Chapter 2 – Archaeology and Yukon’s First Peoples
Origins: Indigenous and Archaeological Views
Creation stories (sometimes called myths) are “symbolic stories describing how the universe and its inhabitants came to be. Creation stories develop through oral traditions and therefore typically have multiple versions” (Womack 2005:81). These stories act as a way of knowing and a means of understanding the universe and how people came to be in a place; they help people “work out a relationship with the environment” (Cruikshank 1978:10). They describe how the plants, animals, and people appeared in a certain territory. Yukon First Peoples have a variety of stories describing how the Earth and Yukon’s landscape were formed, some of which overlap in content and reach into deep time. The following example from Kaska storyteller Tuu:’ts begins with a world covered by water and explains how the Earth came to be:
Once there was no earth. Water was where the earth is now. The earth was very deep under the water. Beaver and muskrat, and all the animals and birds, dived but none of them reached the bottom. None of them stayed under the water longer than half a day. At last Diver (a bird) went down; after six days he came up quite exhausted and speechless. His friends examined his toenails and found mud or earth under them. From this, they formed on top of the water a new earth, which grew until it formed the present earth. At first, it was merely mud and very soft; later it became firm, and trees and vegetation began to grow on it. Now the earth is old and dry. Perhaps it is drying up [Teit 1917:441–442].
Crow is a popular figure in creation stories and is usually portrayed as a bird with the ability to take human form. Crow is responsible for creating the human realm; Crow is creator, transformer, and trickster. The stories of Crow provide people with lessons about relationships, customs, and resource use (Ned in Cruikshank 1990:282–297). Here is an excerpt from an interview with the late Tagish Tlingit Elder Angela Sidney, who describes Crow as creator of the Earth:
After Crow made the world, he saw that sea lion owned the only island in the world.
The rest was water—he’s the only one with land.
The whole place was ocean!
Crow rests on a piece of log—he’s tired.
He sees sea lion with that little island just for himself.
He wants some land too, so he stole that sea lion’s kid.
“Give me back the kid!” said sea lion.
“Give me beach, some sand,” says Crow.
So, sea lion gave him sand.
Crow threw that sand around the world. “Be world,” he told it. And it became the world [Sidney in Cruikshank 1990:43–44].
The story of Crow, like other creation stories, can be lengthy and will often be told orally over many days. The story can be humorous, serious, or both (Legros 1999). Numerous other origin stories and myths also exist among the different Yukon First Nations, including the story of Smart Beaver who took a trip down a large river (possibly the Yukon River) to stop giant creatures from terrorizing people. Smart Beaver killed giant cannibalistic men and reduced giant animals to their present size, teaching “them to eat non-human food and mak[ing] it safe for people to live again” (Sidney et al. 1977:22; McClellan 1987:252–258).
For some Yukon Indigenous peoples, creation stories are factual accounts of how their ancestors came to be in a particular territory and are considered accurate oral histories. These ancestral accounts of events sometimes offer differing perspectives from research that archaeologists have conducted to describe how people came to populate Yukon. However, rather than being seen as separate fields of inquiry, when viewed in tandem, archaeology and oral stories, such as creation stories, can provide a more holistic understanding of past Yukon Indigenous cultures (Cruikshank 2005:51–52). One example of this can be found with research conducted on Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi man (see section Yukon Archaeological Sites).
- We define story as an account of incidents or events. ↵
- The term myth has multiple meanings; anthropologists typically do not define myths as imaginary or fictitious stories. For instance, Cruikshank defines myth as “a traditional story which takes place in supernatural time, when men, animals, superhuman beings and often gods could communicate directly” (1978:50). For many Indigenous peoples the term myth implies that the story is not true, therefore the term is frowned upon. ↵
- Crow is connected to Raven from the Alaska coast and may be the same being (McClellan 1987:252). ↵
- The culture hero, Smart Beaver, is an example of the culture hero phenomenon found in many Indigenous cultures around the world. ↵
- Archaeology is the branch of anthropology that reconstructs the daily life, customs, and cultures of past peoples by studying their written records (when available) and material culture (Miller 2013). ↵