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Guest shares history of fur trade, effects on Indigenous people

John Payette spoke at Tec-We-Gwill Women's Institute meeting, saying he's 'proud to finally have a chance to carry on the teachings and wisdom' of his ancestors

John Payette, White Buffalo Man, spoke about the fur trade from 1500 to 1800 and its impact on Indigenous nations and the colonizers at the Tec-We-Gwill Hall in Newton Robinson earlier this month.

He also talked of how the destruction of the beaver population led to changes in the environment that continue today.

Payette is Odawa and a member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Indian Reserve. He has a degree in education from Brock University and has worked with youth behaviours in the education system and as a counsellor for special-needs clients. Payette does interpretive and storytelling work at the Muskoka Discovery Centre. He currently lives in Orillia.

He began with an introduction of himself and the Indigenous principle of taking only what is needed.

“Our people always had a belief that if we are going to take care of the future, to only take what you needed and use everything out of respect,” he said.

Through the 300 years of the fur trade, Indigenous nations got caught up in the commercialization of goods brought to Canada by the French, British and the Dutch.

Payette explained that well before being discovered by Christopher Columbus, there were several Indigenous nations below the St. Lawrence River. After many years of the southern nations warring with each other, an oral treaty among these Haudenosaunee peoples was reached — the 1142 Treaty, the Great Law of Peace. The metaphor, One Dish, One Spoon, spoke to the concept that nations can live alongside each other and not infringe on the other.

The Wampum Belt confirmed the agreement. One of Payette’s presentation slides reads, “The Wampum Belt is thought of by the Indigenous nations the same way we think of our government constitution and our Canadian laws.”

Once Europeans moved into North America, thousands of beavers were killed, skinned and processed to be taken back to Europe to mostly make top hats.

According to the Hudson Bay Heritage website: “From the late 16th to mid-19th century, beaver top hats were an essential aspect of men’s fashion across much of Europe. Not only were they extremely valuable, often treated as a family heirloom passed on from father to son, a hat’s design also denoted an individual’s social status and occupation. Hats were made of a variety of fur felt but the best quality and most popular felt was made from beaver.”

Payette talked about the nations that were involved in the trade, and how control over the land to hunt beaver challenged these ways of being and led to wars among nations, often in conjunction with the French, Dutch and British.

The killing of so many beavers to satisfy a European fashion item also affected the food chain and areas that depend on beavers to minimize or eliminate flooding.

Payette pointed out that by the end of the Beaver Wars (around the mid-1600s), the many Indigenous nations previously both above and below the St. Lawrence River were reduced to only two collective nations: the Three Fires Confederation and the Six Nations Confederacy.

“Other nations were either pushed further west, killed in the Beaver Wars, died from disease, or absorbed into the conquering nation,” he explained.

When asked by Village Media why he feels it is important for people to understand the history he presents, Payette said: “I was raised to hide my Indigeneity, I was not able to be raised in my father’s customs, traditions and ceremonies. My father’s language was taken from me.

"I now try to allow the heritage I missed out on to permeate all my thoughts and actions. I do this by studying and researching the intricacies of my heritage and relaying it to the non-Indigenous so that we can understand each other with compassion and empathy. I am proud to finally have a chance to carry on the teachings and wisdom of my ancestors," he added.

Besides his educational presentation, Payette had his fictional novel, Nitam: The First, available for sale that evening. The cover says it is “a story of a disparate trio of Anishinaabe teens who found each other while trying to escape their personal terrors. It soon becomes a spiritual journey of one of those boys, who, through a sentence from the courts, and assemblage of unique people, and teaching stories of his father, learns the importance of self, others, and family.”

Payette is working on his second novel and has three children’s books in the works. A Kindle version of Nitam The First can be found on For a hard copy, or to request a presentation, email [email protected].

Payette was hosted by the Tec-We-Gwill Women’s Institute.