I. Pre-contact Trade on Turtle Island

Pre-contact Trade Goods

Native Copper

A piece of raw native copper that has not been worked.
Unworked native copper. Copper — A Metal for the Ages by U.S. Geological SurveyFollow is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Copper in North America (also known as ‘Native Copper’) is considered to be one of the most popular exchange items in the pre-contact period. Copper from the Great Lakes region, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and more have been identified across Turtle Island by archaeologists and European explorers. Researchers are able to use a “trace elemental composition” technology on major copper deposits, which has the potential to reveal the origin time and location of copper artifacts (Veakis, 1979). However, tracing the element is difficult because of the purity of native copper, researchers recommend a minimum of 10 samples to chemically characterize a source (Cooper & Simonetti, 2021). Native copper has unique and distinguishable characteristics; European explorer, Richard Grenville, described native copper on an expedition to Virginia in 1585, “It was the colour of our copper, but softer” (Rickard, 1934). There are many references to the creation of native copper tools that have been shaped with hammers, a practice that cannot be done with the copper from deposits in Europe (Rickard, 1934). Being able to trace the origins and identify the special malleable qualities of native copper, researchers are able to uncover trade routes that may have existed throughout the prehistoric period.

Several tools made from copper. There are two spearpoints, a knife, a spud and four awls.
Archaic copper artifacts, 3000-1000 BC by Daderot is licensed under CC0 1.0.

According to chemical sourcing, copper-working at sites around the Great Lakes began as early as 7000 years ago — a period known as the “Old Copper Period” (Sanger et al. 2019). Copper from the Great Lakes region–primarily Lake Superior–has been found in many excavation sites across the northeast. The earliest known copper artifacts identified from this region were generally for utilitarian use (tools, knives, and axes) and were found in present-day New England and Ontario (Fowler, 1973). Great Lake copper was also discovered to have usage in ornamental, ceremonial, and mortuary practices. In New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Great Lakes copper has been found in the form of ornamental beads, pendants, plates, and bracelets (Anselmi, 2004).

Across the north, copper has been found in Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. The copper from this region has been primarily associated with two groups; Tlingit in Alaska (Kletsan) & Kugluktuk in the Northwest Territories (Kogloktok/Coppermine River). Archaeological evidence suggests that Kletsan copper has been used for utilitarian purposes “at least 1000 years ago in the western Subarctic and as early as 2000 years ago in the central Canadian Arctic” (Cooper & Simonetti, 2021). The Inuit and Dene used this resource to craft fish hooks, projectile points, awls and various types of knives. The Coppermine River site is considered to be largely inaccessible due to the first ten miles of the river being harsh, even for canoes (Gilbert, 1931). However, using this route, a one-way voyage to Alaska can be made once per year in the summer.

This is a detailed map of North America with a series of arrows representing the movement of native copper across the northern area of the continent. The majority of the arrows originate in the Great Lakes region, with copper-bearing formations of the Lake Superior basin and several copper deposits in the mid-eastern United States. Northwest areas of the continent also traded copper. It was traded near present-day Yukon, and several northern lakes (e.g. Great Bear Lake).
Map of native copper deposits and locations of copper artifacts. Derived from (Vehik & Baugh, 1994; Canadian Canoe Museum, 2015; Sievert, 2011). Blank Physical Map of North America by mapswire.com is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Great Lakes Copper Movement

  • Lake Superior Copper Articles found in New England (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper Ornamental found in several sites in New York (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper Ax found in Kingston (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper Beads found in Adena Burials at Brookfield, Massachusetts (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper plates found in Newport (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper ornaments found in use on Huron territory (Fowler, 1973)
  • Lake Superior Copper found in Ohio (Anselmi, 2004)
  • Lake Superior Copper found in Ontario (Rickard, 1934)

Alaska Copper Movement

  • Kletsan copper has been found in southwestern Yukon (Cooper, Simonetti, 2021)
  • Kletsan copper has been found in south-central Alaska (Wrangell & St. Elias Mountain Ranges (Cooper & Simonetti, 2021)
  • Kletsan copper found in northern Nunavut (Cooper, SImonetti, 2021)

NWT Copper Movement

  • Coppermine River Copper found used by Inuit (Gilbert, 1931)
  • Coppermine River Copper found used by Dene (History Museum, n.d.)


This is a small piece of raw obsidian. It resembles a piece of broken black glass.
Unworked raw obsidian. Echantillon d’obsidienne récolté près du Monte Pilato by Ji-Elle is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Obsidian is a valuable resource that is challenging to obtain because of its limited source origins. Despite this, obsidian tools have been identified “all over North America” and were traded for thousands of years by various First Nations (Rajnovich, 1994). Notable obsidian sites in this study have originated–but not limited to–from British Columbia, Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, and Mexico Valley. Researchers are able to trace the material with a technique called non-destructive energy dispersive x-ray fluorescence (XRF) on artifacts that have relocated due to human activity (Carlson, 2010). This technology and archaeological studies help identify evidence of trade routes that may have existed before European contact.



