I. Pre-contact Trade on Turtle Island

Module Overview

Prior to contact with Europeans, Indigenous communities across the world had developed complex economic systems. This module provides an overview of traditional Indigenous economies and the pre-contact trade networks that existed throughout Turtle Island (North America). This module is intended to set the record straight on pre-contact trade practices and honour the trail-blazing Indigenous entrepreneurs that laid the foundation for what would become the North American economy.

Why Are You Doing the Readings and Watching the Videos?

The history books don’t always accurately describe pre-contact life North America. In fact, there is a long history of entrepreneurship on this land spanning well over 10,000 years. Many pre-contact civilizations had permanent settlements, cities, agriculture, major earthworks, systems of government and complex societal hierarchies. Throughout the ages we’ve seen the rise and fall of powerful nations that controlled vast areas, and trade centres through which trade goods from the far reaches of the continent were funnelled. 

Stories passed down through generations talk of trade networks that allowed for the movement of people, goods, and ideas over hundreds of kilometers. Recent archaeological evidence supports this and suggests that goods were imported from as far away as South America and across the continent. There were Oolichan (eulachon) Grease Trails on the west coast, Hopewell Bladelets used and traded extensively throughout the Woodlands & the Midwest, Ramah chert artifacts from present-day Labrador found throughout Quebec and as far south as Maine, lightning whelks from the Gulf of Mexico and beads from the Gulf of California found in Arkansas, and copper from Alaska and the Great Lakes traded across the continent. All of this paints a picture of the extensive trade networks that existed throughout the Americas and a spirit innovation and entrepreneurship embodied by the original caretakers of this land.

Many of these stories have been lost to time, but the strength and resilience of the people of this land lives on in Indigenous nations and communities, and the values and worldviews that made possible such remarkable accomplishments continue to shape Indigenous peoples’ approaches to business and new venture creation.

Upon completion of this module students will have a basic understanding of:

  • Traditional Indigenous economies and the pre-contact trade networks.
  • The contributions of trail-blazing Indigenous entrepreneurs on the development of the North American economy.


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Indigenous Entrepreneurship Copyright © 2022 by Michael Mihalicz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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