaks aided in the attack on Fort Sitka and led the attack on the colony at Yakutat, a fort that the Russians decided not to rebuild (ibid.). Trade opportunities presented by access to the Russian post in Yakutat in the early nineteenth century may have been instrumental in the Tlingit attack on the last of that Eyak regional group and their absorption into Tlingit society (ibid.).

Eyaks farther up the coast moved into the Copper River Delta region and to the eastern edge of Prince William Sound. They traded and intermarried with Tlingits and Ahtnas, and interior inhabitants of the Copper River supposedly paid the Eyak a commission to deliver copper and furs to a trading post and return with trade goods (Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938: 151). All slaves of the Eyak were said to have been Alutiiqs of Prince William Sound and that the Eyak did not trade with them (ibid.: 139, 151). An 1837–38 smallpox epidemic reduced the Eyak population to half its original size.

As on the Northwest Coast, Russian trading posts did not enjoy much success on the Alaska Plateau. Massacres and epidemics nonrandomly coincided with their trading establishments everywhere. Natives violently obstructed Russian access to the interior as long as they could. More powerful Native middlemen blocked smaller groups from direct trade until the white traders came to them.

Subarctic Cordillerans at War

The Carrier, Chilcotin, Han, Inland Tlingit, Kaska, Kutchin, Sekani, Tagish, Tahltan, Tsetsaut, and Tutchone, designated as Subarctic Cordillera [End Page 721] peoples, occupied the Pacific drainage area, the Arctic Ocean drainage (the Kaska), or both areas (the Chilcotin, Kutchin, Sekani) (McClellan and Denniston 1981: 372–73). Cordillerans shared a similar culture and seasonal round and gathered in small settlements for the dark winter months, subsisting on stored meat or occasional fresh kills. Populations scattered widely in late winter for the trapping season, a length of time that probably increased with the onset of the fur trade (ibid.: 376). Mobility slowed with the spring thaw, when the threat of starvation was at its peak. The Inland Tlingit are an exception to this strategy, who, like their coastal relatives, were ranked, much more sedentary, and had a similar social organization.

Again, attempts to monopolize trade networks were made by the various Native groups with the influx of Euro-American goods. Fort McLeod on the Parsnip River was established in 1805 by the North West Company, the first post west of the Rocky Mountains, and initiated an influx of guns and metal materials. After the companies merged, the Hudson’s Bay Company quickly added new posts in Kaska, Kutchin, Sekani, and Tutchone territory to counter the Native traders siphoning off furs from the interior to the coast (McClellan 1981a: 389; Tobey 1981: 418). “Some of [the posts] . . . were short-lived, for the bitter fact was that the post managers often found themselves less well stocked than the coastal Native traders who also often charged 50 percent less than the company” (McClellan 1981a: 389). The Hudson’s Bay Company’s first post on the Yukon River was established in the Russian trading jurisdiction in 1847, with the Han, the Kutchin, and the Tanana trading directly with Fort Yukon, which is in Kutchin territory in Alaska (VanStone 1974: 98). Fort Selkirk was built in Tutchone territory in 1848, but Chilkat Tlingits destroyed it in 1852 to protect their middleman position, essentially blocking traders from contacting Upper Yukon groups like the Upper Tanana, the Tutchone, and the Tahltan until the 1898 gold rush (ibid.).

Russian and American trade ships strongly affected the scene from the west. A. Mackenzie (1971) found the Carrier already in possession of European-made iron tools upon contact, having been supplied by the intermediary traders of the Bella Coola, the Shuswap, and the Tsimshian. Guns and metal knives in the hands of the Shuswap and the Chilcotin sparked fear and feuding over access to trade items between themselves and the Carrier (ibid.; McClellan 1981a: 388). These items also improved Cree and Beaver intimidation and might over the Sekani, who fled into the westward mountains (McClellan 1981a: 388). Knives, axes, and guns were traded in exchange for furs (ibid.).