The Yellowstone Area has produced some of the highest quality obsidian, and has been proven to have traveled far distances. Arguably the best known source of volcanic glass [obsidian] in the United States, Yellowstone obsidian has been found across Turtle Island. Notably found in large quantities across California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and up to 2400 kilometers east of the Rocky Mountains in mid-continental Hopewell sites (Schieber & Finley, 2011).

A piece of obsidian that has been crafted into an arrowhead through a process called knapping.
Obsidian-knapped arrowhead by James St. John is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the Pacific Northwest region, obsidian has been identified to have been active in trade for 10,000 years (Carlson, 2010). A high number of obsidian tools, fishing hooks, and arrowheads were found across British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska regions, indicating a region-wide exchange network. To support this, researchers have collected additional commodities that provide evidence of long-distance trade, such as shellfish hooks, Kletsan copper ornaments, harpoon heads, soapstone, quartz, and other raw materials (Carlson, 2010). Before the arrival of European explorers, the region of British Columbia was thriving with reciprocal exchange through the movement of distant resources, and is certainly an important example of entrepreneurship.

Approximately 4000 years ago (in the early formative period), obsidian was exchanged heavily in the Mexico region. Obsidian sources in Oaxaca valley were utilized by Indigenous groups for their own use, economic benefits, and relationship building (Feinman, et al., 2018). Researchers in the 21st century are particularly drawn to the study of obsidian because it is one of the best options for uncovering ancient economies in the Mesoamerica civilization. Feinman, et al., (2018) suggests that obsidian is presently the most useful class of artifacts for tracing the evident dynamism of the ancient Mesoamerican economy.

Many Indigenous stories of nation-to-nation exchange are rooted in reciprocity and there are numerous examples of entrepreneurship and wealth accumulation. For instance, obsidian from the lower Columbia River area (Obsidian Cliffs and Newberry Volcano) were often controlled by “powerful elites, representing resource-controlling corporate households and lineages who maintained their position in part by their central role in the wide-ranging economy” (Connolly et al., 2015). Further, there is evidence that these elites had a comprehensive operation with product manufacturing and transportation. Connolly, et al. (2016) suggests there was “commoditized product systematically quarried and shaped into uniform, transportable forms and transferred to distant consumers through a regional exchange network.”


This is a detailed map of North America with a series of arrows representing the movement of obsidian across the continent. The majority of the arrows originate on the west coast and move inland. In Some cases, the arrows travel all the way across the continent from present-day British Columbia to the Great Lakes region.
Map of obsidian deposits and locations of obsidian artifacts. Derived from (Vehik & Baugh, 1994; Canadian Canoe Museum, 2015; Sievert, 2011, Wright, 1994; Galm, 1994). Blank Physical Map of North America by mapswire.com is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


  • Yellowstone Obsidian
    • Found 2400km east of Rocky Mountains in mid-continental Hopewell Sites
    • Found across the Sierra Nevada (between California and the western Great Basin)
    • Found in large amounts across all five regions: Eastern Idaho, Southeast Idaho, Southwest Wyoming, Northwest Wyoming, Southwest Montana

Oolichan Grease

Oolichan Grease (or Eulachon, Hooligan) is an oil that is extracted from the Eulachon fish–a small anadromous species of smelt–that was frequently traded among many Indigenous peoples between California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. The oil had a variety of uses; including for consumption and medicinal purposes. According to Moody (2008), “Eulachon Grease was also used as a medicine if a poisoning was suspected, as a laxative, as a cure for dry skin and was given to anyone who was sick” (p. 82). The oil is also referred to as the “golden grease” because it stimulated a vast exchange network, resulting in a series of economic benefits for every nation involved (Hirch, 2003, p. 4). The extensive relationships began from the frequent trade of the oil, and is known as the Grease Trails, “this trail system was the lifeblood of the native culture and economy” (Moody, 2008, p. 81).

Two small grey fish.
Oolichan fish used to make grease (aka eulachon or candlefish). Eulachon by James Crippen is in the public domain.

The result of this diverse trading network meant that many First Nations groups had to collaborate on a common language as a communication of exchange. The varied nations and Europeans (when they became involved post-contact) adopted a version of the Chinook language (referred to as the ‘Chinook Jargon’) as the common trading language (Eells, 1894). However, the language has many influences because of the diverse peoples involved, including the Nootka, Nisqually, Chinook, Chihailish, and others. Eells (1894) explains, “No one person is competent to write a dictionary of the Chinook jargon, because it is so constantly changing and is used very differently at the same time in different localities” (p. 300). This is an excellent example of collaboration that has been initiated by Indigenous peoples from the pre-contact era.

