What the Land Remembers – Tales of Raven and Wolf

Part of the Land, Part of the Water…

We are “part of the land and part of the water.” We are the First Nations people of Canada’s spectacular YukonTerritory.  Our homeland is north of the 60th latitude, between the Northwest Territories and Alaska.

Until recent times, we lived on the land, immersed in its beauty, surviving on its resources, sustained by our culture, travelling and trading according to our own laws and lifeways.

Much has changed in the 150 years since newcomers began arriving in our land. The fur trade, Klondike Gold Rush, Alaska Highway, and other developments brought rapid economic change, social upheaval and devastating epidemics. Governments established borders that separated us from family and resources. Newcomers imposed education, religion, and government policies that attempted to eliminate our traditions.

Our people worked together, relying on the land and our culture, to adapt and to survive.  Today we live in settled communities, with modern homes, stores, schools, cars, cell phones and computers. We still travel on the land and the water, gathering food, strengthening our minds, and working to preserve the timeless beauty of the Yukon. We are stronger than ever, reclaiming our lands, renewing our languages and culture, reviving our beliefs, and reaching out to the world with our values and knowledge.

Kwaday Kwadan…

In kwaday kwadan (Southern Tutchone term for “long ago people”) times, our grandfathers and grandmothers told how Raven made the world, bringing light, animals and people to begin life on Earth.  Our storytellers today continue to share tales of Raven, Wolf and other animal helpers to explain the ways of the world, teaching respect and proper behaviour.  Songs, dances, and drumming enrich our stories. They are the “heart and soul” of our people, a cherished legacy for all generations.

We have eight traditional languages: Gwich’in, Han, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Upper Tanana, and Inland Tlingit. Inuit speakers once lived on the Yukon’s north shore and today their families are in Alaska and the Northwest Territories.  [insert language map – either Yukon Native Language Centre map or if possible map from YFNTA brochure]

We use our traditional greetings for welcomes: danje – “hello”, “how are you”, and for “thanks” – gunulscheesh. We call “Raven” Tsurksi, and “Wolf”  Agay. We celebrate traditional place names like Chukon for “Yukon River” to enrich ancient narratives and preserve essential knowledge about our land and culture. Elders enjoy speaking in our languages to younger people and newcomers.  They say: “We are our language!”

Archaeological evidence confirms that our ancestors lived in the Yukon more than twelve thousand years ago.  They travelled extensively to hunt, fish, and gather resources for food, clothing and shelter.  They left no permanent buildings or towns, only campsites with beautifully crafted obsidian, stone, and bone tools. They traded with neighboring people for seashells from the ocean, plus obsidian, copper and materials from far away places to mingle with local materials.

Technology alone could not sustain our ancestors. They had intensive knowledge of landscapes, animals, plants, and seasons.  They used their skills to survive wherever they traveled, naming particular places for food (white fish lake), minerals (Paint Mountain – for red ochre), crucial weather information (Weather Mountain), spiritual renewal (Cry

Mountain), and wayfinding points (Grouse Head Mountain).  They believed in the spirits of their animal helpers to guide them safely.

Ours was an oral culture – children were taught from a young age to listen carefully.  Information provided by Elders was essential to live well and must be passed on to future generations.

Our people carried all they needed to survive with them. They had moose or caribou skin sleds for heavier loads. They used tumplines and backpacks with all family members working together to move camp. In winter they made snowshoes to travel over frozen rivers and through forests with different styles and sizes adapted to specific snow conditions.  Newcomers introduced toboggans and dog harnesses during the fur trade years. In summer people built moose or caribou skin boats, and birch bark canoes. Hän and Northern Tutchone canoes were renowned as light, swift and balanced craft.

Our people used the tall thin poles cut from Yukon spruce and pine to build brush shelters (man ku). In winter they made strong, warm willow frame shelters with caribou or moose hide covers, and sleeping platforms of spruce boughs with soft bedding of wolf, coyote, rabbit, and other furs.

