Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers

Emergence of the Fur and Whaling Trade

In the early 1840s, Yukon was one of the last places in Canada that non-Indigenous people had not directly visited. Even so, Indigenous peoples in Yukon, such as the Tutchone, were already making contact with newcomers through indirect trade networks with the Coastal Tlingit people of Alaska, who traded European and Asian goods[1] supplied by the Russian American Company (as early as 1799) for inland Yukon furs. At around the same time, the Gwich’in people in the northern Yukon were trading both directly and indirectly with the Russians in Alaska as well as with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories (Karamanski 1983:169; Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:121–123). Indigenous people were already savvy traders by the time they began direct trade with newcomers, since inter-Indigenous trade networks had been in existence for millennia (see Chapter 3).

These new trade relationships introduced European goods into Indigenous people’s lifeways. Indigenous people began to incorporate fur-trade hunting into their yearly round, but it did not upset their traditional pursuits (Castillo 2012a). It was once assumed that Indigenous people who were mediators in trade or whose traditional territory was located near a trading post became dependent on the fort for survival (Harmon 1957:65–66; McGillivray 1989:64), but in fact most Indigenous peoples in Yukon did not become solely dependent on the posts.

When non-Indigenous traders began to arrive in Yukon in the 1840s, their intention was to make a profit through the trade of furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), for example, sent Robert Campbell to explore and build trade networks with Indigenous people along Francis River, Francis Lake, and the Pelly River (Figure 4.1).

Campbell’s movement westward made him the first non-Indigenous person to cross over the Yukon watershed. Campbell was adept at establishing forts; he set up Yukon fur-trade posts at Frances Lake, Pelly Banks, and finally Fort Selkirk. He “moved slowly along Francis Lake and the Pelly River all the while attempting to establish trade relationships” (Castillo 2012b:37). It was during his travels that Campbell first recognized the strong trade ties between the Tlingit Chilkat and the Indigenous groups, such as the Kaska, living in the interior (Campbell 1958:38–45 [July 23, 1838]). As Castillo, one of the authors here, notes, “These Indigenous trade networks would have significant repercussions for Fort Selkirk and its inhabitants” (Castillo 2012b:37; Figure 4.2).

The building of Fort Selkirk unintentionally caused friction in trade relations between the Northern Tutchone and their long-time trading partners the Tlingit, since the Tutchone now had two trading partners and could play one against the other to obtain the best price for Tutchone furs. After numerous minor attempts at removing the HBC from the fort, on August 22, 1852, “twenty-seven Coastal Tlingit Chilkat attacked Fort Selkirk” (Castillo 2012b:71). On that date, Robert Campbell wrote in his journal:

Since last date we had a narrow escape of being cut to pieces, the alternative has been the loss of our all. About noon Saturday the boat with some of the hunters (HBC) arrived unsuspectedly from above, though expected only in Fall…the Indians (Chilkats) rushed with hellish yells into the water & dragged it ashore here; & in less than a minute they had everything out & the guns from Gauche & Kitsah…I was seized by the arms & three sprung (yelling like furies) presenting their guns to my breast…The whole scene passed in about 3 minutes from the unfortunate arrival of the boats till they were masters of all… [Campbell and Stewart 2000:141 (Aug. 22, 1852)].

The Chilkat’s final attempt to stop the HBC from trading with the Northern Tutchone was successful. Interestingly, the Northern Tutchone had stayed away from the fort in the days leading up to the Chilkat attack (Castillo 2012:71). Right after the raid, the fort’s inhabitants floated away on a raft; Campbell’s superiors did not permit him to retaliate, although he desperately wanted to. The buildings at Fort Selkirk were left abandoned for decades.

In essence, those Indigenous groups that were positioned close to forts and also had access to outlying Indigenous groups often dominated trade relationships between themselves and others and became powerful intermediaries in trade. When trading relationships became unsettled, violence could sometimes ensue. The fur traders brought more than goods for trade: they inadvertently, and in one case purposefully,[2] brought disease, which devastated Indigenous communities who had no natural immunity to these foreign viruses (as mentioned above).

