Chipewyan - Orientation

Identification. The Chipewyan are a Subarctic group whose name is derived from a Cree word meaning "pointed skins," a reference to the cut of the caribou-skin hunting shirt traditionally worn by the men. The Chipewyan referred to themselves as "Dene," meaning "human" or "the people."

Location. In aboriginal times Chipewyan territory extended west from Hudson Bay along the Seal River to Lake Athabasca and north above the Arctic Circle to near the mouth of the Coppermine River at Coronation Gulf. During the nineteenth century the Chipewyan abandoned the Northernmost parts of this territory while pushing westward to Great Slave Lake and the Slave River and southward to the Athabasca River. In the north this region consists of rolling, boulder-strewn, and lichen-covered hills and valleys interlaced with numerous lakes, rivers, and streams. To the south this barren-ground environment gives way to a spruce-dominated boreal forest transition zone that includes bogs, patches of tundra, and stands of juniper, aspen, and birch.

Demography. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Chipewyan numbered between thirty-five hundred and four thousand, an estimate that probably reflects the effects of smallpox epidemics in 1781-1782 and 1819. In the twentieth century tuberculosis has been a major health problem for the Chipewyan, and they were severely affected by influenza outbreaks in the 1920s and a measles epidemic in 1948. In 1982 the Chipewyan numbered approximately five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. Chipewyan is classified in the Northern Athapaskan subfamily of the Athapaskan language family.

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