Great Bear Lake Indians: a historical demography and human ecology
Morris, Margaret W.
Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories is the largest lake located entirely within the bounds of Canada. Today there are two small settlements along its shores: the small mining town of Port Radium on McTavish Arm inhabited by non-Indians, and the small Indian settlement of Fort Franklin on Keith Arm. This study is concerned with the Indians of Fort Franklin and district. Fort Franklin is located four miles from where Bear River begins to flow down to the Mackenzie River. It is approximately 90 miles from Fort Norman, the closest community, 120 miles from Norman Wells, and about 400 miles from either Yellowknife or Inuvik (Fig. 1). Its inhabitants in July 1969 comprised 368 Indians (339 Treaty, 29 non-Treaty) and 37 transient whites, mainly government, church or trading officials (Pers. comm. Fr. Denis, 1969). Most of the Indians are fur trappers who live in the "bush" around the lake for three to four months every winter setting up and operating their trap-lines. Their income is supplemented by a spring beaver hunt, by guiding at the tourist fishing lodges located around the lake, or by working with the transportation companies during the summer months. A few are employed either part or full time with the government or Hudson's Bay Company. The Great Bear Co-operative provides an outlet for local handicraft. Social welfare and other government allowances form an increasing proportion of the total income (Pers. comm. W. English, Area Administrator, 1969). Since the erection of about eighteen log houses in the early 1900's, Fort Franklin has had a number of Indians residing in the settlement on a year round basis. With the discovery of pitchblende, silver, and other minerals at Port Radium and petroleum at Norman Wells in the 1920's, Great Bear Lake and River became important as a commercial transportation route. Oil, food, and equipment were barged upstream, and silver-copper concentrates downstream to Fort McMurray, and then by rail to the smelter at Tacoma, Washington. Later, radium was sent to Port Hope, Ontario, for refining at Eldorado (Eldorado, 1967, pp. 18-21). Following upon the establishment of a permanent Roman Catholic Mission, Federal Day School, and Hudson's Bay Company post in 1949-50, the Indians settled in Fort Franklin, and since that time, their numbers have more than doubled. Prior to 1900, these Indians were quasi-nomadic and lived in camps around Great Bear Lake. Once, their forefathers had been nomadic hunters, pursuing the migratory Barren Ground caribou, and subsisting on fish, hares, and other animals in abundant supply. But during the century and a half of European contact these Indians underwent many changes. Most significantly, they decreased in number and gradually became settlement-orientated. The old life of the "bush" and caribou was forever gone.