Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers

Missionaries and Religion

Before the arrival of newcomers and the implementation of organized school curricula and institutions, Indigenous people in Canada, and more specifically Yukon, taught their children through what has been termed the three Ls: looking, listening, and learning (Miller 1996:15). Keeping in mind that every Indigenous culture differs in the means by which children are taught, in general this might consist of:

…shaping of behaviour by positive example in the home, the provision of subtle guidance towards desired forms of behaviour through the use of games, a heavy reliance on the use of stories for didactic purposes, and as the child neared early adulthood, the utilization of more formal and ritualized ceremonies to impart rite-of-passage lessons with due solemnity [while] there was a powerful imperative to avoid imposing one’s will on another individual [Miller 1996:17–19].

This was in stark contrast to the form of education that Euro-Canadians introduced to Indigenous peoples in Yukon and across Canada.

The first Anglican missionaries arrived in Yukon in the 1860s, and the Anglican Church was the first to run a day-school[1] program (located at Forty Mile, Moosehide, Old Crow, and Fort Selkirk) and the first to open residential schools in Yukon. By the 1940s, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians were all firmly entrenched in Yukon, attempting to convert Indigenous peoples to their religions and bring them to their churches (Coates 1993:115). To do so, the various churches needed to understand and eliminate Indigenous people’s spirituality. As Coates (Figure 4.6) writes:

Significantly, unlike many early evangelists in New France and colonial America, the northern missionaries acknowledged the presence and feared the vitality of Indian spirituality. Accordingly, much of their work was a deliberate attempt to supplant Native beliefs [Coates 1993:116].

Conversion to Christianity did happen; by the early twentieth century, many Indigenous peoples had welcomed the Church into their lives (Helm et al. 1971:323; Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009: 230). It’s difficult to determine how many Indigenous people chose to convert to Christianity, but it is estimated that by the 1950s, approximately 1,500 Yukon Indigenous people had converted to organized religion (Clark 1950).

There are many factors that resulted in the conversion of so many Indigenous people during the early twentieth century. Rapid changes brought on by the arrival of newcomers—particularly diseases, gold rushes, and industrial development, including the construction of highways—all led to dramatic changes to people’s lifeways, and this may have become the impetus for following missionary teachings. Later, residential and day schools were also places where young children were forced to convert to Christianity (see section on residential schools). The missionaries were also very good at finding common ground on which to meet Indigenous people. The Anglicans hired and trained Indigenous catechists to preach to people. As well, scriptures were translated into Indigenous Yukon languages (McClellan 1987:77). As one individual notes:

When the missionary come to the country, the people [were] good enough to believe them right away. These people told me that. [The] minister [who] came into the country first, that’s…Neil McDonald, his father Archdeacon McDonald. He did lots of work for the people. You see the Holy Bible translated into our language, the prayer book, hymn book? That man did a lot of work. I didn’t see him; [he was] before my time [Joe Netro, August 10, 1977, VG2001-4-2:73-80, English in Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:141].

Yet, many Indigenous people chose to not convert to organized religion, and those that did often did so by syncretizing[2] their Indigenous spiritual beliefs with the Church’s teachings (Coates 1993:129, note 88).

  1. Day schools were operated on or near First Nations communities to educate registered Indian, Métis, and Inuit children. Students did not have to live at the schools.
  2. Syncretism is defined as the blending of traits from two different cultures to form a new trait. This can be applied to the blending of religious and spiritual beliefs.


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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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