Introduction – Why This Book Is Necessary

Growing up I was taught that our people had always been here. That Yukon First Nations were the first peoples here and that we will always be the original people. I think as I continued to grow and learn it became apparent and is now solidified in my mind and heart, that Yukon First Nations are resilient, masters of adaption, and have the strength and perseverance to overcome over 100 years of colonization and start down the path of reclaiming their self-determination. The changes in this amazing part of the world over the last 100 years are mind-boggling. We have Elders who were born on the land, speaking their First Nation language, who are now on Facebook. We have gone through a period of such oppression that it literally wiped out parts of our culture and now we are witnessing the reclamation of ceremony, arts, language, and the revitalization of Yukon First Nation cultures.
Today we have pride in our culture, in our ways of knowing and doing. Today we celebrate Yukon First Nation people in many ways, and we hold our culture up for our younger generations to embrace and for others to learn about. Festivals like the Adäka Cultural Festival, which happens every summer, are great examples of the progress being made. Today we see Yukon First Nations passing their own laws, creating language revitalization programs and plans, succeeding at economic development and paving the way for our future generations. Today we see our many levels of government trying to work together for all of our children tomorrow.
This book is meant to share a part of the journey that brought us to this point. It is meant to be an example of how we can integrate multiple ways of knowing and doing and work together to present a shared history and collaborative future.
– Tosh Southwick


Recently, Yukon, Canada, has experienced exciting growth in First Nations cultural revival as well as an influx of newcomers brought on by the growth of the industrial, tourism, and education sectors. These newcomers are interested in learning about Yukon First Nations’ diverse and complex cultures. Students of Yukon culture and history have traditionally been regaled with stories of the fur trade, the gold rush, the creation of the Alaska Highway, and the territory’s natural history. Yet many students studying Yukon’s First Peoples’ history— and visitors and tourists wanting to learn more about the cultural landscape of the territory—have been hard-pressed to find a contemporary overview of information related to Indigenous ethnography, culture, and history. Often students are presented with materials that contain outdated terminology and do not discuss some of the contemporary changes to Indigenous self-determination and artistic forms of expression.

This book is intended to be a starting point from which readers can begin their studies of the diverse Indigenous cultural groups that make up Yukon. For some readers, this book may be their first introduction to Yukon’s diverse Indigenous peoples. For others, particularly those who are Indigenous or who have lived in Yukon for a long time, some of the information in this book may already be familiar. While this book is primarily an anthropological and historical overview, we hope that by presenting a range of material from local First Nations, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians that every reader will come away having learned something new about Yukon’s founding cultures, traditions, languages, history, and governance. We (an archaeologist, a linguistic anthropologist, and a First Nation educator and leader) bring varied anthropological, historical, and Indigenous perspectives to this volume. We have attempted to use accessible language and an anthropological lens to provide a picture of cultural persistence and change by highlighting the cultural traditions, histories, and modern-day practices of Yukon’s Indigenous peoples.

A key component of the book is the inclusion of interviews with Indigenous and non-Indigenous anthropologists and historians who have conducted collaborative work with Indigenous peoples. We have asked them to describe, in their own words their career highlights, the importance of collaboration in their work, and what makes Yukon special to them. Many of these researchers have paved the way for us and for young scholars wishing to pursue research with, and for, First Nation and Indigenous communities. They have introduced us to communities and community members, provided us with ethical guidelines, supported our research, and mentored us as we moved forward and now carry on with our own work. These interviews are intended to illustrate the long-standing tradition of collaborative anthropology in Yukon. We hope that future researchers in Yukon and elsewhere might look to Yukon as a model for respectful practices in collaborative anthropology and history.

As well, the inclusion of a current land claims section, explaining in plain language how the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) works in the real world, is a useful resource for those who are new to the UFA. Yukon is unique in its varied governance systems and, understandably, other Indigenous groups throughout the world look to Yukon to learn about land claims and how the UFA is being implemented to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples. Because of the UFA, governance in Yukon looks very different than in the rest of Canada. Many of the issues that other Indigenous nations are facing are still present in Yukon, but the tools to deal with them are different—and many people would argue more effective—because the UFA puts control of Indigenous lives and governance in Indigenous hands.

Many visitors to Yukon normally visit some of the key tourist stops along the Alaska Highway, while others will venture to more remote locations, hoping to learn more about the territory, its people and its past. We hope that ECHO will give these latest newcomers a better sense of Yukon’s history, including who its Indigenous peoples are, as well as more information on their cultural practices. For students, this book is meant to help them learn about people and parts of Yukon that they are not familiar with. The territory is large, with many cultural groups, and we’ve attempted to present information about each group.

The chapters are arranged chronologically. In this chapter (Chapter 1), we discuss terminology and provide definitions for some of the more frequently used phrases. We identify and discuss the 14 Yukon First Nations and other Indigenous groups in the territory. In Chapter 2 we provide a First Nation creation story and then, using archaeological examples, briefly outline the movement of peoples across the Bering Land Bridge and into Yukon during the last ice age. We also describe some of the more significant Yukon archaeological sites and introduce the archaeology researchers who have worked in the territory.

In Chapter 3, we present anthropological research conducted in Yukon over the twentieth century, discuss the value of oral traditions and introduce the various language and cultural groups within the territory, and highlight prominent researchers who have contributed to our understanding of Yukon’s Indigenous cultures.

Chapter 4 presents Yukon’s Indigenous people’s historical relationship with newcomers. We focus on colonial relationships that began in the mid-nineteenth century with the fur trade and the whaling industry, then address how Indigenous peoples negotiated the influx of newcomers during the gold rushes at the turn of the century. This is followed by a discussion of the arrival of missionaries and the introduction of western religion and, later, the development of the Alaska Highway. Next, we turn to a discussion of federal influence on Indigenous peoples in the territory, particularly as it pertains to resettlement. Finally, we touch on the emergence of Yukon land claim movement.

In Chapters 5 and 6 we discuss Yukon’s Indigenous peoples in recent and contemporary times. Chapter 5 addresses the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, using examples that focus on how the agreement is put into practice in communities. We describe the differences between the Umbrella Final Agreement, a First Nation Final Agreement, and a Self-Government Agreement. Today, revitalization is manifested in an outpouring of artistic and cultural projects. Chapter 6 explores modern-day Indigenous art forms such as dance, music, poetry, storytelling, carving, and instrument-making.

We hope that you find this book informative and engaging and that it encourages students to continue to develop their interest in Indigenous studies of Yukon. For those who wish to learn more, we have added numerous footnotes and have suggested further readings at the end of each chapter.

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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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