A black and white photo of a group of peoples working with equipment to render eulachon grease.
Eulachon smelt rendering camp at mouth of Nass River by Richard Maynard is in the public domain.

In addition to the trade of Oolichan Grease, these trails became an exchange network based on reciprocity, with the amount of trade “being a sign of sociocultural complexity of a given society” (Carlson, 2010, p. 308). Further, exchange in these communities would be practiced as giving, receiving, and repaying–only sometimes involving profit. Many items were exchanged, such as blankets, pemmican, bitterroot, dried berries, dried meat, leather, and clothing (Hirch, 2003). In addition, these nations shared valuable information on new technologies, such as basket weaving, canoe making, and plant knowledge (Dressay, et al., 2010). This short description only captures a fraction of the thousands of years of sophistication and economic development that Indigenous peoples created in these trails, before it would ultimately be renamed after the European explorer, Alexander MacKenzie.

Marine Shells

Marine shell (or seashells) is the outer protective layer created by an animal that inhabits the upper tidal zone easily obtained at low tide in sandy and rocky areas of the shoreline. They are found is almost all bodies of water, but the most prized shells were sourced from along the East, West and Gulf Coasts, Puget Sound and Vancouver Island. Harvesting marine shell was not always easy and sometimes involved dredging from a canoe with long, fine-toothed rakes (Galm, 1994).


A carved marine shell featuring a spider motif at center with circle of hands with shell bracelets.
Woolaroc Spiro Mounds spider shell gorget by Marc Carlson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The chronology of marine shell found in archeology sites across North America indicates that marine shell has been traded on this land for at least 10,000 years (Galm, 1994). They were used in fashion, for decoration and ceremonial purposes and, at one point, were even used as a standard form of currency for trade (Baugh & Ericson, 1994). They were often engraved and considered to be a symbol of prestige. They were used for rattles and pendants as well as to make beads, labrets, gorgets, and other shell ornaments for wealth, status, and authority (Carlson, 1994). They also had great utilitarian value. Marine shells found in interior sites were widely fashioned into tools like knives, scrappers, adze blades and harpoon-arming tips (Galm, 1994). Artifacts containing shell debris recovered from archaeological sites indicate that sandstone saws were used to cut marine shell, and chert microdrills and blades were used to manufacture shell beads (Galm, 1994).

A string of purple and white wampum beads. The purple beads have clearly visible grain while the white beads have brownish spots. The beads are strung on a length of sinew.
Wampum beads: purple are quahog and white are whelk. Wampum ej perry by Uyvsdi is in the public domain.

Prior to European contact, the New England coastal tribes used white and purple clam and other shells only found in the northeastern seaboard to manufacture wampum belts that were–and still are–used to maintain political associations for trade and diplomacy (Baugh & Ericson, 1994a). Wampum Belts were principal documents which contained history like a national archive that had encrypted codified laws that allowed narrative used to regulate and maintain relations and regions between Indigenous nations that was common knowledge around the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River regions, and east of the Mississippi (Hamilton, 2018; Lytwyn, 1997; Morito, 2012).

Marine shells were one of the most widely traded items across the continent and trade networks are visible through spatial analyses of marine shell artifacts. Shells of all types can be found in the Plateau, Great Plains, the Midwest, Mississippi River regions, Mississippi Rivers, Fraser and Columbia River systems, Great Lakes, Great Basin, and in eastern North Dakota adjacent to parts of Minnesota, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (Baugh & Ericson, 1994a). These trade relationships are well documented at the time of Euro-American contact. For instance, archaeologists suggest the Olivella shell bead trade intensified between the Plains and Pueblo peoples between 1350-1600 AD (Clark et al., 2013).

This is a detailed map of North America with a series of arrows representing the movement of various different types of marine shells across the continent. The arrows mostly start on the western, eastern and southern shores and move inland across the continent. The longest arrow travels from the Gulf of California to present-day northern Alberta.
Map of the marine shell trade in North America. Derived from (Canadian Canoe Museum, 2015; Sievert, 2011; Wright, 1994; Galm, 1994; Brand, 1938; Robert & Chaney, 2010). Blank Physical Map of North America by mapswire.com is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Red Ochre

A rock outcropping with a deep red hue overlooking a large savannah.
Red ochre deposit by Andrew Curtis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Red Ochre is a mixture of ferric oxide, clay and sand mined directly from the earth in natural deposits found throughout Newfoundland, Labrador, California, Oregon, Wyoming, Alaska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio (Descantes, Erlandson & Robertson, 1999; Barret & Jarvis, 2019; Quimby & Ritzenthaler, 1962). This naturally occurring pigment was a popular trade good and widely used amongst the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It was often traded in its natural powdered form and used either for ceremonial purposes or mixed with fish oil to create paint (Barret & Jarvis, 2019). In some cases, red ochre was traded in an already processed form. The Kootenay Peoples from southeastern British Columbia, northern Idaho, and western Montana were known for trading in red oxide, which they processed from red ochre pigment mined in the Banff National Park region (Jobin, 2013, p.614).

