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Yukon Culture and History


There are eight distinct languages spoken by Yukon First Nation peoples: Tlingit and six Athapaskan languages - Upper Tanana, Gwitchin, Han, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Kaska and Tagish. Others, including Tahltan are less well represented but are also part of Yukon First Nations' cultural heritage.


Yukon First Nations elders and people have many stories and legends about the creation of earth and the first human inhabitants. These stories have been passed down from generation to generation, and are an important part of the Yukon First Nations culture.

Along with these stories, archaeologists theorize that the first people crossed a land bridge from Asia to northern Canada during the Pleistocene Ice Age between 10,000 to 25,000 years ago. This link between continents was estimated to be 2,400 kilometers wide. The growth of glaciers lowered sea levels and exposed portions of continental shelves which created this broad land bridge.

Parts of northern Alaska and Yukon remained ice-free during the last ice age and provided a haven for many animals and humans fleeing from colder regions. Archaeologists suggest early inhabitants of the Yukon hunted woolly mammoths, bison, horses and caribou. They lived in small family groups which traveled with the animals.

The earliest evidence of human activity was found in caves on the Bluefish River near Old Crow in northern Yukon. Stone tools and animal bones found at this site were estimated to be 20,000 years old.

The Athapaskan cultural and linguistic tradition to which most Yukon First Nations belong is more than 1,000 years old. An archaeological dig conducted near Old Crow unearthed a spring caribou hunting site 1,200 years old which has provided evidence about the culture of these early Athapaskans.

It is believed that Yukon First Nations people lived in small groups and followed a regular cycle of seasonal activities. They hunted caribou, moose and mountain sheep in spring and fall, and spent summers fishing for salmon. (The territory's name comes from the native name "Yu-kun-ah" for the great river that drains most of this area).

The lives of Yukon First Nations people have always been tied closely to the land. It is this connectedness to traditional lands that is at the heart of current land claims negotiations.

The first visitors to the northwest were Russian explorers who traveled along the Alaskan coast in the 18th century. Captain Vitus Jonasen Bering, a Dane in the Russian navy, explored the Alaskan coast in 1741. He sighted and named Mount St. Elias. His accounts of large numbers of sea otters and other furbearers encouraged the spread of the Russian fur trade into the Alaska area.

In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie travelled north down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic coast. He was told of another great river (the Yukon) on the other side of the mountains to the southwest. In 1825, Sir John Franklin, in search of the Northwest Passage, mapped the Arctic coastline from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to the Alaskan North Slope.

At this time, many Yukon First Nations groups were trading furs for tobacco, guns and other European goods. At first, the Tlingit people acted as intermediaries between other First Nations, Russian, American and British traders. Soon the Hudson's Bay Company and other independent American traders set up posts along Yukon rivers.

In the mid 1800s, reports about the northwestern part of the continent enticed the Hudson's Bay Company to move into the Yukon interior. They set up trading posts at Fort Frances (1842), Pelly Banks (1845), Fort Yukon (1847) and Fort Selkirk (1848).

The newcomers were not warmly welcomed. Fort Yukon challenged the Vuntut Gwitchin peoples' control of fur trading in the north, and Fort Selkirk trespassed on the coastal Tlingit monopoly in the south. The Tutchone eventually accepted the new traders. The Tlingits ransacked Fort Selkirk in 1852, driving the Hudson's Bay Company out of southern Yukon.

But most Yukon First Nations people were able to continue their semi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle through this period, incorporating trapping and trading into their yearly rounds.

In March 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States. Fort Yukon, at the mouth of the Porcupine River, was considered to be in American territory. The Hudson's Bay Company was forced to build a new trading post, Rampart House, further east on the Porcupine River.

Independent American traders moved into the Yukon shortly after, supplied by steamers which travelled up the Yukon River from St. Michael's on the Alaskan coast. Jack McQuesten and A.H. Mayo established posts at Fort Reliance, Stewart River and Forty Mile. Arthur Harper and Joseph Ladue built posts at Fort Selkirk and Sixty Mile.

