A general decline in the beaver fur trade between 1805 and 1821 resulted in cultural changes among the Cree, Ojibwe, and Métis populations around Red River settlement. Declining game populations and disenchantment with the state of the fur trade led to greater adoption of the horse and a focus on bison hunting. More and more often, Métis were working in cooperation with their Ojibwa and Cree relatives, and new bands formed which resulted in a blurring of the cultural and kinship divides between these groups.
Because of the declining fur trade, these new multi-ethnic bands made adjustments to their seasonal subsistence patterns to compensate—diversifying their hunting activities and where they chose to live. Rather than return to Red River settlement each year, these groups were more often staying to the west in places like Wood Mountain, Riding Mountain, and the Cypress Hills over the winters. Trapping beaver became less important as the returns from bison hunting were more profitable in terms of valuable pemmican and hides.
Cultural changes began to happen as well, with a blending of designs appearing in clothing, decorative beadwork, and other outward displays of material wealth. In 1820, Peter Fidler noted that many of the people he encountered were starting of decorate themselves in “very flashy” silver ornaments, necklaces made of wampum, arm and wrist bands with gorgets, broaches, and beadwork. More colors were used such as fancy leggings garnished with ribbons and beads, and other garish clothing items were employed to look (at all times) very “tastefully arranged”.
With the merger of the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies in 1821, it was hoped that trade would increase for the new joint company. Unfortunately, new competition from the American Fur Company and independent traders cut into that hope. Many of the multi-ethnic bands took advantage of this and created new economic opportunities for themselves. Pembina became a more important location for both the Ojibwe and Métis, with many making it their new base of operations over Red River settlement. This shift away from Hudson Bay Company was accelerated by a refusal to offer credit and to withhold alcohol and other luxury items from the Indigenous hunters. The closure of some smaller trading posts also served to drive trade westward, and Fort Union became a new focus during the 1830s.
These changes, combined with a rapid growth of the Métis population, led to a shift in the northern Plains power structure during this time. In 1821, there were only about 500 Métis living with their Ojibwe relatives at Pembina, but by 1830 there were over 1,300. This new “Pembina Band” began organizing large-scale bison hunts that set out each summer, and which stayed in the field until autumn. The huge scale of these hunts made this group powerful both economically and militarily. The large size of the main camp made them less vulnerable to enemy attacks, and because of this they could venture farther into Dakota territories to the south and west with little fear of reprisal. By the time of the 1863 Treaty at the Old Crossing, this territory extended to include the entire Red River Valley south to the Sheyenne River, and all of what is now northern North Dakota all the way west to Montana.
While the Pembina Band finally lost prominence due to the forces of colonialism and the disappearance of the bison during the late 1800s, the band was able to rise to become one of the most powerful multi-ethnic groups on the northern Great Plains in less than a century.
For more information, read: Peers, Laura L. (Laura Lynn). 1994. “Ojibwa Of Western Canada, 1780 To 1870.” Manitoba Studies In Native History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.