Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways

Early Anthropological Research

Similar to archaeological research, professional anthropological research in Yukon began in the early twentieth century. However, prior to anthropologists documenting the cultures of Yukon’s Indigenous peoples, other newcomers to Yukon, such as early explorers, missionaries, and fur traders, wrote records about the people they were meeting recording information about their daily lives and cultural practices. Simultaneously, Indigenous people created stories about the newcomers that were transmitted orally (see Chapter 4 for more details). The newcomers’ records were often detailed and included information about the lifeways of the various Indigenous cultures, including observations about their clothing, diet, technology, and spiritual beliefs. (It should be noted that most of these early documents display evidence of the colonial biases of the authors, but they are important sources of history nonetheless.) These topics will be expanded on later in this chapter, but first we will introduce some of the early anthropologists who worked with Indigenous peoples in Yukon.

Early Anthropological Research

Franz Boas is widely regarded as the father of North American anthropology due to his extensive fieldwork with Indigenous peoples in Canada and his attempts to promote general awareness of their culture in western society. In 1883, he conducted his first ethnographic fieldwork in Canada with the Inuit people of Baffin Island, and he later conducted extensive research in the Canadian Pacific northwest. While Boas never ventured into Yukon, he did learn about the Tlingit culture when he collected Tlingit stories for his book Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America (2002 [1895]), and he worked with an Alaskan Chilkat Tlingit named Louis Shotridge in order to publish Grammatical Notes on the Language of the Tlingit Indians (1917). Boas also was a teacher and mentor to Frederica de Laguna, who conducted both archaeological and ethnological research in Alaska and Yukon; de Laguna is best known for her work with the Yakutat Tlingit (1972).

Although de Laguna focused her research more on the Alaska side of the border, she encouraged her students to conduct research throughout both Alaska and Yukon. One of her students, Catharine McClellan, conducted ethnographic research with the Indigenous people of the southern Yukon in the late 1940s, which continued for many decades. During the course of McClellan’s extensive career, she published numerous volumes about Yukon’s First Peoples; her main academic ethnographic work is the two-volumes entitled My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory. In the first volume she referred to the lack of data about Indigenous groups in Yukon: “My main purpose in this account is to give a preliminary sketch of each [of the groups in the southern Yukon]. However, the reader will soon discover that the data are exceedingly uneven, both in quality and quantity” (McClellan 1975:2). McClellan stressed the need for more ethnographic research in Yukon and said, “Although this is the first report about these people, even less is known about some of their neighbours. Until we have a firm ethnographic base, we will not be able to deal adequately with the more theoretical issues” (McClellan 1975:xx). Other early Yukon anthropologists were former students of de Laguna as well, such as Marie-Françoise Guédon, who conducted an ethnographic study of the Upper Tanana peoples in the village of Tetlin, Alaska, but also in villages and camps on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border (1974).


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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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