Our traditional clothing was ideally suited to the northern environment. One-piece moose or caribou hide trouser moccasins kept out icy winter cold and pesky summer insects.  On top was a tunic beautifully decorated with porcupine quills dyed in the delicate hues of berries and other plants.  Mittens, hood, knife sheath, and a quiver for arrows were all made from hide.  Our women were, and are still, expert and innovative seamstresses, creating handsome outfits for their men, and lavishing attention to detail on clothing for beloved children and grandchildren.

Today we make mittens, moccasins, and ceremonial regalia from moose and caribou hides, using beads, bone, antler, and quills for decorative floral designs and clan emblems.  We choose specific materials such as shells, cedar bark, and other materials, plus symbolic representations of Raven, Wolf or other symbols to signify our identity within our clans and family groups.  In this way we honour our friends and family with distinctive clothing that brings the colour and vibrancy of summer inside to brighten the long dark days of winter, add splendour to our celebrations, and convey loving support in times of sorrow.

Our Yukon Home…

Our lands include many different ecosystems, from lush southern forests close to coastal precipitation, more arid central regions of sub-arctic boreal forest, and north into taiga lands on the arctic coastal plains with thousands of small lakes and muskeg.  Mountains stand tall in most areas, interspersed with long deep lakes, swift flowing clear rivers, and thousands of smaller lakes and streams.

Larger mammals such as moose, caribou, and bear were and are sources of food and hides for clothing.  Smaller animals such as beaver, otter, muskrat, gopher, and many others also provide food and fur.  Berries are abundant treasures – lingonberries (low bush cranberry), blueberries, cloud berries, salmon berries, raspberries and strawberries were and are gathered and enjoyed in the long days of summer sun shine, with supplies carefully stored for healthy winter meals rich in vitamin C. Fish such as salmon, trout, grayling, whitefish and others provide the rich protein and fat to sustain people through long cold winters.

The Yukon is a sensual paradise – aromas of sage, spruce and pine permeate valleys. The crunch of dry snow,

crackling of ice, and sharp bite of cold air announce winter’s arrival. Daytime skies are brilliant blue, with gorgeous sunrise and sunset hues of pink and lavender. Night skies shine in the magical aurora of northern lights and the brilliance of moon and stars seen through crystal clear atmosphere. The calls of wolf, coyote, squirrel, bluebird, raven and eagle intermingle with soft breezes and sometimes howling winds.

Northern seasons are varied and extreme in nature – summers are brief from June through August, with modest rainfalls and occasional thunderstorms, but mostly bright hot days of almost continuous sunlight. Yukon is part of the circumpolar world of the “Midnight Sun.”  Fall comes suddenly at the end of August with golden leaves and frosty nights.  Snow begins to fall in October and may last until the end of April.  Winter temperatures can be extremely cold at -50 C or colder (the lowest recorded temperature is -86 F at Snag in the 1940s) for several weeks at a time, although average temperatures range from -10 to -20 C. Spring brings a glorious reawakening in late March and April with the return of longer daylight hours, together with thousands of migrating birds (swans, geese, ducks, cranes) swarming across the skies headed north to nesting grounds on the arctic coast. Our names for months and seasons reflect hunting, fishing and gathering activities plus changes in landscape and weather that were so important to remember for survival. This is a land fully enjoyed, much loved and cherished by the people who live here.

Community and Continuity…

In kwaday kwadan times there were around ten thousand aboriginal people living in the Yukon, scattered in small bands of extended families that travelled together for parts of the year, and joined up with other groups for celebrations, especially in summer when fish and other foods were plentiful enough to sustain larger gatherings.  These were times of great joy, to celebrate marriages, commemorate losses, trade knowledge and goods, share storytelling, drumming, singing and dancing.  Northern Athapaskan and Inland Tlingit people observe a matrilineal, matrifocal social organization, with people tracing their lineage through two main moieties (commonly called clans) as either a member of the Wolf (Agunda) or Crow (Kajet) clan.  It was and is very important to know your lineage – to be able to connect to the lands, resources, and ceremonial aspects of life. In the old days it was especially important to observe the practice of marrying a person from the opposite clan.  A Wolf married a Crow to keep traditions strong.