Traditionally, red ochre was used for body paint, bug or insect deterrent, burial ceremonies, as a preservative for marine textiles (sails, ropes, nets), and as a paint for application on a variety of surfaces including bows, arrows, canoes and canoe rests, outbuildings, clothing, and rocks (Barret & Jarvis, 2019). Ancient burial sites discovered in southern Maine, New Brunswick, Mississippi, Illinois Bluffs, and southwestern Ontario indicate that red ochre was an important part of burial ceremonies between 4500 and 3800 BC (Bourke, 1994; Brose, 1994).


An image of what appears to be a person with two elongated heads holding a stick painted with red paint on the surface of a rock.
Nanabozho pictograph, Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada by Dger is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Red Ochre was also used for ‘Writing on Stone’ – more commonly referred to as ‘Rock Art’. Rock art is the oldest artistic tradition and has been practiced for at least 10,000 thousand years in North America. Rock art traditionally takes one of two forms, pictographs (paintings) or petroglyphs (carvings). This rock art was used to pass on lessons to future generations, as memory-markers representing wildlife, people, land, and regions, and acted as signage or wayfinding to convey instructions relevant to the territories (Rajnovich, 1994; Weeks, 2004). This art was commonly understood by many people and often conveyed knowledge about teachings, biodiversity, direction, and significant events to the peoples inhabiting regions (Rajnovich, 1994). Research suggests that rock art and oral traditions were pervasive amongst the first peoples of North America and, together, teach us about ancient totems, religious societies, ceremonies, medicine, animals, plants, astronomy, migrations, battles, as well as territorial boundaries (Rajnovich, 1994; Weeks, 2004).

Research on rock art is extensive and suggests that there are an estimated three to four thousand ‘writing on stone’ sites in Canada alone. Some of the more prominent sites include the Peterborough Petroglyphs; the Agawa Rock Paintings on Lake Superior; Bannock Point Petroforms in Manitoba; and Áísínai’pi Provincial Park (Aisinai’pi in Niitisitapi means Writing-On-Stone) located roughly 100 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.


Chert, also known as flint, is a hard, fine-grained rock that occurs as lumps on hard masses or as layered deposits formed in sedimentary environments. While chert is relatively common, high-quality cherts were a sought-after resource and only occurred naturally in relatively few areas. Archeologists today are able to determine the source of these materials through a visual inspection or trace elements analysis and draw inferences about the extent and nature of trade throughout the ages (Luedtke, 1978; 1979).

A beige and brown axe head made from flint. The surface appears to be chipped most likely from a process called knapping.
31 cm Neolithic flintstone axe by Dr. Henning Krämer is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Chert artifacts have been recovered across North America and, in some cases, hundreds or thousands of kilometers from where they originated (Huynh & Steudber, 2012). The vast distances that these ancient artifacts travelled are evidence of the trade of exotic raw materials and provide a glimpse into procurement and distribution patterns in prehistoric populations (Baugh & Ericson, 1994b). These artifacts provide some of our earliest evidence of the existence of trade and distribution networks in North America dating back to 10,000 BC (Johnson, 1994; King, 2022). It is believed that exotic chert was procured and exported in broad-based exchange systems that involved highly skilled negotiators and specialized craftspeople (Lafferty, 1994).


Several beige and brown chert artifacts. These include a number of arrowheads, a bladelet and scraping tool.
Mill Creek chert from the Parkin Site in Arkansas by Heironymous Rowe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The value of chert derives largely from its utilitarian applications (Huynh & Steudber, 2012). Chert was most often crafted into cutting instruments, weapons, and agricultural equipment to provide the basic needs of a community. It was shaped and sharpened through a process called knapping or by grinding with another stone before being smoothed with sand and silt. Once crafted, the material could be attached to handles with sinew (sometimes infused with a binding agent) and function as tools (Huynh & Steudber, 2012). These tools were used for digging, chopping, cutting, shaving, drilling, engraving, carving, shaping, and smoothing. Artifacts crafted from exotic chert are often practical instruments such as axes, adzes, grinding tools, hammerstones, and large hoe blades which were used to manufacture other goods such as clothing, boats, shelter, and decorative art (Huynh & Steudber, 2012).


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