Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways



A potlatch is a feast or celebration where the hosts give out gifts to the opposite matrilineal clan as a payment and thanks. The word potlatch originates from the Chinook trading jargon, which was spoken along the northwest coast in the nineteenth century. McClellan notes that “white prospectors brought this language into the Yukon” and that “potlatch means to give” in the Chinook language (McClellan 1987:215; see also Hibben 1877). While a potlatch can be held for many different occasions, in the southern Yukon the Coastal Tlingit, in particular, have come to associate the term most often with memorial feasts. Marilyn Jensen (Figure 5.7) wrote the following about the potlatch ceremony:

A potlatch celebrated life, death and other momentous occasions. It was at the centre of the community and brought people from other villages closer together. The potlatch was a time to honour a loved one’s life. It provided, and continues to provide to this day, an opportunity to visually see the clan system in motion. It was a chance to see who was who and to arrange marriages, alliances and plans for the future [Jensen 2005:5].

During a memorial (headstone) potlatch, held approximately one year after cremation, the clan of the deceased would host, after collecting gifts and food throughout the preceding year. The opposite clan members would perform specific duties, such as digging the grave and carrying the coffin to the burial site, as well as other necessary tasks. After the burial, a feast would be held and the hosts would distribute the collected wealth. The giving of gifts was a way to solidify social bonds and was part of social reciprocity and moral obligations that were taught early on to children. McClellan provides more details on the events of the potlatch:

Both hosts and guests sang honoured clan songs, danced, displayed their [clan] crests and engaged in notable oratory. Those who had performed specific duties for the deceased were specially paid, but all guests received gifts commensurate with their ranks and relationship to the dead person… [McClellan 1981:478].

Mrs. Kitty Smith describes the first headstone potlatch:

They don’t throw away, coast Indians, their own style. But this people they forgot it. Should be they got him yet. Me what I claim, I know it. See that snake?

One girl bring home that one. Coast Indian. He make her raise it. Gee, not scared, that girl. He start to grow about that big. She give him her milk, what do you think of that!

She call him her son. “For awhile I’ll raise you. They kill us all time war. I raise you,” she tell him (for revenge).

He’s getting big now. That girl keeps him way down there in ground. All time he stays there. Can’t come out.

That girl’s mother tells her sons, “I don’t know what for she’s raising that snake, your sister.” Should be she tell her mamma, you know. (Should say) “I been raising that thing, Mama. It’s going to be war, for us”. Should be she tell her.

Marten skin blanket, they give her, that young girl. They want to kill him, you know, that snake. She’s got seven brothers that girl. They’re ready now.

“You think you work for me, sew that marten skin blanket. I’m going to pay you,” one lady say. Anything jobs they giver her she’s done quick. That time she stay there. They kill him.

She hear him scream. She get up, “Ah, my son.” They got him. She go to town, tell her Mamma, “What for you kill him? That’s my son.”

“Why don’t you tell us,” says her Mamma.

She make song, for that his son they kill him: (sings) “My son, when he get hurt that time I hear him, my son, my little son.”

Outside coast Indian they make picture, headstone, for that snake. At Klukwan, they’ve got headstone [Smith in Cruikshank 1979:95-96].

According to McClellan, “potlatching on a large scale probably only began in the nineteenth century” (1987:221) and she and other scholars believe that potlatching was likely not found throughout Yukon until later time periods after the practice was introduced by the Coastal Tlingit, although this is debated by others. Despite this, it is likely that all of Yukon’s Indigenous peoples had significant ceremonial practices prior to the nineteenth century, possibly involving gift giving. These ceremonies became more like Tlingit potlatch practices as the groups interacted more and more as time progressed. The Canadian government outlawed the practice of potlatching in the 1880s, on the basis that the process was un-Christian and would cause the hosts to become wards of the state (without any possessions). According to s. 140 of the 1927 Indian Act, the penalty for participating in a potlatch was imprisonment for two to six months. Despite this, people continued to potlatch (often in secret) and it wasn’t until 1951 that the legislation was changed and people could openly participate in the potlatch again. Since that time there has been a resurgence and evolution of this practice and potlatches continue to be held throughout Yukon today.

Puberty Rituals

Many of Yukon’s Indigenous peoples had puberty ceremonies for both boys and girls, which was a time for them to learn about their new roles in society as mature adults. Information about these can be found at cultural centres around Yukon. Isolation was a key feature of the puberty ceremonies. In her book Life Lived Like a Story, Julie Cruikshank recorded Tagish and Tlingit Elders Mrs. Angela Sidney’s and Mrs. Kitty Smith’s stories about “Becoming a Woman.” In Mrs. Sidney’s story, she remembers “they put me outside, away from camp. You have to wear a bonnet—mine was a fancy flannel blanket” (Cruikshank 1990:98). Mrs. Sidney goes on to describe how long she stayed in her tent away from camp and what the women who visited her taught her, such as sewing and how not be hungry. She describes how she was to sit and behave and the consequences of not acting properly. For instance, she had to sit on her knees and “if you stretch your legs, you shorten your life” (Cruikshank 1990:99). Mrs. Sidney also says that the typical length of seclusion was one year, but that hers ended abruptly after only two months when her mother became sick. In her story, Mrs. Sidney also mentions that “boys have to be trained too” (Cruikshank 1990:100) and gives some indication of how this occurs but without great detail.

Other researchers have provided more detail on what male puberty rites entailed for different cultures across Yukon. McClellan explains that Tlingit boys lived together in camps and were trained by their maternal uncles and males in their clan (McClellan 1981). In describing Tagish male puberty rites, she explains that boys were taught “technical and ritual aspects of subsistence activities, their moral obligations, other and the traditions and prerogatives of their matrilineages” (McClellan 1981:488).

For the Hän people to the north, puberty rituals were also important, but less emphasis was placed on male puberty ceremonies while “girls were subject to elaborate ritual behaviour” (Crow and Obley 1981:508). Slobodin provides detail on Gwich’in puberty rituals and states that before a young man was married, he lived with a group of other young men and “improved his knowledge and skill in the subsistence activities, the making of snowshoe frames and other woodwork, the techniques of war, bushcraft, and tracking” (Slobodin 1981:524). Slobodin also expressly indicates that girls were subjected to many taboos, such as “wearing a deerskin cowl hanging down so that she could see only her feet” (Slobodin 1981:525), to prevent her from gazing at others. She was also made to drink with a swan bone straw (see also Legros 2007:363–364). Honigmann describes similar rituals for the Kaska people in the southern Yukon (1981:447).

Finally, evidence of puberty rituals can also be seen in the landscape of the southern Yukon, as McClellan documents “wEtedi (menstruant) rocks”, which are “young girls who had just reached puberty to be turned magically into stone” (McClellan 1975:86). Leaving a gift when you pass by these rocks is said to bring good fortune, while inclement weather is said to result from touching them.[1]

  1. A number of cultural centres in Yukon have examples of female and male puberty rituals including Kluane Museum of Natural History and Tagé Cho Hudän Interpretive Centre


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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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