A History of Yukon First Nations

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"Chilkoot Jack" guided the first white man to the Yukon , Anton Vogee, 1899, Yukon Archives, YA# 58

It is estimated that the population of what is now the Yukon was about 8,000 at its maximum, around the year 1800. How long their ancestors have lived in that part of the continent is a matter of hot dispute, because it relates to the more general question of how long humans have been in the New World. Alaska and the Yukon are generally accepted as the first parts of the western hemisphere to have been reached by humans, crossing what is now the Bering Straight by land during a period when sea levels were much lower than they are now. This certainly occurred at least 14,000 years ago, though some experts would push the date much farther back.

Most of the First Nations of the Yukon are Athapaskan, or Dene, related to the First Nations of the Mackenzie Valley, though on the Arctic coast there was a population of Inuit, and in the southwest corner of the Territory there are Tlingit people related to groups living in coastal Alaska. Their way of life involving hunting and gathering, and small groups moved about their traditional territories, which did not have rigid boundaries, hunting, fishing, and gathering the fruit of the land, according to seasonal patterns. In the north, the fall migration of caribou herd of the Porcupine River region sustained the people of that area. These animals were hunted by constructing two long rows of wooden sticks driven into the ground as a kind of pathway, leading to an enclosure or "surround," made of branches. The animals were driven and frightened into this surround, where they were killed with bows and arrows.

In other seasons fish were caught and dried, berries gathered, and moose, bear, rabbits, and ptarmigan hunted and eaten, or the hides used for footwear and clothing. The Tron'dk Hwch'in (formerly called the Han these people have abandoned the names the Europeans gave them and reasserted their original names) lived in the west-central Yukon, and particularly skilled at fishing, making fish a staple of their diet. In all parts of the Yukon, the resources of the land and rivers (and in the case of the Inuit, resources of the sea) determined their life patterns.

An interesting theory about the living standards of these people was developed about forty years ago by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, in a paper titled "The Original Affluent Society." Sahlins said that there are two ways to be affluent: to have all you want, and to have all you need. The first is impossible, but the second is not. He studied several aboriginal societies, in South Africa as well as the Dene, and concluded that the Dene were able to obtain all they really needed from the land, and were thus affluent. Moreover, the amount of time required to obtain their needs was less than the average European of two hundred years ago, so that the Dene were not only affluent, but had a good deal of spare time for story-telling and other cultural activities. And in fact, though they were badly hurt by diseases in the 19th century, the gold rush had only a limited effect on Yukon First Nations.

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