The Carrier are an American Indian group located in north-central British Columbia along the numerous lakes and rivers in the region. The estimated precontact population of roughly eighty-five hundred decreased to a low of about fifteen hundred by 1890 and has since increased to about six thousand. The Carrier were composed of fourteen named subtribes, which on the basis of cultural, territorial, and linguistic evidence have been classified into two or three divisions such as the northern, central, and southern Carrier. Seventeen bands are recognized by the Canadian government today. The Carrier use the subtribe names in reference to themselves. They speak an Athapaskan language.
Carrier prehistory is unclear. The Carrier were involved in intensive trade relations with groups to the west, which eventually involved indirect trade with White traders making port on the northwest coast to seek beaver, fox, and other furs supplied by the interior groups. Contact with Northwest Coast groups such as the Gitksan and Bellacoola resulted in the Carrier adopting the social stratification/potlatch complex of these groups. First contact with Whites was in 1793. Within fifteen years, North West Company fur trade posts were established in Carrier territory and the traditional Carrier hunting and fishing economy began to change. Fur trade activity was joined by gold mining in 1858, then farming and ranching, and finally lumbering of Carrier lands.
Prior to White settlement, families followed an annual cycle of congregating in settlements to visit, potlatch, prepare food for storage, and live off of stored food or separating in order to hunt and trap. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Government began setting aside land for the Carrier, which now includes some sixty-three thousand acres in over two hundred reserves. Traditional dwellings included A-frame houses and plank houses modeled after those of the Northwest Coast.
The Carrier were hunters, fishers, and fur trappers. Salmon was the primary fish taken in basket traps, and Beaver, bear, caribou, and other animals were hunted. The fur trade, at first indirect through the Northwest Coast groups and later direct with the North West Company and then Hudson's Bay Company, quickly replaced hunting and fishing as the primary economic activity. As the fur trade became more and more lucrative, purchase of food and equipment replaced hunting for food and traditional manufactures to a large extent. Today wage labor (mostly seasonal work in canneries, on ranches, or in lumbering) and government assistance are the major sources of income supplemented by trapping and crafts by some families.
Prior to extensive contact with Northwest Coast groups, the patrilineally extended family ( sadeku ) was probably the basic social unit. Northwest Coast influences produced somewhat different forms of social organization among the northern and southern Carrier subtribes. Though subtribe variation existed, in the North social organizational units went from subtribe to phratries to clans to matrilineages. Social ranking was based on wealth (largely obtained through the fur trade) and was signified by personal and clan crests and potlatching. Control of subtribe land was allocated to the phratries. In the South, the system was less elaborate with crest groups (who conducted potlatches), bilateral descent groups, and sadeku. Potlatching, banned by the government and discouraged by Catholic missionaries, has largely disappeared. Marriage was usually preceded and followed by a period of bride-service. Polygyny, the sororate, and levirate were practiced in the past.
The Carrier are now mostly Roman Catholic in belief, if not entirely in practice. Traditional beliefs and practices (taboos, dreaming, quests, and so on) focused on spirits.
Jenness, Diamond (1943). The Carrier Indians of the Bulkley River: Their Social and Religious Life. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 133. Anthropological Papers, no. 25, Washington, D.C.
Morice, Adrien G. (1905). The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia (Formerly New Caledonia ), J 660-1880. 3rd ed. Toronto: William Briggs.
Tobey, Margaret L (1981). "Carrier." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 413-432. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.