In 1889, a few decades after fur traders arrived in Yukon, American whalers arrived on Qikiqtaruk, also known as Herschel Island (see Figure 2.2), which is located in the Beaufort Sea, five kilometres off Yukon’s northern coast (Bockstoce 2012:158; Nuligak 1966:24). For millennia, the Inuvialuit had been seasonal visitors to Herschel Island, harvesting caribou, whales, and polar bears (Friesen 2012:146–147). The whalers had determined that the Beaufort Sea was one of the last areas in which the bowhead whale still thrived. Bowheads, whose numbers had dropped dramatically due to overhunting, were in high demand because of their sought-after baleen, blubber, and oil. To make the short Arctic whaling season profitable, it was necessary for ship crews to overwinter near Herschel Island, which had a good Qikiqtaryuk for the large ships. In 1890, the community of Pauline Cove was established by Euro-Americans. “The Herschel Island settlement approached one thousand people at its height in 1894-96” (Bockstoce 2012:162), and it was the largest Yukon community during that time. “Its members lived amid ‘a mixture of wooden and canvas buildings, native huts, spare casks, boats, wood and all spare stuff’” (Library and Archives Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police fonds, PA211736 in Bockstoce 2012:162).

The effects of the whalers on the Inuvialuit were overwhelming. Many Inuvialuit were hired as meat hunters, deckhands, and seamstresses. The whalers were often rough and objectionable men who lived hard lives and had little regard for the Inuvialuit people with whom they worked (Nuligak 1966:45, 110). They provided large quantities of alcohol to the Inuvialuit, which had not been available before the whalers’ arrival (Nuligak 1966:31). This caused serious social disruptions within families. Incidences of physical and sexual abuse of Inuvialuit women and children were also recorded (Radford et al. 2005: 00:35:50). There was an increase in caribou hunting, a staple food of the Inuvialuit, as the demand for meat by the whalers grew. Although there is evidence showing that caribou were so plentiful that their numbers stayed high during this time (Bockstoce 2012:162; Nuligak 1966:32), whale numbers plummeted as whalers overhunted (Bockstoce 2012:165), often cutting off and keeping the head of the mammal and dropping the rest of the carcass back into the sea (Radford et al. 2005: 00:28:50). For a people who took care to hunt only when necessary for subsistence, this would have been a confusing waste of resources.

Archaeologists in Yukon and Their Collaborators: Dr. Victoria Castillo and Jessica Alfred

Figure 4.2 Archaeologist Dr. Victoria Castillo (photograph courtesy of Victoria Castillo).

Victoria Elena Castillo is a Canadian archaeologist. She has been an instructor of history and anthropology at Yukon University since 2010. The first time Victoria came to work in Yukon was in 2004. She was hired as an archaeological assistant at a local cultural resource management firm based out of Whitehorse. Victoria spent the summer conducting community archaeology projects throughout the territory. Her specialization is in historical archaeology but working in Yukon has allowed her to excavate pre-contact sites that go back thousands of years as well as contact-period and post-colonial sites.

Through her resource management consulting experience, Victoria has been able to work with the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Little Salmon First Nation, and Selkirk First Nation. She has also participated in archaeological assessments for industry. Some of the more interesting projects for Victoria have been excavations at Tagish Post and working in culture camp–style projects, where she takes young students from First Nation communities out on the land to conduct excavations. These trips can span a day, a month, or more. Culture camps are meant to teach students the practicalities of excavation, but more importantly, they allow students to learn about their people’s history through the archaeological record. “To actually see some of the material that comes from where their own people are from, from 50 years ago to 1,000 years ago, it’s really interesting and it’s nice to see students learning in that experiential way.”

Victoria’s doctoral work began in 2005 at Fort Selkirk, and the project itself focused on looking at social and economic interactions between the Northern Tutchone people, the Tlingit people, and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the early fur trade in Yukon in the 1840s. During the three years of excavations at Fort Selkirk, she brought students and workers out with her to excavate at the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon rivers. The project wrapped up in 2012 when she defended her dissertation.