The Chilcotin, being more mobile than their immediate neighbors, were able to launch attacks against adjacent societies (Lane 1981: 408). [End Page 722] The Chilcotin were not satisfied with their northern neighbor’s middleman position in the fur trade and opened many attacks against the Carrier (ibid.: 410–11). In 1826, after the Chilcotin attacked the Carrier village of Chinlac, the Carrier were supplied with arms and ammunition from Fort Alexandria, forcing the Chilcotin to retreat, enraged and vowing to kill any white person they encountered (ibid. 411). Westernmost Carrier and Tsimshian middlemen offered a better price for furs than Hudson’s Bay Company (Bishop 1983: 154) and regulated the accessibility of demanded goods to other Carrier and Sekani groups (Tobey 1981: 417).

The Sekani feared the Cree and the Beaver, who were armed with guns, since the Sekani only had traditional weapons in the early nineteenth century, including iron-tipped weapons obtained from the coast through the Carrier (Mackenzie 1971: 200–201). Sekani-Carrier relations were also tense and occasionally bloody between certain bands (Denniston 1981: 434; Mackenzie 1971: 201). The Shuswap to the south were equally feared and had almost annihilated a group of Sekanis that had encroached upon their territory during the 1780s and 1790s, decades of active warfare (Denniston 1981: 435).

The Han were enemies with the Mountain, the Kaska, the Peel River Kutchin (Osgood 1971: 63–64), and the Tutchone (McClellan 1981a: 388). Osgood (1971: 65) noted that most groups considered enemies of the Han were not adjacent to Han territory, and asked “how such conflicts came about when they involved more than one border,” although “the distance of the European trading posts from many tribes . . . stimulated unusual travel.” Though the Han had guns and iron tools and had used their intermediary position between the Hudson’s Bay Company posts along the Mackenzie and the Russian posts on the Alaska Plateau and the Pacific Coast, they did not encounter European traders until Fort Yukon was established to their north in 1847 (ibid.: 77).

When the Tutchone were contacted, they described the Han, who had metal goods, as menacing and the trading coastal Tlingit as even more dangerous (McClellan 1981a: 388–89). Headmen of the various groups competed to monopolize trade and the local copper sources. The Southern Tutchone were subordinate to the Chilkat Tlingit and supplied them with furs; the Chilkat Tlingit then sold them to the Europeans (McClellan 1975b: 204). Upper Tanana Athapaskans were the greatest rivals of the Southern Tutchone, though the Southern Tutchone had once passed on the chance to massacre the Athapaskans because they were valuable fur suppliers (ibid.: 204–5). A midcentury massacre of the Southern Tutchone, who had some muzzle loaders at this time, by the Upper Tanana, who had only bows and arrows, near Dezadeash Lake occurred over stolen women and trading [End Page 723] tension (ibid.: 209, 1981b: 494). Native orator Katie John’s version of this event details a lover’s quarrel that prompted the Southern Tutchone to make war on the Upper Tanana near Kluane Lake (Kari 1986: 89–102). She tells of torture on both sides, of cutting captives while they are alive and leaving enemies to freeze to death, of overturning cradles and killing babies, and of training for the next attack. Many Tutchones had gone to visit the Chilkat Tlingit to “go shopping” for guns and ammunition, and the Upper Tanana killed those who were still in the village (Katie John in ibid.: 99). The Upper Tanana warriors removed copper arrowheads from bodies and recycled them for the next attack. The Southern Tutchone did not retaliate and were assumed to be defeated.

The few Tagish traditionally lived at the Yukon River headwaters, where nineteenth-century trade and intermarriage actualized their adoption of the Tlingit language and social organization (McClellan 1975b: 201). Though the Tagish acted as peaceful middlemen between the coastal Tlingit and Pelly River peoples, the Tlingit forbid the Tagish to come to the coast and trade directly with the whites and they raided for Tagish women (McClellan 1975a: 519, 1975b: 202).

