Chapter 2 – Archaeology and Yukon’s First Peoples

Archaeological Research in Yukon

Professional archaeological research in Yukon began in the mid-twentieth century. Yukon is large, yet the number of archaeologists who have worked in the territory is small compared to neighbouring provinces and states. The following archaeologists have contributed to our understanding of Yukon’s culture and history.

The first professional archaeologists to work in Yukon were Frederick Johnson and Hugh Raup, who conducted archaeological and botanical investigations in the southwest Yukon in the 1940s (1964; see also Harp Jr. 2005). This was the first scientific expedition along the recently constructed Alaska Highway. This research was followed by Richard S. (Scottie) MacNeish’s work in locations on the Arctic coast and in the southwestern Yukon in the 1950s and 1960s (1956, 1964); Bryan Gordon’s work on the Arctic Yukon coast (1970); and William Irving and Jacques Cinq-Mars’s archaeological excavations in the Old Crow Flats on the Old Crow River in the northern Yukon (1974). Significant research was also done by William Workman, who carried out excavations in the Aishihik-Kluane area in the southwest Yukon (1978). In the 1980s, Richard Morlan and Jacques Cinq-Mars focused their attention on early human occupations in Beringia (1982),[1] Donald Clark began pre-contact[2] research throughout Yukon (1983), Raymond Le Blanc researched pre-contact sites in the Old Crow Flats (1984), and Sheila Greer conducted archaeological research in Yukon (1981, 1982, 1983). Clark would later undertake historical archaeology excavations at Fort Reliance (1995). In the 1990s and 2000s, archaeologists active in the territory included, Ruth Gotthardt (1990), Nancy Saxberg (1993), Greg Hare (1995), Thomas J. Hammer (1999), Julie Anne Esdale (2001), Ty Heffner (2002), Michael Brand (2002), Christian Thomas (2003), Glen MacKay (2008), Vandy Bowyer (2011), and Victoria Castillo (2012).

While much of this research has been based at academic institutions, the 1970s and 1980s also saw the emergence of cultural resource management (also known as CRM), as archaeologists and Indigenous groups pushed governments to create legislation meant to protect cultural resources,[3] by documenting and/or protecting sites. Both academic and CRM research in Yukon is governed by federal and territorial legislation[4] (Government of Yukon 2002). The Yukon Historic Resources Act makes it illegal to disturb any archaeological site, excluding those on First Nations settlement land,[5] without first holding a permit. First Nation government rules are paramount on settlement lands. Penalties for violating the Act can include a $50,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment for an individual, or a $1,000,000 fine for a corporation (Government of Yukon 2002:56). To obtain a permit an individual must meet certain criteria. They must have a Master’s degree in archaeology and have two archaeology field seasons of experience, and they must be attached to a major institution or university or be a practising archaeological consultant (Government of Yukon 2008a:15). They are expected to submit a valid research proposal and methodology and have complied with the terms and conditions of previous permits. The researcher must have consulted with and obtained approval of affected communities. They are strongly encouraged to involve and communicate with local community members in their work. They are required to identify potential conservation requirements for artifacts recovered during their research program and indicate how these requirements will be met (Government of Yukon 2008:15).

Yukon First Nation settlement land does not fall under this requirement as they have their own government rules on how settlement lands are managed. Consent is required from the First Nation to access settlement lands. First Nations also hire archaeologists and other cultural resource managers to work with them on cultural projects. The Umbrella Final Agreement (Canada 1993) was signed in 1993 by the Council for Yukon Indians (now the Council of Yukon First Nations), the Canadian government, and Yukon government (see Chapter 5). The document reads, “Key provisions of the Agreement describe First Nation rights to manage and administer Settlement Lands, which are selected from land within the First Nation’s Traditional Territory.”[6] Settlement lands comprise about 8.6% percent of land in Yukon (Government of Yukon 2008:22).

The territorial government maintains an inventory of all of the archaeological sites in Yukon. Currently, the list contains over 3,800 sites (Gregory Hare, personal communication 2012), including, but not limited to, cabins, tent frames, brush camps, caches, traps and snares, fish camps, game drives, trails, house pits, and graves (Gotthardt and Thomas 2005). Many sites still remain to be discovered and recorded.

  1. “The growth of glaciers and ice-sheets worldwide during the ice age locked up vast amounts of the world’s water, causing sea levels to drop by as much as 120 metres. In the Bering Strait this drop in sea level exposed the Bering Land Bridge, which formed a connection between Asia and North America” (Zazula and Froese 2011:14). This unglaciated land bridge region is often known as Beringia.
  2. The term pre-contact relates to the period before Indigenous people came into contact with non-Indigenous settlers. In Yukon this varies from region to region but 1848 is generally recognized as the beginning of the historic period of written records.
  3. Cultural resource management is the study of archaeological sites that are threatened by natural phenomena or human development. In Yukon, these sites are identified, assessed, excavated, and/or protected.
  4. The permit process was derived from the Yukon Archaeological Sites Regulations (Government of Yukon 2003) pursuant to the Historic Resources Act (Government of Yukon 2002).
  5. In Yukon, settlement land is categorized as either surface and/or subsurface. It is owned by a First Nation (see Chapter 5).
  6. Traditional territory means “subject to a Yukon First Nation Final Agreement, with respect to each Yukon First Nation and each Yukon First Nations person enrolled in that Yukon First Nation’s Final Agreement, the geographic area within the Yukon identified as that Yukon First Nation’s Traditional Territory” (Canada 1998a:9).


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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Elena Castillo; Christine Schreyer; and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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