Victoria thinks that the best part of Yukon is the ability to go into the forest at the drop of a hat and just get away from everything. “I can step out of my house and walk a block and I’m basically in the wilderness.” Another terrific part of Yukon is having so many Indigenous cultural groups living in the territory. “There is not just one Indigenous group living here, but 14 different First Nations, and there’s so much cultural diversity.” Victoria stresses that Yukon is a really fascinating place to be for an archaeologist because there is such a huge opportunity to learn about different cultures, which is what archaeology and (more broadly) anthropology are all about.

Figure 4.3 Selkirk First Nation Project Manager Jessica Alfred (photograph courtesy of Jessica Alfred).

Jessica Rachel Alfred is a Northern and Southern Tutchone, Selkirk First Nation citizen. Jessica has always been interested in her people’s history and is particularly drawn to Northern Tutchone oral histories. Jessica first began working with Victoria in 2004 when a position opened up for a student archaeology assistant in her First Nation. The job entailed working with Yukon Government and a heritage consulting firm in Yukon, conducting archaeological excavations at the historic site of Twata Lake, located on Selkirk First Nation settlement land. The following year, Jessica and Victoria worked together again, this time at the historic site of Fort Selkirk (see Emergence of the Fur and Whaling Trade section).

Jessica has been drawn to archaeology and other cultural work because of her interest in ancestral migrations and early lifeways. She’s particularly interested in people’s winter survival skills and child-rearing practices. She chose to work with Victoria because it allowed her to go to remote places on the land, stepping back in time. She was also excited to participate in archaeological excavations, as it allowed her the opportunity to find tangible examples of her people’s past.

Some of the highlights of her work with Victoria include “working with someone such as Victoria that is very determined and has the ability to make smart decisions based on her knowledge and skills, which she has acquired in the heritage sector.” Her early years, working on projects with Victoria, set the foundation for what she wanted to do later, managing on the land projects, managing camps and doing heritage and lands administration.

She also enjoys the collaborative aspects of heritage and lands work, particularly the benefits to the community. It’s important to her that collaboration addresses shared concerns of those running the heritage project and the community. She likes being able to bring together like-minded people who can build projects that benefit all those involved, “to create balance and mutually beneficial relationships between Selkirk First Nation and other collaborators.” For Jessica these positive collaborations include having collaborators come to the community, work with the First Nation, and put in the effort needed to build and maintain relationships, by showing respect in all aspects of the project. She wants to see equal efforts by all parties involved. In the past, projects happened that were not beneficial to Selkirk First Nation, but this is no longer acceptable. Community-based projects are the way forward as the First Nation have an interest in the work, whether it be for archaeology, geology, or another discipline.

Finally, for Jessica, her favourite part of living in Yukon includes living on her traditional territory, amongst her language speakers and the rich culture and history of Selkirk First Nation. She enjoys gaining knowledge on the land, for instance hunting and fishing, and sharing that knowledge with her children. Her favourite place in Yukon is Ta’tla Mun Lake (Tatlmain Lake) where her grandmother was born and raised. It is a spiritual place for her where she can soak in the beautiful scenery and where her family has deep time history.

The fur and whaling trades had profound effects in some areas of Yukon, and none in others. Indigenous people participated as “traders, fishermen, provision hunters and part-time labourers” at the forts (Coates 1991:36). For the Northern Tutchone, the building and subsequent demise of Fort Selkirk did not influence their ability to obtain different types of non-Indigenous material culture such as glass, metal, and ceramic objects. They were able to continue their productive trade with the Tlingit for many decades after Fort Selkirk ceased to exist. Comparatively, Inuvialuit lifeways changed dramatically during contact with the whalers and in subsequent decades. The whales were all but decimated, and families were greatly affected by the years of abuse inflicted on them by the whalers (Burn 2012:8). Still, the Inuvialuit were able to continue their hunting lifestyle after the whalers left (Radford et al. 2005).

  1. As mentioned in Chapter 3, the Tlingit provided both utilitarian goods and delicacies, including European trade goods such as tobacco, beads, and flintlock guns, and wool Tlingit blankets (McClellan 1975: 502 [2001]).
  2. Representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Company allowed a boat carrying supplies from Fort Simpson to Fort Yukon to move forward even though they knew that the men on board were suffering from scarlet fever. Upon their arrival, the illness spread to the local Gwich’in people who then carried it to their trading partners further away (Coates 1993).


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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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