The Tlingit and the Gitksan had the advantage of contact with the European and American ships and were therefore the suppliers of foreign goods for the Kaska, the Tahltan, and the Tsetsaut, who were raiding one another (McClellan 1981a: 388). Wars with the Nassgotin, the southern Tahltan band and archenemy of the Tsetsaut, forced the Tsetsaut into the Upper Nass River region on Meziadin Lake (Duff 1981: 454–55). Once there, they warred with the Tongass Tlingit, the Gitksan, and the Niska Tsimshian, as they tried to make their way back and forth to Fort Simpson until 1865, when their population was so diminished from fighting that those remaining retreated to the Stikine virtually exterminated (ibid.: 455). Their Tahltan neighbors made use of the grease trails on the Taku and Nass Rivers, exchanging hides, furs, and copper for eulachon oil, pipes, dentalium, and possibly slaves, with the Inland Tlingit, the coastal Tlingit, and the Tsimshian (MacLachlan 1981: 458–59). The Tahltan were also fighting the Inland Tlingit and the Taku for control of the fur and trade trails of the Upper Taku and Yukon River basins (McClellan 1981c: 469, 478) and fought the Niska of the Upper Nass River until 1862 (Emmons 1911: 115). Emmons (1911: 115) reported peace with the Bearlake, the Kaska, and the Stikine Tlingit in trade. Coastal middlemen also passed along disease from the whites into the interior, and the Tahltan lost about 75 percent of their population in the nineteenth century. The Tsimshian and the Tlingit pushed deeper into the interior, where their presence forced interior Athapaskans into more limited territories. Remnants of the Tahltan bands, [End Page 724] having lost most of their territorial rights, coalesced under a single leader from the most powerful clan in 1875. But a “Tlingitization” of the Tahltan followed the white invasion, when decimation by disease and competition for trade opportunities and social status were greatest (MacLachlan 1981: 460).

The dynamics of intermarriage, trade, and feuding between Inland Tlingits and Tahltans, Kaskas, and Pelly River peoples provoked sudden revenge raids (McClellan 1981c: 478). War leaders were chosen for each raid instead of the local clan leader; leaders of the various clans rarely united their members for warfare (ibid.). Shamans stayed behind with the women and children and sent out spirits against the enemy, sometimes even attempting to kill the enemy’s shaman (McClellan 1975a: 563). Ceremonies for peace often followed disputes where an effort to balance the score was made (ibid.: 526–27). Hostages, or “deer,” were required from both sides along with appropriate speeches, songs, and feasts (ibid.: 526).

The Kaska of the Upper Liard primarily fought Natives of the Taku and Pelly Rivers, the Espatotena Kaska, the Tahltan, and the Cree (Honigmann 1954: 92–93). The Dease River Kaska fought most often with the Tahltan (ibid.: 97). Honigmann described warfare among the Upper Liard Kaska, the band for which he has the most data, as small-scale, defensive, driven by revenge and that those involved dreaded the enterprise. Great pains were taken to outfit and ritually prepare the Kaska warrior (ibid.: 94). “The entry of white trappers into the Cassiar also met with resentment. ‘The Casca Indians have the greatest objection to white men trapping on their own account in their country; gold dust they can take as much as they like, but the fur is the Indian’s equivalent for gold and must be left for the Indian. They are very firm on this point—so much so that a couple of white men who were trapping on the Liard some years ago were killed by the Indians because they refused to let the fur alone” (W. M. Pike, quoted in ibid.: 97–98).

The nine or ten (see Krech 1979b) bands of Kutchin speakers, named for the river drainages or territories they were centered around, are typically divided as Eastern and Western Kutchin, with greater complexity in the west (Osgood 1936: 2; Slobodin 1960: 76). 8 First contacted in 1789 by Alexander Mackenzie, the Eastern Kutchin, which were the bands centered around the Mackenzie River drainage, were known as the “Quarrelers” to European explorers (Slobodin 1960: 76). 9 These Eastern Peel River and Arctic Red River bands had a more pacific, defensive self-evaluation (ibid.: 77). The Western Kutchin bands for which we have warfare data are the Chandalar River, the Crow River, and the Dihai. Traditional enemies of the Western Kutchin were the Tutchone, the “great medicine men, able to [End Page 725] steal Kutchin ammunition from a distance by means of sorcery” (ibid.: 85). Chandalar River and Crow River Kutchins fought Nunamiut Inupiaqs and possibly Hans (Hall 1969: 321–22; Osgood 1970: 88–89).

