Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways

Social Organization

Societies around the world arrange themselves in different ways; one way that many Yukon Indigenous peoples use to organize themselves is a clan system (called moieties by anthropologists) where one is recognized as a Crow or a Wolf (Honigmann 1981:447). McClellan has written, “As soon as…people meet you, they ask, Are you a Crow or a Wolf?” (1987:175). However, before we begin discussing the clan system it is important to understand some key concepts.

Anthropologists use a few terms to describe the way that groups organize themselves socially, such as band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. The term that an anthropologist will choose to use to refer to a specific group is largely based on the subsistence of the group, as well as settlement and political patterns. The anthropological term that is often used to describe Yukon’s Indigenous peoples is band, which refers to people who were traditionally highly mobile due to foraging for subsistence.[1] Bands were usually not larger than fifty people who spoke the same language and were egalitarian, meaning that people had equal rights. In Yukon, bands were often located in a particular watershed and were separated by mountains (Honigmann 1981:446; McClellan 1987:175). Bands in Yukon were very adaptable and, depending on the resources in an area and the season, they might come together into larger groups or separate into smaller families.

Within a band there were often several household groups. A household was made up of adults and children in an extended family who shared a shelter, cooking and eating their food together (Honigmann 1981:447). The people in the extended family could be related in a variety of ways, including in-laws and grandparents; extended families are still an important part of Yukon culture today. Normally, when a household had more than one grown man, those individuals would work as hunting and trapping partners, while the grown women would gather items such as plants, berries, and wood, and trap small animals in nearby areas.

Kinship groups were formed differently in different parts of Yukon. The most complex social and kinship structures can be found among the Indigenous peoples of the southern Yukon (McClellan 1987:178). Tlingit, Tagish, and some of the Southern Tutchone followed matrilineal patterns, in which descent flows through mothers. A woman and her children are part of the same matrilineage, which is the same as the woman’s mother. The woman’s daughter’s children will also be of the same matrilineage, but her son’s children will be a part of their own mother’s matrilineage. This resulted from strict exogamous marriage patterns, which means that men and women are only allowed to marry if they are from different matrilineages. Within any one family, then, there would traditionally be two lineages: the mother and the children would be from one and the father would be from another. Each matrilineal house had a name, as well as special stories, songs, personal names, and crests that illustrated the history of that particular matrilineage.

A group of matrilineages that come from a larger matrilineal descent group are known as a clan (Emmons 1991:23–27; McClellan 1987). As McClellan writes, “clan structure was based on the assumption that all these matrilineages were descended from a single female ancestor, even if the exact links between the matrilineages often could no longer be traced” (1987:181). Clan groups came together for social events and they were also stewards over the lands associated with their matrilineage houses. Clan groups were “never political or geographical units like modern states” (McClellan 1987:183).

The last layer of formal kinship grouping in the southern Yukon was the moiety. There are two moieties—Crow and Wolf. What is sometimes confusing is that in contemporary Yukon society many people refer to their moiety as their clan. Coastal Tlingit in Alaska also have a moiety system, but in Alaska the two groups are often referred to as Raven (instead of Crow) and Eagle (instead of Wolf). Each side of the moiety, Crow and Wolf, would have clans grouped within them. Some moieties might only have one clan within them. Although matrilineage houses and clans have specific crests and symbols, all members of the Crow moiety have the right to wear a crow symbol and all members of the Wolf moiety have the right to wear a wolf symbol. In sum, moieties were larger social groups of individuals that did not necessarily have blood relationships but were still considered to be kin through this wider social network.

In other areas of Yukon, moieties and clans are arranged differently. Much variety exists in social organization among Yukon’s First Peoples, but similarities are present as well.  The Southern Tutchone and Northern Tutchone, who resided in the central Yukon, follow matrilineal descent patterns but do not have houses associated with matrilineages or the clan system. They do, however, use a Crow and Wolf moiety system, as do the Kaska peoples. There is some evidence that the Kaska also had a clan system, but there is limited information on this (McClellan 1987:188–189). In the areas north of Fort Selkirk, ethnographic evidence documents three social units that are often called “clans” among the Hän (Osgood 1971:40) and Gwich’in communities (Slobodin 1981:517–524). As Mishler and Simeone describe, “The Han clans of Crow and Wolf found in Dawson… correspond more closely with those of the inland Tlingit and northern Tutchone. Among the Gwich’in, the Han’s other neighbors, there are three clans—Ch’ichyàa [Wolf Clan], Neetsaih [Crow Clan] and Teenjiraatsyaa [middle clan]—but none of these clans is directly associated with birds or animals” (2004:91).

Alfred Charlie recounts how the Gwich’in Wolf and Crow clans came to be:

So Crow told Ch’ataiiyuukaih to paddle him up to where the people had been and when they got there, he told Ch’ataiiyuukaih. “I see a big chèhlùk [fish: loche/burbot] going toward the shore. Take me to the shore.”…

So he did that. He saw the big loche coming to shore, upside down. Crow told him step on his belly. So he did. Then all the people came out; most people came out of the mouth. All those people came back.

So that’s how the Ch’ichyàa [Wolf Clan] and Neetsaih [Crow Clan] came to be. I don’t know how Teenjiraatsyaa [the middle clan] started. That’s how they started, the way I understand it. It’s a true story [Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:14].


  1. Band, as it is used here, does not refer to political structures (as discussed in Chapter 5).

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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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