In kwaday kwadan times everyone was related to everyone else through clan and moiety groupings.  People shared responsibilities for all aspects of life, settled differences, and ordered their relationships according to their affiliations from birth to death.  You had to know who were your “mother’s people” and your “father’s people” to find a marriage partner, travel and harvest in certain areas, and both sides were equally important.  Men and women shared in the work of survival, with some tasks such as hunting for larger animals and fishing generally pursued by men, while women cared for children and the elderly, set snares for smaller animals, cooked, tanned hides, and sewed.  Both men and women knew equally how to manage all the basics of life if necessary.  Everyone was busy and productive because all efforts were essential for survival of the group.

Our people also acknowledged the power and assistance of animal helpers – often an animal spirit that came to them in a dream and usually one which was significant to their clan.  People told stories about animal helpers who guided them to successful hunting or fishing, offered comfort in sorrow, or even riches – such as Keish (Skookum Jim) and his Frog Helper who led him to the gold discovery that began the Klondike Gold Rush.

Today people continue to value and emphasize respect for animals and all aspects of nature.  Elders tell young people:  “Take only what you need”.  People celebrate the expertise of First Nation guides and hunters who practiced a long history of conservation, such as Johnnie Johns and countless others. Elders say: “Animals were created to feed us, clothe us and protect us … that’s our belief.” They make special prayers for animals when hunting: “Thank you for coming to me.  I have to feed my family.  I am sorry to take your life.  Thank you for giving me food to live.” They observe special practices such as keeping fish and moose separate in a boat because “…you have to respect the way the animals behave in life.” Children are told: “Don’t make fun of animals – respect them.”; “Eat what you catch and don’t waste anything.” People do not believe in “sport” fishing or “catch and release fishing” because it seems disrespectful and harmful to the fish.  They worry about some game laws that prevent the hunting of older sheep because they will die when their horns grow too long. Above all they believe in protecting the animals because they are essential to the future of ourselves and our children’s children: “Grandma told us: ‘Come out of the bush at 6 o’clock when it’s getting dark – after that it’s the animals’ turn to live on the land….”

Times of Change…

In the mid 1700s, non-native people from Europe and the United States started trading in Alaska. Canadian traders travelled northwest to the Yukon. The newcomers discovered that our lands were rich in furs, fish, and minerals and that we were skilled hunters, fishers, and guides. They had manufactured goods that were very useful to us – axes, pots, guns, cloth and other goods. Soon they claimed our lands as their own, dividing up the northwest with lines drawn on maps by diplomats in Europe and later in the United States and Canada, who had never seen the places they changed forever with the stroke of a pen.  The Alaska-Yukon border was drawn in 1825 by Russia and England, later the Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Yukon borders were established in Ottawa.

Prior to seeing newcomers in person, our ancestors predicted the arrival of the “cloud people.” Aboriginal traders described huge ships with white sails like clouds carrying strangers with white skin, woven clothing and hard boots, iron pots, knives, axes and awls, and different foods such as sugar, flour and tinned meat. They had powerful weapons and sometimes they used their guns to attack people. Their trading groups were usually all men. Some married our women but later many went home abandoning their families here. They spoke different languages – Russian in Alaska, French and English in the Yukon.  Their religious leaders taught our people new Christian beliefs and tried to stop our old spiritual ways.  We learned to read and write in their languages, and some of our languages, and to communicate in their way.