The Kutchin-Inuit border was such a risky zone that Eastern Kutchin bands expected an almost annual clash with their Mackenzie Inuit neighbors, but from around 1825–55 there were only about thirty Kutchin casualties (Krech 1978: 94). Deaths for the Western Kutchin appear to have been greater than those of the Eastern Kutchin fighting against the Inuit. A dispute over women in the mid-nineteenth century ended in a battle in which twenty Kutchins died and only two Nunamiuts were wounded (Hall 1969: 321). The establishment of Fort Good Hope on a former Inuit-Kutchin battleground on the Lower Ramparts River allowed the Eastern Kutchin, especially the Arctic Red River band, to recast themselves as middlemen between the post and the Inuit and to maintain their position with superior weapons (Slobodin 1960: 88–89). The Kutchin had guns by the 1820s and stockpiled ammunition for defense against the Mackenzie Inuit (Krech 1981: 78–79). The Kutchin originally traded for high-status beads and dentalia shells only until supplies were exhausted, at which time guns and ammunition replaced these items in value (Krech 1979a: 107). “For instance, in 1828, the 33-pound supply of beads was exhausted by the Kutchin before they traded for guns, ammunition, kettles and some blankets [hbc B.80/2/7/fo. Lld]. Ammunition was traded briskly when beads were considered low quality” (ibid.). Natives brought provisions to the posts to trade for ammunition and, although provisions were important (and becoming alarmingly more expensive), the Natives had to be reminded that furs were the most desired commodity (ibid.). The Inuit did not have guns until after the 1850s (Krech 1981: 79), and the armed Eastern Kutchin prevented Inuit access to the trading posts. Only when the Kutchin’s ammunition ran out and their guns were useless did the Inuit instigate hostilities (Krech 1979a: 107). “And the Hudson’s Bay Company policy of not trading guns to the Eskimo caused an added complication: the Eskimos ‘still alleged that we furnish the Loucheux with firearms & ammunition on purpose to kill them’ [Peers: 7/4/1849]” (ibid.). When Northwest Passage seeker Sir John Franklin took his goods directly to the Mackenzie Inuit, Kutchin middlemen realized they were losing their ideal position and almost ambushed the Europeans (Slobodin 1960: 92). The traders sought to bypass the Kutchin with a post on the Lower Peel River in 1840, but neither Native group was comfortable trading at its precarious location. Fort McPherson became an armed fortress whenever Inuits and Peel River Kutchins overlapped their trading schedules there, and between 1840 and 1856 seven major fights were reported (ibid.: 89). The last recorded flare-up [End Page 726] of war occurred in 1856, when Inuits raided and killed four Peel River Kutchins (ibid.). For three decades before, Kutchin and Hare bands had been severely damaged by epidemic diseases and had only scarlet fever, cholera, measles, and pneumonia to look forward to in the decades to come (Krech 1979a: 114).

The peoples of the Subarctic Cordillera were thus caught between a number of forces with competing interests. With pressure from the Northwest Coast, the western expansion of European traders across the Canadian Subarctic, the expansion of trade up the rivers of the Alaska Plateau, and rivalries with their traditional neighbors, conflict was apparently more intense here than elsewhere in the Subarctic. Except for a single case of traditional weaponry winning over guns, those with guns were always on the offensive against those without. The control of Western trade appears again to be the most obvious proximate cause, with revenge, sexual jealousy, and other more traditional themes present as well. Again, we must ask why the control of Western trade goods was even necessary. The answer is circular: those who controlled trade had greater access to guns; those with guns were at a military advantage over those without and trade could thus be controlled through aggression. The deeper answer lies in the question of why there was competition for anything other than land and resources to meet basic subsistence needs.

To summarize the ethnohistoric data, it is clear that every arctic and subarctic group participated in conflict, either on offense or defense, or both. Every group also participated directly or indirectly in the fur trade. Individual ambitious Native middlemen would have liked their contact to be the only direct link to the trading posts and the trade items, and they fought to attain and maintain those high-status positions. The more intense the participation in the fur trade, the more intense the conflicts. The following discussion provides the reconciliation of this large and diverse ethnohistoric data set with our theoretical interests.

