Chapter 1 – Who Are Yukon’s First Peoples?

Some Definitions

There are many ways to learn about cultures. For anthropologists, the basic definition of culture is the learned patterns of behaviour, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a society. Anthropologists study these learned patterns to better understand and describe different cultural groups. They may study a group’s lifeways, such as how people obtain food and what they eat, how clothing is made, how people house themselves and how it’s constructed, and how a person is treated through their lifespan, to better understand cultural norms. One of the best ways to study lifeways is to conduct ethnographic research, using a method called participant observation. Anthropologists often do this by living with groups for extended periods of time, documenting and describing the group’s customary behaviours and ideas, and trying to record what they observe through the point of view of the people being studied.

When we talk about Yukon’s First Peoples, we are talking about a variety of independent cultural groups whose traditional territories are partially or wholly found within Yukon. They can trace their ancestry to the time before European and Euro-American settlers, whom we call newcomers, arrived in Yukon.[1] Other terms that are routinely used to describe Yukon’s First Peoples include Indigenous,[2] First Nation(s), Aboriginal, Native, and Indian. Yukon also has Inuit[3] and Métis[4]people living within its territory. A few of these terms have gone out of favour: for example, Indian is now considered a derogatory term in some circles, and Native is becoming antiquated. The term Indigenous is gaining recognition and use worldwide, including in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP 2007).

Unlike most Indigenous communities in the rest of Canada, most of Yukon’s First Peoples are no longer organized in bands (see Chapter 5), which are defined by the Federal Government as “a body of Indians declared by the Governor-in-Council to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act,” the Act being a federal government construct (International Journal of Indigenous Health 2017:3). Yukon First Nation peoples have reclaimed the right to define their own organizational structures. This means, for instance, that the former Selkirk Band is now the Selkirk First Nation. Some communities also use the term government or council. Still, the terms band, Indian, and Aboriginal are widely used by the federal and provincial governments. Yukon government uses First Nation to describe those groups that have signed land claim agreements.

  1. Recently, the term settler has been used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to describe non-Indigenous peoples in Canada who have settled permanently and brought their colonial agenda with them. An agenda that “persists in the ongoing elimination of Indigenous populations… and control over their lands (Barker and Lowman, n.d.). Some Indigenous peoples in Yukon do not accept or support the term because it carries connotations of people settling in an uninhabited place, which was not the case in most parts of the Americas (author’s note, Southwick).
  2. The term Indigenous, according to Harold Cardinal, an important Cree lawyer and leader, means “born of that environment, from the land in which it sits” (1999:180). The term is more inclusive than the term Aboriginal, which is used in Canada to label all three groups of Indigenous peoples with legal status: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Indigenous includes people who do not have legal status under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Other terms that have previously been used to describe Indigenous people in Canada include Indian (this is still the term used in the title of the legal document, the Indian Act), Native (a term to describe non-Inuit or non-Métis Indigenous people, which has lost popularity in Canada), and First Nations (a Canadian term for non-Inuit and non-Métis people that came into common use in the 1980s and is still widely used).
  3. “Inuit are circumpolar people, inhabiting regions in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, united by a common culture and language. There are approximately 55,000 Inuit living in Canada” (International Journal of Indigenous Health 2017:6). Some Inuit people live and hunt part of the year on the northern tip of Yukon.
  4. Today, the term Métis is used to “broadly describe people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis… Historically, the term applied to children of French fur traders and Cree women in the Prairies, of English and Scottish traders and Déne women in the North, and Inuit and British in Newfoundland and Labrador” (International Journal of Indigenous Health 2017:7). In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Métis and non-status Indigenous peoples are considered “Indians” under Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 (Fontaine 2016).


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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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