Traditional northern leadership systems – where Aboriginal men became leaders because of their superior hunting skills, often associated with their supernatural control over game – was by the early 19th century slowly being replaced by one more in tune with fur trapping and trading.
Men who convinced their people to trap, who led their people to the trading posts and who negotiated a fair price for their furs, became known as ‘trading chiefs’. These men, sometimes also called ‘trading captains’ or ‘trading leaders’, received special treatment from the fur traders. Gifts of trade goods – which were then often redistributed among their people – ensured that ‘trading chiefs’ became powerful, influential leaders.
The skills that made these ‘trading chiefs’ so valuable to the fur trade also equipped them for other important roles, often as peacemakers and guides.
Some of the important northern ‘trading chiefs’ were Bear Lake Chief (Dogrib), Matonabbee (Chipewyan), Akaitcho (Yellowknife) and Barbue (Gwich’in). These remarkable men were greatly respected by both their own people and the fur traders who depended upon them.
With the late 19th century arrival in the north of free-traders the importance of ‘trading chiefs’ was greatly diminished. The long established ‘pomp and ceremony’ that defined the relationship between the Dene ‘trading chiefs’ and the Hudson’s Bay Company was not something the free-traders recognized. These new northern traders preferred to conduct their trade through direct negotiation with Aboriginal trappers and soon ‘trading chiefs’ were a thing of the past.