Culture and History

Western Woods Cree

Swan River First Nation is a Woodland Cree community. According to anthropologists, the smallest unit of Woodland Cree social organization was the nuclear family that stayed together during fall, winter, and spring. The next largest group was the local band made up of several related families totaling 10-30 people. The regional band was composed of several local bands. Membership was flexible and size of groups was variable. They practiced a bilateral kinship system and cross cousin marriage was preferred (Smith 1981: 260).

In the summer the regional band congregated on a lakeshore. This was time for socializing, reinforcing family ties, alignment of families, and planning for winter dispersal. In the fall people departed for their winter hunting grounds. They hunted moose and elk in September to October as well as woodland caribou on their migration route. Trapping occurred from November to December and limited activities, including storytelling, happened during January and February. In the spring, woodland caribou were again hunted on their migration route and once open water returned people traveled to the pre-arranged summer local (Smith 1981: 260).

Important resources to the Woodland Cree included: moose, woodland caribou, elk, woodland bison, whitetail deer, bear, hare, beaver, woodchuck, muskrat, porcupine, squirrel as well as whitefish, lake trout, pickerel, and pike. They trapped beaver, mink, marten, otter, lynx, fox, muskrat, squirrel, woodchuck, grey wolf, wolverine, and fisher (Smith 1981:257).

Early Inhabitants of the Lesser Slave Lake Area

Swan River First Nation is located on the south, central shore of Lesser Slave Lake. Much debate surrounds the claim that the name of the lake suggests that the early inhabitants were the Slavey people. However, the Cree word for Slave, hya-tche-nu, has a number of different meanings. First, it may in fact refer to the Dene (Slavey) today living elsewhere in Alberta. Second, the word may refer to any people feared or looked down upon by the Cree. Finally, the Cree word for Slave, hya-tche-nu, may actually be a misunderstanding of the word hua-tsai-see-nu meaning stranger or any unknown people who may be Beaver, Slavey, Blackfoot, or an unfamiliar Cree group (Gillespie 1981:164- 165, TARR 1978:2-3).

 Fur Trade in the Lesser Slave Lake Area

The start of the fur trade in the Lesser Slave Lake area was marked by the construction of a NorthWest (NW) Company post at the mouth of the Slave (Indian) River in 1799. This post was followed in 1802 with another NW Company post at Grouard and yet another built on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake south of Dog Island. Following the construction of the NW Company’s first post in the region, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built Fort Waterloo on the east end of Lesser Slave Lake. In 1817 the HBC built a post at the junction of the Athabasca River and Lesser Slave River. After being destroyed in a fire, the Hudson’s Bay Company rebuilt Fort Waterloo on the west end of Lesser Slave Lake on the east shore of Buffalo Bay. The fur trade period from 1790-1821 brought intrusions of Métis, Assiniboine, Iroquois, Ojibwa, and Cree people into the Lesser Slave Lake area (Gillespie 1981:165).

After a period of fierce competition, these two companies amalgamated in 1821 (Baergen 1967:25-45). Although still dominant in the area, the HBC lost its monopoly in 1870 and by 1899 had many competitors from ‘fur pedlars’. This scenario increased pressure on fur animals as hunting intensified and equipment improved (TARR 1978:7-8). Catholic Mission visits began first with Father Tache in 1846 followed by Father Bourassa in 1845 and Father Lacombe in 1855. The St. Bernard Mission was built at Grouard in 1871. Anglican Mission visits included Archdeacon Hunter in 1858, R.W. Kirkby in 1859, and Rev. Bompas in 1865. St. Peter’s Mission was built at Buffalo Bay in 1885. Missionaries influenced some Aboriginal people to settle and farm, or to send their children to board in school while the parents were away in their hunting camps (Phillips 1973).

By the 1880s the federal government had started to encourage white settlement of the last ‘frontier’ of Canada’s fertile farmlands (TARR 1978:7-8). This and the famine of 1887- 1888 prompted Aboriginal leaders in the area to consider taking Treaty. However, there was mixed feelings about the entry of whites into the area. On one hand, fur traders brought prosperity and farms produced some food to soften impacts of game scarcities. Alternatively, itinerant white trappers depleted fur stocks rapidly and prospectors travelling to the Klondike caused environmental disturbance. On January 1, 1890 the Cree of Lesser Slave Lake gathered and the majority of them were in favor of Treaty. By 1897 the RCMP first came to the area and by 1899 Treaty 8 was signed on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake by Kinosayo (Andrew Willier), Moostoos, the Captain, Weecheewaysis, Charles Nesootasis, and Felix Giroux (Upschinese) (Kinuso 1979: 8; TARR 1978:10).

