Chapter 3 – Ethnography and Traditional Lifeways
Before newcomers came to Yukon, the majority of Yukon’s Indigenous peoples travelled through their territory, stopping at various locales that were significant such as fishing, hunting, and gathering camps. Very few permanent dwellings were made at this time, but there were some exceptions. The pit houses found in the northern part of Yukon are an example of dwellings that were somewhat permanent (Thomas 2004). In these cases, the semi-subterranean houses were made of “split-wooden poles and insulated with moss” (Crow and Obley 1981:507), and families would return to them during hunting season in consecutive years. Another type of permanent dwelling are the Inland Tlingit matrilineage houses that were modeled after the homes of their Coastal Tlingit relatives.
Common non-permanent dwellings used in the southern and central parts of Yukon were large lean-tos that could fit two to six families (McClellan 1975:233–234, 236–237, 240–251). Each side was a framework of poles that connected to a ridgepole that was “about three to four metres long and about 2.5 metres high” (McClellan 1987:140). A variety of materials, such as hide, birchbark, or moss, were used to cover the framework of poles, and spruce boughs were laid on the dwelling floor for warmth. A fireplace was placed in the centre between the two halves of the lean-to (McClellan 1987:141).
In the central and northern Yukon, houses were often made of a framework of saplings, which were then covered with moose or caribou skins; these were also known as brush camps (Legros 2007:253; McClellan 1987). Similar to the lean-to houses of the southern Yukon, these caribou-hide houses would fit two families, who would take both the skins and the poles with them when they travelled (McClellan 1987). Gwich’in and Hän people also made houses out of moss during periods of reduced travel in the late fall and early winter (Crow and Obley 1981:506; Mishler and Simeone 2004:46). These houses were constructed on top of square pits in the earth using a series of poles and beams to support the framework (Mishler and Simeone 2004:46). A fireplace was placed in the centre and openings were left in the roof for the smoke to escape. Some dwellings were sturdier and lasted for a season, while others were designed to be put up and taken down as people travelled through their territories during their seasonal round. Today, individuals often set up camps, sometimes with non-permanent dwellings in areas where they continue to hunt, fish, and gather.
The Seasonal Round
The seasonal round, which included hunting, fishing, and gathering, was the most common subsistence pattern for Yukon’s Indigenous peoples. McClellan noted that, “in spite of local variations and specializations, all Yukon natives followed pretty much the same sequence of activities in getting food throughout the year” (McClellan 1987:152). Depending on the season, they would travel to specific places, such as good fishing lakes, hunting locations, or berry patches, to collect the locally abundant resources, such as foods, and materials for tools and shelters. They would sometimes trade these resources with other Indigenous groups in order to meet their needs. Information about the seasonal rounds of different Indigenous groups in Yukon has been documented by many anthropologists (for example see Gotthardt 1987; Legros 1981; McClellan 1987; Clark 1971; Mishler and Simeone 2004; Thomas 2003).