Theoretical Discussion

To place these data in the context of our theoretical discussion, a number of observations can be made. First, we predicted that warfare and violence would be opportunistic. Groups of males would take advantage of technical superiority to attack less well-armed neighbors. This would occur even in situations where there were few previously recorded animosities. This happens because under conditions of changing political dynamics, the former outlets to status and prestige are replaced by new outlets, or are transformed in accordance with the changing political and economic conditions. [End Page 727] The impact of expanding state societies on both ends of the Subarctic has been discussed before, especially regarding trade (Ferguson 1984; Yerbury 1986), disease (Fortuine 1992; Krech 1978, 1981, 1983a), and territoriality (Gillespie 1975; McClellan 1981a). But all of these variables had a significant impact on indigenous patterns of alliance, suspicion, animosity, and ultimately the balance of power and war.

In all situations where there has been a disruption in traditional male outlets to status and prestige, we should therefore find rapid cultural change as males find new ways to compete. In the subarctic case, however, changing demographic conditions and trade networks and access to new goods (particularly new weapons) changed the basic structure of the indigenous status hierarchy. Groups formerly small and in need of alliances found themselves in positions of power and took revenge on old animosities, such as the Dogrib retaliation on the Yellowknife. Groups similar in size and with no power differential found themselves at war with those groups that had better access to traders (for example, between the Carrier and the Chilcotin).

An important point is that throughout the history of western expansion, we witness the increasing opportunity for males to compete in an increasingly status-driven political economy. Before contact, these outlets to economic, political, and reproductive success were most likely limited to just a few individuals in each group. While an expanding fur trade was the proximate cause, the ultimate reason for the escalation of violent conflict was the incorporation of the new political economy in the indigenous patterns of male competition.

The fact that status was the underlying theme is best expressed by Honigmann. After a lengthy description of Kaska warfare involving scalping, cannibalism, and burning, spiking, and hanging live enemies from trees, Honigmann (1954: 93) first states that “the wish for prestige played little part in promoting aboriginal warfare.” But he goes on to say that “a tattooed line crossing the upper arm just below the shoulder designated a man’s participation in a war party. The number of stripes revealed his war record. While prestige did not constitute a primary motivation for fighting, a record of successful war participation enhanced a man’s standing” (ibid.: 96). He then notes that the warrior received gifts of food for the next year or two. Tattooing, body painting, and other adornment have been recorded for men and women in most, if not all, subarctic societies. Marks of the warrior’s record in battle indeed raised that warrior’s status in the society; such marks are frequently displayed among most subarctic warriors. The Kaska adornment is much like the Peel River and Crow River Kutchin warriors, who tattooed a line from the corner of the mouth or eyes [End Page 728] for each enemy killed (Osgood 1970: 87, 88), or the tattoos worn on the upper arms and cheeks of Kutchin men as a “war honor” (Slobodin 1981: 517). Chilcotin warriors likewise wore red and black face paints (Lane 1981: 403). In addition to tattooing lines for the number of victims killed, “Crow River Kutchin puncture horizontally in little bars on top of their biceps of the right arm—one for each enemy” (Osgood 1970: 88). These markings also advertised that the warriors are dangerous. As one of us has argued (Maschner 1997a), the relationship between warfare and systems of status and prestige on the Northwest Coast were so intertwined that they cannot be analyzed separately, and from this analysis, it appears that this characteristic can be expanded to the entire western Subarctic.

Beads and dentalia were the most important trade and status items for the Kutchin until these goods were exhausted and firearms became the new status items (Krech 1979a: 107). Ammunition, followed by tobacco, were the most desired trade items for furs on the Peace and Mackenzie Rivers, and often these goods were mutually exclusive solicitations (Ives 1990: 153). Liquor, guns, axes, and kettles were the primary items traded for at Forts Liard, Simpson, Vermilion, and Dunvegan (ibid.: 53). White traders were content to trade with anyone and everyone who could provide furs. When one region was depleted, they moved to the next valley, as the Hudson’s Bay Company built new forts as fast as trappers could exhaust the furs. Competition between Native traders was intense and oriented toward maintaining monopolies over access to trade goods. Natives had the same demands from every post—high-status goods—and not items of basic necessity. Those who took the opportunity to put themselves in exploitative positions held their weaker neighbors at bay.