By 1899 settlements at Lesser Slave Lake were along the south shore of the lake and along an old trail from Athabasca Landing via Sawridge to Peace River Crossing. Before the establishment of permanent farming communities, these settlements were used by most families as summer residences, while their trapping and hunting camps were located inland, south of the lake. The main communities were located around:

  • Sawridge: Lesser Slave Lake and Lesser Slave River
  • Swan River: with small settlements at Wahpah and Assineau River
  • Driftpile River: with summer fish camps on Giroux Bay
  • Sucker Creek: at various places between the creek and Buffalo Bay
  • North side of Buffalo Bay: in the group of settlements now known as Grouard
  • (TARR 1978:7)

Leadership after Treaty 8 in the Lesser Slave Lake Area

Unlike southern bands, Aboriginal communities around Lesser Slave Lake did not have chiefs. Out of necessity for Treaty negotiations, Kinosayo of Driftpile was selected as the chief of the Lesser Slave Lake Bands for an indefinite term of office by a meeting of people from all five bands. Each community also had an elected headman responsible to the chief. Kinosayo (Andrew Willier) served as chief from 1899-1918 at which time he died in the flu epidemic. He was replaced by his brother Astatchikun (Felix Willer) who served as chief until his death in 1936. During this time period the following individuals served as headmen for Swan River First Nation: Felix Giroux (Upschinese) 1899-1927, Edward Nesootasis (Twin) 1927-1928, August Chalifoux 1928-1935, and August Sowan 1935-1936 (Kinuso 1979:5).

For administrative convenience the pay list of ‘Kinosayo’s Band’ was divided into different groups in 1910 but they were still all recognized as one band. Then, in 1929 the Department of Indian Affairs decided to recognize the four groups as separate bands and in 1936 the four major bands each elected a separate chief and council to replace the overall council formerly headed by Chief Astatchikun (TARR 1978:14-15,26,44). Swan River First Nation’s first chief was previous headman August Sowan. His leadership was followed by Gene Giroux (Davis), August (Ah yeah stow) Chalifoux, Victor Twin, Paul Sound, Gordon Courtoreille, Charlie Chalifoux, Dustin Twin Sr., Richard Davis, and Leon Chalifoux (present chief) (Kinuso 1979:5).

Swan River First Nation Reserves

The story of the formation of Swan River First Nation reserves 150E and 150F is a long and complicated one that culminated in the official survey of these reserves by McLean in 1912. Band population around this time was approximately 59 people or 14 families (TARR 1978:30). Finally order in council no. 508 was passed on April 4, 1925 taking Swan River 150E from the operation of the Dominion Lands Act and setting it aside ‘for the Indians’. The same happened toSwan River 150F on December 18, 1922 (TARR 1978:14-15, 27, 41).

Reserve 150E included land at Wahpah point (the narrows) as during initial survey attempts (1901) Alexander Giroux and others at Wahpah expressed a desire to stay where they were, nearer to their fishing grounds. Such was also the case with Felix Giroux who wanted to remain at Assineau River and did not want to move to the large reserve planned further west (TARR 1978:17,27). His wish was granted when reserve 150F was created.


Baergen, W.P. 1967. The Fur Trade at Lesser Slave Lake, 1815-1831. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Gillespie, B.C. 1981. Traditional Groups Before 1821: Athapaskan of the Shield and the Mackenzie Drainage. In Subarctic, edited by J. Helm, pp. 161-168. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 6, W. C. Sturtevant, general editor, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

Kinuso. 1979. Sodbusters: A History of Kinuso and Swan River Settlement. Bulletin Commercial, Alberta.

Phillips, L.J. 1973. Lesser Slave Lake. (accessed January 27, 2010).

Smith, J. G. E. 1981. Western Woods Cree. In Subarctic, edited by J. Helm, pp. 256-270. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 6, W. C. Sturtevant, general editor. Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research (TARR) of the Indian Association of Alberta. 1978. Report to the Swan River Band on Land Entitlement and Other Land Matters. Confidential Report, Suite 101, 400 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa, Ontario, K1R 5C6.