This post is part of a limited series called HBC at 350, which focuses on the environmental history of the Hudson’s Bay Company in light of the 350th anniversary of its founding in 1670.
This post was written in collaboration with Jess Dunkin.
The old people called the Hudson’s Bay Company “T’akwe Nàdè” because it was the first to establish a permanent trading post in Tłı̨chǫ nèk’e, the place where Tłı̨chǫ belong. T’akwe in Tłı̨chǫ means “first,” while nàdè is the plural form of the verb “to live,” “to plant,” or “to establish.” T’akwe Nàdè planted itself on the point that juts out into the north arm of Tıdeè (Great Slave Lake). Long before the arrival of T’akwe Nàdè, Tłı̨chǫ knew this place, this point, as Nı̨hshı̀h. A sacred place, Tłı̨chǫ stopped at Nı̨hshı̀h to remember and recount the story of Yamǫǫ̀zha and beaver—a foundational story for our people—and to make offerings. The HBC called the new post “Fort Rae” in honour of the Scottish explorer, though John Rae appears to have never visited his namesake. We called the fort Nı̨hshı̀h K’è Kògolaa, which means “where the houses are sitting on Nı̨hshı̀h,” a reference to the buildings raised for commercial, spiritual, and residential purposes.
Trade among Tłı̨chǫ, between Tłı̨chǫ and other Dene, and with other Indigenous peoples further afield long predates contact. Within the context of the colonial fur trade, however, Tłı̨chǫ traded at the HBC posts in Fort Resolution, est. 1819, and Fort Simpson, est. 1822, before the establishment of Fort Rae in 1852 and some continued to do so. Traces of this interregional trade can be found in the collections of what is known today as the National Museums Scotland. In the 1850s, inaugural museum director George Wilson, with the support of HBC Governor George Simpson, encouraged factors and traders at North American posts to acquire goods from Indigenous peoples for the collection. Bernard Rogan Ross, chief trader for the Mackenzie District, who was posted in Fort Simpson, amassed a large number of objects between 1858 and 1863. One object was a small pipe carved by an unknown Tłı̨chǫ person, most likely from łèdzèh kwe. There is knowledge of a place on Wekwìt’aı̨lıı̨tı̀ (Mattberry Lake) where łèdzèh kwe can be found.
In 1859, T’akwe Nàdè was joined at Nı̨hshı̀h K’è Kògolaa by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This was one of a number of Catholic missions founded by Father Pierre-Henri Grollier between 1858 and 1860 in the Mackenzie District. The Oblates primarily had religious intentions, though in the twentieth century the local church in Fort Rae became involved with the trade in a limited way for a time. By the 1860s, Nı̨hshı̀h K’è Kògolaa was home to white traders and missionaries and Métis who worked as traders, interpreters, hunters, middlemen, and guides. Prior to contact, Nı̨hshı̀h had been a place of story and offering. Now it was a place of trade, baptism, and marriage. Even as the fur trade altered our way of life, in many respects, Tłı̨chǫ continued to live as we had before, our migrations through Tłı̨chǫ nèk’e following the seasons. Tłı̨chǫ typically frequented Nı̨hshı̀h K’è Kògolaa in the summer, when the lakes and rivers that served as transportation corridors for the fur trade were open.
Though the fur trade centred around posts in places like Fort Rae, Fort Simpson, and Fort Resolution, its impacts are visible throughout Tłı̨chǫ nèk’e. The photograph above was taken during the inaugural Whaèhdǫǫ̀ Etǫ K’è (Trails of Our Ancestors), a yearly canoe trip that since 1995 has brought Tłı̨chǫ together to travel our ancient trails. We saw from the canoe making sites at Nı̨dzı̨ı̀ka Kògolaa on Semı̨̀tı̀ (Faber Lake) that this was a traditional campsite. However, the presence of a stone chimney visible behind the three Elders revealed that this camp continued to be used during the fur trade era. The stone chimney was once part of a log cabin belonging to K’aàwıdaà, a well-known Tłı̨chǫ trading chief. Trading chiefs often built cabins in central locations, filling them with goods they received on credit from the HBC or free traders. Over time, they exchanged the goods in their cabins for furs from hunters and trappers. When the cabin was full, the trading chief along with a brigade would travel to the post.
The HBC’s monopoly of the fur trade in the Mackenzie District was disrupted by the arrival of free traders in the late nineteenth century. The most successful of these was The Hislop and Nagle Company, which was headquartered in Fort Resolution. In 1893, Jim Hislop travelled to the north arm of Tıdeè, continuing up K’àtaı̨lı̨ (Willow River) to the south end of Įhdaak’ètı̀ (Marian Lake), where Ewàghò (Boiling Mouth) had a cabin. Ewàghò invited Jim Hislop to set up shop on the point. To this day, this area is called Behchodıı̀; behchodǫ is the Tłı̨chǫ name for traders not affiliated with the HBC, and dıı̀ means “island.”
