Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways
Subsistence Tools and Technologies
Knowing where resources were located and at what time of year they would be plentiful was one aspect of subsistence but knowing, too, what technologies could be used to collect those resources was also essential. In the field of anthropology, technology is defined as the knowledge people hold about collecting materials or resources, making tools, practising their skills, or making art. Prior to contact with newcomers, Yukon Indigenous peoples developed the technology and the tools using materials from their environments to develop the technology and the tools that enabled them to hunt, fish, and gather in their lands. Today, people continue to hunt, fish, and gather, but use modern tools and technology, which they have adapted to suit their needs.
Throughout Yukon, Indigenous people used bows and arrows and spears to hunt big game. As noted in Chapter 2, stone, bone, and copper were used for points for the arrows and the spears. The style of these tools varied depending on the particular people and their location. For instance, in some areas of Yukon near local copper sources, copper was used to make knives and projectile points (Cooper 2011:262; McClellan 1987).
Many people hunted caribou in the late fall in Yukon and one of the most common ways to do so was to build caribou fences, which were used to corral the caribou into an area where they could be easily killed. Caribou fences were often found in heavily treed areas and could stretch from two to four kilometres in length (Gotthardt and Thomas 2007; Le Blanc 2007; McClellan 1987). The trees that would make the fence were felled and shaped with stone adzes in earlier years and then later with steel axes (Gotthardt and Thomas 2007). Moses Tizya remembers two kinds of fences, one for winter and one for summer (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:90). The remains of caribou fences can be seen in many areas throughout Yukon.
Once a hunter had enough meat to support his family over the winter, it would be stored in a food cache. A cache, in this context, is a place where a large collection of winter food would be stored so that a family could access it during times when it was more difficult to hunt, fish, and gather. (In other contexts, a cache is a hidden or inaccessible place used to protect foodstuffs from other people or animals.) In Yukon, two types of caches were commonly built: above-ground and below-ground, the latter being used for storing berries (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009:281). While people no longer use caches, many people continue stock their freezers in the fall with meat that will feed themselves and their families throughout the winter.
Trapping provided food for Indigenous peoples in Yukon, as well as furs and other materials used to make clothing and tools. Different animals were trapped, including beaver, muskrats, marten, wolves, marmots, ground squirrels, and rabbits. Two ways that fur-bearing animals were trapped were through snares and deadfalls (McClellan 1987). To make a snare, people would use babiche (a cord made of rawhide or sinew) to braid a rope, which they would then tie in a way that allowed the rope to remain open until an animal passed through (Legros 2007; McKennan 1965:39). A deadfall was made by creating a pile of logs that would collapse and break an animal’s back when the animal touched the bait that was placed inside (Legros 2007). Both methods were used for many years even after fur traders introduced steel traps in Yukon (Gotthardt and Thomas 2007) and trapping continues to be a popular activity in Yukon.
Fish was a staple of Yukon Indigenous people’s diets, and many groups had seasonal fish camps where families would stop during their seasonal round. In the larger fish camps, families would set up fish traps or set nets in order to catch fish. Fish traps were usually placed in shallow rivers or streams and funnelled fish in one direction then prevented them from swimming back out again with sharp poles placed at the entrance (Gotthardt and Thomas 2007; McClellan 1987). Once fish were caught in the traps they were either speared or caught in a dip net (Legros 2007:208–212; McClellan 1987; Osgood 1971:66–67). In other places nets made of babiche were set across rivers or under ice to catch many fish at once (Legros 2007:209; McClellan 1987). People used stone net sinkers to make the nets sink to the depths required to catch fish (Gotthardt and Thomas 2007). Fishing hooks and gaffs (a fish hook with a handle used for catching large fish) were also used to catch fish (Hebda et al. 2012). Fish hooks were made out of a variety of materials including bone, antler, native copper, and modified birchwood (Legros 2007). Fishing continues to be a popular activity today and numerous community and individual fish camps remain around Yukon in favourite fishing spots.
Travel was an essential part of Yukon Indigenous people’s way of life, so technologies that helped people move from one location to another more easily were important and diverse. In the summer, birchbark canoes (Osgood 1971:79–81) and dug-out canoes, rafts, and moose-skin boats were used to move up and down the river highways (Legros 2007:219, 236; McClellan 1987). In times of high water, such as during spring break-up, travel was difficult and temporary rafts might be constructed to help people cross rivers or creeks.
In the winter, people used snowshoes, as well as dog sleds and toboggans, to get from one place to another. Legros writes the following about snowshoes and their use in Yukon: “Short ones were used on Indigenous roads on which the snow had been packed by frequent travel while long ones were used to open trails that had been abandoned for several months, or else to leave the beaten path in order to pursue or flush out game” (Legros 2007:196; Osgood 1971:81–82). Men and women both participated in the making of snowshoes: men “formed the wooden frame and laced the centre with heavy babiche or rawhide netting [and] women usually cut the babiche and did the finer netting of the toe and heel sections” (McClellan 1987:149). Toboggans made of both skin and wood were used to help carry large loads across long distances (Legros 2007).
As Yukon’s Indigenous peoples travelled often, the containers—baskets and bags—they used to gather and store their foodstuffs needed to be light and portable. Nevertheless, people often took time to decorate them. McClellan tells us that, “rigid or semi-rigid containers were of wood, bark, horn, antler, and basketry; bags were of hide, guts, fish skin, and other animal parts” (1975:279). Mishler and Simeone provide information on how birchbark baskets were made: “Raw birchbark is harvested by Han women and men in spring or early summer from select traditional areas along the banks of the Yukon River at a time when the bark is full of sap” (Mishler and Simeone 2004:193). Different groups made baskets in different styles; even within a group, different shapes and sizes were used for cooking, food storage, and gathering (McClellan 1975:280). In the past, bags made of animal skins were used for both food storage and cooking, as described in the next section. Other types of bags were used to carry animals that had been snared, for example, such as netted game bags (McClellan 1975).
- The making of babiche was described by McKennan in The Chandalar Kutchin, Arctic Institute of North America Technical Paper No. 17: “The women make babiche by cutting wet rawhide into thin strips the width of which varies with the intended use; namely fine babiche for snowshoe netting, coarse for toboggan lashings…” (McKennan 1965:39). ↵