The most basic level of indigenous governance and subsistence was the family hunting group.
This is a kinship-based group constituted of people united by blood and marriage ties. The family hunting group maintained the right to hunt, trap, fish, and harvest or collect in certain ‘inherited’ areas (i.e. hunting grounds, ricing lake, etc.) which were delimited by geographic features like rivers, lakes, or other natural landmarks. These territories often held specific names known to the family hunting group and to other family groups who utilized surrounding areas. Each family hunting group would pass their knowledge of their territories, and the right to harvest these areas, from generation to generation. The boundaries of these territories were known and recognized by others.
The family hunting group held their territory in the utmost value, because it was the economic and subsistence focus of their entire lives. Because of this, deep traditional ecological knowledge was developed over time. Family members learned about the patterns of game animals in the territory; they knew where to find certain plants at certain times of the year; and they knew how much they could harvest so as not to damage the abundance or the source of supply of resources. This knowledge was passed down to generations and valorised: from fathers and mothers; grandfathers and grandmothers.
Permission was needed before another family could encroach upon a family hunting group’s territory. Hunting or harvesting in the territory of another family could be grounds for violence. However, permission was often given – especially in times when game and other resources might be scarce. In some cases, two nearby family hunting groups might intermarry and combine their hunting efforts in a larger, more expansive joint territory that would eventually develop due to expanded kinship ties, resulting in the establishment of a small “hunting band”. These bands would work in concert with other kinship related bands (i.e. “tribes”) in efforts such as warfare, where large numbers of participants would be needed.
While this family-level system worked well in the woodlands regions of what is now Ontario and Minnesota, and in the Interlake regional of Manitoba, this system did not transfer as well as the focus of subsistence moved west. Once the focus of many of the Cree and Ojibwe groups turned to the prairies and Great Plains, resources were found to be much more scattered and mobile, thus the small-level hunting family group system became less sustainable as a system for subsistence. It took greater numbers of hunters to take down herds of buffalo. However, the basics of the kinship systems that developed in the forests served as the foundation, with related family groups and bands working in concert – often numbering hundreds of people – to hunt the buffalo across hundreds of miles. Even so, hunting territories on the Plains were designated in much the same way, with kinship-related groups venturing forth from places like Pembina, Wood Mountain, White Horse Plain, and other gathering sites to hunt in their respective territories.
Kinship was the key to all of it.