This does not imply that warfare is solely a product of changing economic and political conditions with the expansion of states. Archaeological data from the Northwest Coast (Cybulski 1992, 1994; Maschner 1992, 1997a, 1997b; Moss 1989; Moss and Erlandson 1992), the Gulf of Alaska (Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998), the Bering Strait (Mason 1998), and the Northwest Territories (Melbye and Fairgrieve 1994) show that patterns of intensive indigenous conflict have been present for at least three thousand years. These data also show that—at least for the Northwest Coast, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering Strait—warfare was much more prevalent a thousand to fifteen hundred years ago than it was during the historic period.10

The volume of cultural rules in all subarctic societies associated with war—including songs, symbols, weaponry, tactics, mythology, taboo, and other factors—implies that warfare has a long and integrated history in the region. While an influx of Western goods and weaponry changed the [End Page 729] nature of warfare in the Subarctic, the social rules to deal with warfare were clearly well entrenched in the subarctic worldview before Western expansion. It was thus a simple transition to incorporate Western goods into the indigenous patterns of status and prestige acquisition and to exchange bows for guns in warfare. For example, Osgood’s (1970: 86) primary cause of Kutchin warfare with the Inuit was to capture their possessions; however, “many of these things have more of a tropy value, serving to enhance the prestige of the owner, than any important place as useful objects.” It is no surprise that his second cause of Kutchin warfare is that it is “a means of acquiring prestige. A powerful chief often becomes such because he is a great war leader, and I have seen men regret, apparently most sincerely, that they can no longer fight the Inuit” (ibid.). The capture of women and revenge are Osgood’s third and fourth causes. Hunting magic, deception used on an Inuit, and the rape of a Kutchin girl by an Inuit sparked a revenge-retaliation cycle, with both parties engaging in the sympathetic magic by dismembering victims’ bodies “to reduce the speed and agility of the enemy” (Slobodin 1960: 84). Precontact evidence of this practice was recovered at Saunaktuk in the Mackenzie Delta, where the scattered remains of thirty-five Inuit women, children, and elderly showed evidence of facial mutilation, decapitation, split and gouged bones, and severed hands and feet (Melbye and Fairgrieve 1994: 57–58). The devastating spread of disease may have contributed to animosity, as the Inuit believed that enemy sorcerers were responsible and this necessitated revenge (Krech 1978: 94, 1981: 82–84).

The archaeological data also indicate two basic patterns of conflict that have clear implications for the historic Subarctic. The first is that “us versus them” or other similar patterns of interethnic animosities have a long history. Ferguson and Whitehead (1992: 28) argue that it would be an “extremely rare occurrence for members of one tribe to attack members of another simply because they are different, apart from any other source of conflict,” but, actually, humans are quite adept at classifying other humans as “other” or even “nonhuman,” and then killing them. They are also good at creating sources of conflict because they view a people as different. The Athapaskan-Inuit relations are laden with these cases, as are the archaeological data from the same region. This occurs especially under conditions where one society considers killing members of another a mark of status. The Saunaktuk remains (Melbye and Fairgrieve 1994) are a clear example of what one group can do to another when the victims are not considered human and bear a remarkable similarity to the slaughter of Inuits described by Hearne. Similar patterns have been found in archaeological remains from Kodiak Island (Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998). Mason (1998) [End Page 730] has found examples of ethnic warfare in the Bering Strait region as well, based in his reanalysis of the archaeological data from the first millennium. The oral historic data from across the Arctic and Subarctic contain numerous references to interethnic conflicts (Burch 1998; Cruikshank 1979, 1983; Hearne 1958; Kari 1977, 1986). 11

The second pattern is the role of changing technology and access to material goods in the escalation of conflict. The introduction of the bow and arrow on the Northwest Coast had an impact similar to the introduction of firearms; their introduction resulted in the widespread adoption of plank houses, large villages, and ranked political organization where it had existed only in a few areas before (Maschner 1996, 1997a, 1997b). Similar patterns are seen in the introduction of ivory armor in the Bering Strait, copied from iron Chinese designs (Laufer 1914; Mason 1998). The transition to defensive fortifications throughout the North Pacific is a fundamental change in the political economy based on a new technology (Maschner 1997a; Maschner and Reedy-Maschner 1998; Moss 1989; Moss and Erlandson 1992). The oral historic data from western Alaska (O’Leary 1995), the Alaska Plateau (Guédon 1974: 149–59; Kari 1986), and elsewhere in the Subarctic are filled with precontact references to warfare, often associated with the introduction of the bow and arrow.

