Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways

Connections Between Indigenous Groups


For thousands of years, trade between neighbouring Yukon Indigenous groups occurred throughout the territory. For instance, the Hän people traded with Tutchone people to the south and with the other Déne people like the Gwich’in to the north (Mishler and Simeone 2004). The Gwich’in in turn traded with each other and with the Inuit living on the Arctic coastal plain near the mouth of the Mackenzie River (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009)

During the early to mid-nineteenth century, the Coastal Chilkat Tlingit of southern Alaska maintained a network of trade routes that only they could use. These routes were guarded very carefully, and people were not permitted to pass inland or to the coast unless they had permission from the Tlingit. The passes were only accessible between June and September, when it was warmer and the snow and ice had melted, making water travel on either side of the passes possible.

A great deal of trade was carried out between the Coastal Tlingit and the Northern Tutchone. The Northern Tutchone provided large quantities of furs to the Tlingit who used them for their own purposes (including clothing) and also for trade with other Tlingit and coastal trade partners. The trade relationship between the two groups was highly organized: each Tlingit lineage would trade with a specific Tutchone group and with no one else.

The Tlingit traded two types of goods. Before contact with Russian and European trade vessels on the coast, they traded maritime harvests and other coastal goods to the inland Northern Tutchone. Once European contact occurred, they also brought European goods inland for trade.[1] The Tutchone obtained these coastal items and then traded them in turn to other groups such as the Hän, the Tanana, and the Kaska. Thus, the Tlingit market affected many Indigenous peoples in Yukon, often indirectly.

The trade protocols practised by the Tlingit Chilkat and Northern Tutchone were very complex. Trade expeditions were often organized and financed by a high-ranking Tlingit man. A leader would set off with his nephews and family members, including wives, and slaves who acted as porters. There could be up to 100 people at the beginning of the trip; then the group would split up into several caravans of 20 to 30 people who went to trade with smaller groups at various Tutchone locations like Kluane Lake, Aishihik Lake, Hutshi Lake, Big Salmon River, Little Salmon River, Tatchun Lake, McGregor River, Minto, Fort Selkirk, Laberge Lake, and Alsek Lake. The Tlingit and Tutchone example of an extended trade network is just one example of how different groups in Yukon traded with each other. Today trade often occurs at arts and culture festivals or between groups that continue to have connections through marriage or kinship across Yukon.

Inter-Group Marriage

Trading alliances often led to marriage between members of different Indigenous groups. In regard to marriage alliances among the Tlingit, McClellan writes, “Marriage alliances cemented for trading purposes were highly vulnerable to dispute” (1981:478). Marriage between groups might also occur if a woman from one group was stolen away by another group. Slobodin writes about the Gwich’in that “a high-ranking family preferred that their sons marry girls from lower-ranking but reputable families” because “exceptionally desirable and high-ranking females might become prime objects for kidnapping by neighbouring peoples, including [Inuit peoples]; there was a special term for such women, translatable as ‘she who is stolen back and forth’”(Slobodin 1981:525). However, Slobodin notes that very few women received this title.

Anthropologists in Yukon: Gillian Staveley

Figure 3.9 Anthropologist Gillian Staveley (photograph courtesy of Jeremy Staveley).

Gillian Staveley is a Canadian anthropologist and resource management consultant. She was born and raised in Yukon, is Kaska Dena, and part of the Liard First Nation. She began working in anthropology in 2008, when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern British Columbia. She was hired by the Yukon government under the Student Training and Employment Program (STEP). This job allowed her to work with Yukon government archaeologists over an entire summer. She was able to travel through many parts of Yukon and participated in significant archaeological projects such as the Ice Patch project (see Chapter 2).

Gillian completed her master’s thesis, titled “The Kaska Dene: A Study of Colonialism, Trauma and Healing in Dene Kēyeh” at the University of British Columbia. Her research centered on taking an interdisciplinary perspective to explore cultural dynamics between people and the environment. She specifically focused on Dene Kēyeh, which means “the People’s Country” in the Kaska language. Her study area included Yukon, Northern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. She studied the intergenerational gap between how Kaska Dena Elders and Kaska youth like her viewed the land. Questions she posed included, How is this knowledge transmitted to future generations? What are the disjunctures between traditional ways of being on the land and future understandings of our environment? What is being lost through this process?

Gillian’s greatest highlight to date is working within her own Kaska community, because she has been able to focus on grass-roots programs focusing on language acquisition and the importance of environmental stewardship in the community. She also conducted an archaeological site inventory at McIntyre Creek (in Whitehorse), which allowed her to engage with Kwanlin Dün First Nations youth. She feels this was an incredibly rewarding experience.  More recently, Gillian is employed as the manager of lands and resource for the Kaska Dena communities in British Columbia where she oversees all referrals in the Kaska traditional territory in BC.

To Gillian, the benefits of collaborating with Indigenous communities include being able to create lifelong commitments and friendships with the people she is working with and for. She believes that she is able to engage with the community’s issues, concerns, and goals. She says, “When you can engage people in this way, you are doing real collaboration and can create a successful project.” For her, the work becomes more meaningful because she has made a connection with the people she is working with.

What Gillian loves most about Yukon is her own traditional territory, specifically the Liard River Valley, which she considers the most beautiful place in the world.


Women were also stolen away to be slaves as well as brides. Slaves were individuals who were not members of the group they were living with, but who helped run the home and were part of daily family life, although they were not able to leave. McClellan writes that:

Most slaves were well treated although they were never free once they became slaves. Some even married into their owner’s family. A slave woman might become the second or third wife of the man who captured her. In that case, she would be adopted into an appropriate clan or moiety, and her children would become free members of the group. Captive children were sometimes adopted by a childless couple and raised as if they were the couple’s own sons or daughters [1987:232].

Wealthy individuals sometimes bought slaves, but slaves could also be the product of warfare between groups (Slobodin 1981). For example, if two groups engaged in battle and one group suffered more deaths than the other, slaves could be exchanged to compensate for lost lives. These individuals could be released when their home community was able to provide a large payment, or when they were rescued or ran away from their captors (McClellan 1987:232. For an example of a story where a slave escaped her captors, see Williams 2013, “Kidnapped Woman Escapes”).

It’s clear that there was a wide range of interactions between the various Indigenous groups in Yukon. In the next chapter, we explore the interactions between newcomers to Yukon and the Indigenous groups that greeted them when they arrived.

  1. The Tlingit traded food delicacies and other specialty items such as seaweed and seaweed cakes, dentalia shells, mother of pearl, abalone, dried clams, seaweed, fish oil, blueberries in skin pouches, medicinal herbs, roots, Tlingit blankets, and “Indian tobacco.” The Tutchone traded furs, including lynx, fox, marten, wolverine, ermine, and marmot, and dressed fur capes, made of moose, bear, wolf, and ground squirrel, as well as moccasins (slippers), copper nuggets, moose sinew (used as thread), and Dall sheep skins (Krause 1956:127; Legros 1984:17–18, 1985:47; McClellan 1975:502 [2001]; Olson 1936: 211).


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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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