Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways

Health and Healing

Traditional Indigenous healers in Yukon were known by a variety of names, including shaman, medicine man (or woman), and Indian doctor (McClellan 1987:227).[1] Traditional healers tended to be men, but midwives who helped deliver babies were always women. Every group of Indigenous people usually had at least one healer, to whom many requests were made: to cure illness, to help with spiritual matters, to influence power and spirits, and to tell fortunes (McClellan 1975, 1987).

While there were differences among the Indigenous healers of Yukon, their practices were often very similar, which is confirmed by anthropologists who documented life among the people in Yukon (Crow and Obley 1981; McClellan 1975; Slobodin 1981). Healers found their path in life in a variety of ways: they may have acquired a spirit helper (voluntarily through dreams or by accident), they may have inherited the role from a relative in their maternal line, they may have been born into the role, or they may have inadvertently become one if they disturbed the grave of a previous healer (McClellan 1975:531). Healers did not wear special clothes, but often had long and uncombed hair. They acquired items such as drums, rattles, and amulets to help with their work; when the healers died, these items were buried with them unless an item was specifically willed to a relative. Healers were some of the few individuals who were buried without being cremated (McClellan 1975).

Traditional Indigenous healers and midwives held specialized knowledge about medicines, plants, and animals that could be found out on the land (Legros 2007; McClellan 1987). Nevertheless, all people learned from a young age what types of medicines could be used to cure certain common illnesses such as colds, headaches, toothaches, and earaches. They knew how and where to find the necessary plants and animals, as well as how to process them.[2]

Even though people had knowledge of medicines, there is “a widespread belief among the Yukon [Indigenous peoples] that before the arrival of the whites, people were remarkably healthy” (McClellan 1975:223; for a discussion of pre-contact sickness in Yukon and Alaska, see Fortuine 1989). Information about disease and epidemics prior to contact with newcomers is lacking in detail and difficult to obtain (Helm et al. 1971). Some events are recorded in oral histories, but details on how many people died and from what specific disease are sometimes missing. One reason is that disease names have often fluctuated over time; for example, tuberculosis, a complaint that McClellan noted in her ethnographic work, was previously known as consumption. Newcomers did bring new diseases with them, including smallpox, measles, and pneumonia, which are discussed in further detail in Chapter 4.


  1. Shaman is a term that originally comes from Indigenous healers in Siberia; anthropologists have borrowed it to refer to many different types of healers (see Kehoe 2000).
  2. For a detailed list of the plants used to heal various illnesses and diseases, see McClellan 1975:223-232 [2001]; Legros 2007: 245-249. 

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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples 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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