The establishment of Hislop and Nagle in Tłı̨chǫ nèk’e hurt the HBC trade locally, as most Tłı̨chǫ came from the north to exchange their furs. The Bay eventually followed the free traders, setting up a post at Gamę̀dıı̀ (Hudson’s Bay Island) between 1905 and 1907. The Oblates likewise relocated their mission to the shores of Įhdaak’ètı̀. In addition to buildings and goods, the HBC brought the name with them. Settlers knew this place as “Fort Rae,” and later just “Rae,” until the implementation of the Tłı̨chǫ Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement in 2005, when Behchokǫ̀, the Tłı̨chǫ name used by local people throughout this period, became the official name.
High fur prices made trapping a particularly lucrative endeavour in the 1920s. This resulted in an influx of white trappers to the Northwest Territories, as well as a spike in licensed traders, who were a remarkably diverse group. Between 1918 and 1933, the HBC faced stiff competition from four free traders in Fort Rae, including Jim Darwish, who was born in Syria, and Arab trader Mike Houssein.
The HBC post in Fort Rae was staffed by an ek’aòwı k’àowo (manager) and an ek’aàwıa (clerk). The manager also hired locals on a casual basis to help with maintenance, stocking, and delivery. My father, Nick Zoe, worked periodically for the HBC before I was born. I was able to confirm one of his employment dates based on a story my brother told me: my father wasn’t home the day my maternal grandfather left for the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital in Edmonton in July 1957 because he was working for The Bay. This was likely during treaty time as a doctor always travelled with the treaty party. In the 1950s, most Tłı̨chǫ still lived on the land, but they gathered in Rae each summer to receive their annuities and to visit, which meant extra help was needed at the trading post.
Things changed significantly for Tłı̨chǫ in the 1960s. Falling fur prices, declining caribou herds, and the rapid expansion of the welfare state in the North, which included compulsory schooling, all profoundly transformed our way of life. In less than a decade, most Tłı̨chǫ had moved out of the bush and into a community. Parents became disconnected from their children, who attended residential schools in faraway places such as Fort Smith and Fort Simpson, while other family members disappeared to the Charles Camsell, some never to return. There was very little infrastructure in Rae in those days and even fewer opportunities. Some Tłı̨chǫ continued to live in tents. Those with houses insulated them with cardboard and burlap bags and hauled water from the lake. The only road in the community connected Highway 3, completed in 1961, to The Bay. Occasionally, Tłı̨chǫ were hired to clear brush or fight fires, but otherwise, there were few jobs for our people.
My sister, Lena, was hired by the HBC out of school and stayed there until the mid-1970s. At certain times of the year, including during freeze-up and break-up, the manager would bring in extra inventory, which required additional temporary staff. I worked as a temporary stock-boy and was responsible for moving things in the warehouse and between the warehouse and the store, stocking the shelves, and pricing items. Otherwise, I trapped muskrats with my brother, cut wood, and did other odd jobs.
After a stint on a road construction crew in the mid-1970s, I found myself back at The Bay. This time, I was put on the till because I had prior experience. The Bay, at that time, had a cash register that ran off electricity, but if the power was out, it could be operated with a hand crank on the machine’s right side. It was a noisy contraption from another era. On a few occasions, I interpreted for trappers as they negotiated fur grades and prices with the manager. Before Christmas, trappers would come in to sell fox, ermine, weasel, squirrels, marten, otter, lynx, and occasionally wolf. In the spring, they had muskrat and beaver pelts.
At first, I was just going through the motions of work. Then I took an active interest in getting to know people, especially the old people. I learned their names, including their traditional names; everybody in the community had two names: a Tłı̨chǫ name the community knew you by and an English name used for identification purposes, including store accounts. These relationships were important for me as I got involved with community organizing and land claim negotiations in the 1980s, while my exposure to the business side of The Bay was useful when I started the community’s first solely Indigenous-owned gas station in September 1979.
This post, inspired by the 350th anniversary of the incorporation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, is not my first HBC commemoration. In 1970, the Rae store celebrated the 300th anniversary of T’akwe Nàdè. The store was busy that day. Community members were likely drawn to Gamę̀dıı̀ by sales, but it was the promise of balloons with money in them that attracted the kids of Behchokǫ̀ like me to the island. We watched an employee release the balloons from the store’s gable window and waited for them to fall to the ground. Then we’d snatch them up to see if there was a dollar inside. I remember that a lot of the balloons were empty.
Postscript: In the late 1970s, Chief Charlie Charlo observed that, with the exception of the occasional firefighting or slashing jobs, there were few jobs available for Tłı̨chǫ. He decided we should set up a corporation to pursue contracts, but also to recruit and train our people. This was the beginning of the Rae-Edzo Dene Band Development Corporation. When it came time to name the building that the development corporation would occupy, Charlie and advisors chose Nı̨hshı̀h Kǫ̀, then spelled “Nishi Khon.” The HBC, Charlie noted, had established the first Fort Rae on a sacred and storied place. They then used that place to take from us and from our land. The benefit of the trade was almost wholly to the company. In naming the building “Nı̨hshı̀h Kǫ̀,” Charlie was reclaiming that place for Tłı̨chǫ, but also setting us on a path to financial independence.