The Keewatin Inuit and interband trade and communications, 1717-1900

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Jones, Renaee Fossett.
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At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Inuit of west Hudson Bay were expanding southward from the area around Chesterfield Inlet into the fringes of Chipewyan territory. Almost simultaneously with the move into new territory, they established first contact with Europeans. Between 1718 and 1790, Hudson's Bay Company ships made frequent trading voyages to the coast camps. While the Inuit learned about European trading methods, in some ways adapting their own ways to those of the newcomers, in other ways forcing changes upon the Company, they maintained relations, including trade, with the Chipewyan to the south and west, and with more northerly Inuit groups. After the Hudson's Bay Company trading voayages ended in 1790, the south Keewatin people began to make regular trips to the post at Churchill combining their harvesting of marine mammal oils with trading activity. In the process they began to spend more time inland, hunting greater numbers of the furs most in demand by the Company, and amassing a surplus of European goods. The surplus was much in demand by other Inuit groups farther to the north. Although a purely native trade existed before Europeans arrived in the arctic, the number of trade items was limited and trading contacts were probably infrequent. The presence of highly desirable European items on the west coast of Hudson Bay led to an increase in the number and frequency of trading contacts among Inuit groups. Pre-contact Inuit geographical knowledge was extensive, and routes linking neighbouring bands from Siberia to Greenland were known. Certain sites along the travel routes, frequented by more than one group or band, had long been gathering places where social, economic and commercial activities took place, and they continued to be used as trade centres for the dissemination of European goods. Perhaps because opportunities to trade were limited in the pre-contact situation, the Keewatin Inuit seem to have lacked trading rituals of the kind developed by many North American Indian groups. Goods exchange was not connected to individual prestige or alliances between groups. Inuit perceptions and conduct of trade paralleled European commercial understandings and behaviour more closely than those of their neighbours.