Our people met newcomers at many different times and places in the Yukon. Stories tell of indirect contact when Tlingit traders brought European goods inland from coastal Alaska in the early 1800s.  Direct contact occurred first in the far north from the 1790s to 1850s when Gwich’in people from the Porcupine River met Alexander Mackenzie, John Franklin and Alexander Murray. Kaska and Tutchone people met Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell at Frances Lake and later Fort Selkirk in the 1840s. Hän and Tutchone people met early prospectors on the Stewart and the Yukon rivers starting in the 1870s. Later the Gwich’in met whalers on the North Slope and at Herschel Island. Early meetings were usually peaceful exchanges of trade goods, services and knowledge, building the new relationships that transformed our original homeland into the Yukon Territory we call home today.

Some changes were more difficult, altering our lives and lands forever.  The fur trade, mining, roads, airplanes, churches, and schools brought epidemics and new social pressures.  Despite these difficulties our people played key roles in these events. We supplied furs, food, and family to sustain the fur trade. Keish (Skookum Jim), Tagish Charlie, Kate Carmack, and Patsy Henderson helped discover the gold at Bonanza Creek that started the Klondike Gold Rush. Chief Isaac of Dawson worked with his relatives to preserve Hän songs and traditions, while also sharing his knowledge with newcomers when 30,000 stampeders arrived in the Klondike after 1897.  Kishwoot (Chief Jim Boss) recorded the first Yukon land claim for his people after gold seekers rushed through southern Yukon.

In the 1940s Kishwoot witnessed a second great invasion of newcomers with the building of the Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline.  Johnnie Johns, Jimmie Joe and other First Nation guides scouted trails and provided northern expertise for the projects.  After World War II the new road network expanded, replacing river transportation, eliminating wood camps and older bush communities.  Our children were sent to distant residential schools, separated for years from families and culture, losing touch with languages, skills, and values.  We suffered discrimination on many occasions, were excluded from government and decisions made in our land, and increasingly discouraged from following our traditional hunting, harvesting and cultural practices.

Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow…

Our leaders realized we had to establish new political organizations to gain a say in Yukon development and regain control over our lives.  We established the Yukon Native Brotherhood and the Yukon Association of Non Status Indians in the 1960s. We formed the Council for Yukon Indians in 1979, now called the Council of Yukon First Nations.  We documented our traditional land use and stated our claims in Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow. Our celebrated leader Elijah Smith and all Yukon Chiefs presented this manifesto to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Parliament Hill in 1973.

We negotiated for thirty years to reach a comprehensive land claims agreement with the governments of Canada and the Yukon, enshrined in the Canadian Constitution as the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement.  Twelve of our fourteen First Nations then negotiated settlements plus Self Government Agreements for their people. The Kaska and White River First Nations continue discussions on their future.  This is a milestone achievement – for Yukon First Nations, Yukon people and Canadians – and a positive model for the world.

Today we celebrate our survival and our many new beginnings.  We are preserving and reviving our languages and culture. Ancient voices are heard again in our youth. We are moving forward with a strong focus on family and community, new businesses, political leadership, full participation in the economic and social life of our traditional territories, and the world beyond. Our people are creative and energetic, honouring the contributions of our Elders from the past, and encouraging our youth to come forward as future leaders.  Our drums are beating with new strength in unique combinations of past, present and future goals.

We acknowledge many challenges in today’s realities. Global climate change, pollution and economic factors are causing declines in animal and fish populations.  Social pressures sometimes undermine our people and interfere with our goals.  We remain focused on going forward with the responsibilities of Self Government, with strong and balanced decision making in our lives and our lands, building sustainable communities with strong families to live in harmony with the lands and waters our ancestors handed down to us.

Thank you for listening to our stories.  We invite you to come to the Yukon to experience our world directly – you will be most welcome.  We’ll feed you good food from the land and the water, we’ll make you laugh and dance, and you’ll want to come back again and again to our Yukon. Our old ways and trails connect our past, present, and future – giving us direction to find new ways to work with our neighbours in the Yukon and worldwide, spreading the message to live wisely – together today for our children tomorrow.

This is what the land remembers and we will honour that trust for all time.