Ferguson and Whitehead (1992) have argued that there is a militarization of indigenous peoples during the expansion of states and nations. We find no reason to dispute this but would generalize this axiom to include any major political, economic, environmental, or technological change or disruption. The introduction of the bow and arrow, coupled with the development of rank on the Northwest Coast after a.d. 200, is a good example. The development of large villages, rank, and the introduction of Asian armor to the Bering Strait between a.d. 200 and a.d. 900 are other examples (Mason 1998). Perhaps major climatic events or even volcanic eruptions, such as the White Mountain ash fall, which caused a portion of the Subarctic Cordillera and the Alaska Plateau to be abandoned for a few centuries after a.d. 600, could also cause a militarization of indigenous peoples (Workman 1974). All of these phenomena could have changed interpersonal and intergroup relations to the point where a general, macroregional militarization could have occurred.

As previously argued, there is ample evidence from throughout Alaska, the Southwest (Haas and Creamer 1993; Wilcox and Haas 1994), the Midwest (Milner et al. 1991), and nearly everywhere else in North America that there have been a number of militarizations over the past three thousand years, only one of which had to do directly with European expansion. In fact, the only places we do not have evidence for prehistoric conflicts [End Page 731] are those regions with little archaeological data of any kind. The most recent militarization is visible in the ethnohistoric literature. This event was a product of a long history of violent conflict, coupled with dramatic changes of the social, political, and economic worlds of the subarctic peoples. We can recognize the effects of changing technology and ultimately changing outlets to status and prestige for males in the structure of cultural and ethnic boundaries. Old fears and animosities become violent conflicts for the sole reason that they can. Even groups that traditionally had peaceful relations found themselves in conflict because of the tensions associated with all of the basic (and usually negative) issues of European expansion in the context of changing social and economic opportunities.


The western Subarctic was situated between foreign states pushing from opposite sides. English explorers penetrated the Hudson Bay region and, once secure, moved west and established more trading posts along rivers and lakes. Some eighty years later the Northwest Coast was first contacted by British, Spanish, French, American, and Russian traders. The Russians worked their way up the rivers to the interior, later expanding into the Alaska Plateau. The opposing forces met in the southern Yukon. In the context of foreign expansion, the traditional opportunities used by males to compete for status and prestige in their communities changed. These changes resulted in a profound interaction between furs, weaponry, and status that could not have existed previously.

Subarctic males formed coalitions for war not because of some desperate need for Western goods, nor were those goods essential to basic survival. Rather, status was essential to the success of these young males, who saw access to Western goods as a new means to high status in their own social groups. High status and increasing prestige led to greater social, political, and economic power and, at least in theory, should have led to greater reproductive success, although this is impossible to measure with the current data.

It was not the fur trade that directly stimulated an escalation in conflict; rather, the introduction of guns gave some males an advantage not previously present, allowing them to participate in violent competition with clear superiority. The fur trade provided the economic means to participate in what became a subarctic arms race, placing those without access to guns most often on the defensive. The historic militarization of the north was one in a long history of militarizations. While the lack of guns and European diseases probably means that earlier wars were less costly to human life, we have no evidence to support this. Many areas of North America [End Page 732] went through a complete pacification at contact, and elsewhere, such as the Southwest or coastal California, the greatest evidence for violent conflict is more than seven hundred to fifteen hundred years ago, with the recent era relatively peaceful.

Furthermore, northern North America has been at the ends of two major world systems for several thousand years. The Chinese and other northeast Asians on the West predated the Russians and Americans by nearly two thousand years. The spread of iron and other Asian items is documented in Alaska since a.d. 100, and there is reasonably clear evidence of East Asian mariners in the Bering Sea more than eight hundred years ago. More recently, the Norse were in contact with arctic and subarctic peoples for more than four hundred years beginning in the late first millennium. Thus the effects of nations and states on indigenous peoples of northern North America can be taken back long before the recent arrival of post-Columbian colonists and traders.

