Beavers have been a critically important species throughout history. Their presence has unquestionably transformed global economics, culture, and ecosystems alike. A world without beavers would look totally unrecognizable. In part one of the three-part Unbelievable Beaver Series, I will talk about the fur trade and the significance of beavers in Blackfeet culture.
It is impossible to think about the history of beavers without mentioning the fur trade that undoubtedly altered both the physical and cultural landscape of North America.
While demand for fur, typically for felt hats, continued to increase and trapping brought the Eurasian beaver to the brink of extinction, the European fur trade expanded across the Atlantic Ocean to North American beaver territory. In addition to hunting and trapping, many of the colonizers destroyed beaver dams, transforming the vast natural wetlands into arable land. By the beginning of the 17th Century, competition between French and English fur companies resulted in fur traders heading west into the interior of the continent 1 . During the mid-18th century the Piikani made their first contact with Europeans, fur traders with the Hudson’s Bay Company 2 .
“There were plenty of beaver in the creeks and rivers. A good hunter could have killed a hundred of them in a month with his bow and arrows… the Blackfeet were generally not beaver hunters .”
-John C. Ewers 3
For millennia, beavers have been a significant component of Piikani culture and tradition. For this reason, and their respect for beavers as an integral component to the ecosystem, the Blackfeet were unwilling to conduct business with Hudson’s Bay and other fur trading companies, despite their economic value during the turn of the 19th century 2 . While beavers were abundant in the region, ethnographer John C. Ewers claimed that the Blackfeet were not interested in hunting beavers stating that, “There were plenty of beaver in the creeks and rivers. A good hunter could have killed a hundred of them in a month with his bow and arrows… the Blackfeet were generally not beaver hunters” 3.
The unwillingness to hunt beavers, or ksik-stakii, can be traced back to early Blackfeet culture. The Beaver Bundle is a Blackfeet tradition that has been passed down for countless generations. It is the largest, oldest, and most complex bundle of its type in North America containing over 600 songs and dances 4 . The Beaver Bundle ceremony remains a fundamental practice today. In the Blackfeet creation story, the beaver is one of the three original animals, where he plays a significant role in the distribution of water and land 4 .
This year, the Blackfeet will be utilizing beaver mimicry to benefit stream health and water quality. In part two of the Unbelievable Beaver Series, I will discuss the ecological benefits of beavers and beaver mimicry.