To investigate conflict among subarctic indigenous peoples, one must go beyond proximate causes such as Western expansion, the fur trade, or guns. One must look at the underlying reasons that men chose violent conflict over other outlets to status, prestige, and conflict resolution. We argue that the introduction of Westerners, their economies, and their goods presented a new and productive means by which men could participate in escalating systems of status and prestige competition. Coupled with a long history of intergroup animosities, this led to intense and violent interactions across the Subarctic during the historic era.

Herbert D. G. Maschner
University of Cambridge
Idaho State University


* The authors would like to thank Jim Kari for important information on warfare in interior Alaska and John Hodgson for assisting with library research. The authors would also like to recognize the contributions of Bill Simeone and two anonymous reviewers. All errors, omissions, and inconsistencies are our own.

1. While we recognize that the names for Native American peoples discussed in this article are often not the names these peoples use for themselves today, we have used the names that appear in the anthropological and ethnohistoric literature, following the Handbook of North American Indians. We realize that this is not the best solution, but the lack of consensus in both the modern names of particular peoples and their transliterations make them difficult to use in a broad comparative study.

2. The Sarsi (also spelled Sarcee) are also not included in this survey because historically they adopted the horse and had closer affinities to Plains culture, particularly the Blackfoot. Their former territory was likely to have been adjacent to the Beaver near Lake Athabasca (Krauss and Golla 1981: 84) and they may have been forced south by the Cree (Yerbury 1986: 43). Warfare data are scarce for the Holikachuk, so their treatment in this essay is limited.

3. The groups are egalitarian, save for the neighboring ranked coastal Tlingit and their neighbors immediately to the east, the Inland Tlingit. We suspect that the effects of interactions between hierarchically organized indigenous groups and more egalitarian Native peoples added an interesting political dimension to the relationship of trade, war, and status among the interior peoples, but this issue is not directly pursued in this article.

4. In the anthropological and psychological literature, young men are defined as those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five to thirty (see Wilson and Daly 1985 for a complete discussion). In this classification the “older men” category is anyone over thirty. In fact, there is often a conflict between the aggressive competitions of the younger male cohort and the political manipulations of the older males. An excellent example can be found in Baxter 1979.

5. Our discussion of the northern Northwest Coast material is shorter than other sections because these data have been presented in great detail elsewhere. We refer readers to Ferguson 1983, 1984 and Maschner 1992, 1997a.

6. Burch (1998) recently completed a monumental work on warfare and trade among the Inupiaq of northwest Alaska. He provides many references to interactions with the Koyukon and other groups that were not included in this study.

7. This is the only example we have of an alliance between Inupiaq (or any Eskimoan peoples) and Athapaskan groups for war against other Athapaskans.

8. J. C. Yerbury (1986) argues that this east to west gradient for all Athapaskans is a result of European expansion and the fur trade, with the Kutchin in a transitional position.

9. The Eastern Kutchin are also called Loucheux (“Squinters”), a name given to them by French employees of the North West and XY Companies around 1825 and still used for Eastern Kutchin around the Mackenzie River (Krech 1979b: 102).

10. This is based on the carbon-14 dating of fortifications along the northern Northwest Coast and the Gulf of Alaska, where attempts have been made to date every deposit, regardless of presumed age. Therefore, the radiocarbon distribution is a reflection of the occupation intensity of fortifications, and thus is a proxy measure of the degree of defensiveness in prehistory at any one time. O. K. Mason (1998) has also found this pattern, with clear evidence, based on skeletal injuries and armor, that warfare in the Bering Strait was more common between a.d. 300 and a.d. 900.

11. Burch (1998: 54) argues in a recent publication that he finds no measurable difference in the intensity of conflict between groups in the same society on the one hand and between groups of different societies or even ethnicities, such an Inuit-Athapaskan war. This is not based on the lack of violence between ethnic groups, but rather, on the high levels of violence he has recorded within ethnic groups. At present, we do not feel that there are enough data to make a clear case one way or the other. We agree completely with Burch that whoever was involved, there are clear examples of intense, violent relations throughout the region.


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