American whalers began operating along Alaska's Arctic coast to Point Barrow in the 1850s. In 1889, they found an excellent winter harbour at Herschel Island in the Yukon's Arctic waters, and expanded their fisheries east to the Mackenzie Delta.

Hundreds of whalers wintered at Herschel Island from 1892-95 and many more traveled along the coast into the early 1900s. The whalers traded with Alaskan and Canadian Inuit for meat and furs. They also introduced alcohol and devastating diseases to the people of the North Slope. People are still struggling with this impact decades later.

Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries extended their interests into the Yukon from the Mackenzie River area in the 1860s. The Anglicans were more successful due to the efforts of Reverend Robert McDonald. He lived at Fort Yukon, Rampart House and Fort McPherson for more than 40 years from 1862, translating the Bible and hymn book into the Gwitchin language.

Bishop William C. Bompass was another long-serving Anglican missionary, building schools in many locations. He became known as the "Bishop who ate his boots" during one difficult and cold winter spell when game was scarce. He died at Carcross in 1906.

In the 1870s, gold prospectors drifted north into the Yukon from gold fields in British Columbia. Miners worked along the Stewart River and around Forty-Mile on the Yukon River until the big gold strike on Bonanza Creek in 1896.

George Carmack, Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie discovered a rich paystreak of gold in Bonanza Creek (a tributary of the Klondike River) on August 17, 1896. Miners from Forty-Mile swarmed to the area staking claims along the creek and connecting waterways before the end of the summer.

News of Klondike gold reached southern Canada and United States the next summer. Within months, thousands of hopeful goldseekers headed north. By 1898-99, Dawson City, at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, was home to 40,000 people. It grew into the largest city west of Winnipeg. Few of the newcomers were in time to stake claims, but many made fortunes as merchants catering the whims of the wealthy miners.

The gold rush had a dramatic impact on First Nations people. Large quantities of game were hunted along the rivers, and forest fires destroyed much of their habitat. Families were forced to travel long distances to obtain food and furs. The newcomers brought horses, rifles and new trade goods to the territory.

Some First Nations people found work for wages packing supplies for the miners or working as deckhands or woodcutters for the sternwheelers that traveled the rivers to Dawson City. Most lived apart from the newcomers. When the gold rush died, many First Nations people returned to trapping.

The Klondike gold discoveries made the settlement of the Alaska-Canada boundary dispute an urgent issue. A joint Anglo-American High Commission was established in 1889 to decide if any of the Pacific panhandle fell within Canada.

After five years of discussion, the British commissioner sided with the three American delegates and outvoted the two Canadians. In 1903, the panhandle was given to Alaska, and the Yukon was cut off from the Pacific Ocean.

More than $95 million was mined from the Klondike region between 1896-1903. However, the boom was shortlived. The easily extracted placer gold was depleted by the early 1900s and the Yukon's population dropped to 8,512 by 1911.

Hydraulic dredges kept larger mines profitable until the 1960s but needed far fewer workers. By 1921, the population of the Yukon had fallen below 5,000 and would not increase significantly until the Alaska Highway was built in 1942-43.

During the height of the Klondike gold rush, the Canadian federal government set up basic administrative structures in the Yukon. The territory was given the status of a separate political entity with an appointed legislative council in 1898.

The Royal Northwest Mounted Police served as customs officers, law enforcers, postmasters and welfare officers in the new territory.

Completed in 1900, the White Pass and Yukon railway connected Whitehorse, Yukon to Skagway on the Alaskan coast. Sternwheelers plied the Yukon and Stewart rivers carrying people and supplies between Whitehorse, Mayo and Dawson City.

Coal deposits were mined from Tantalus Butte at Carmacks on the Yukon River from the early 1900s, and a silver and lead mine at Keno Hill near Mayo went into production in 1913. These mines gave new life to the Yukon mining industry. But many Yukon people continued to hunt and trap through the 1920s and 1930s.

The building of the Alaska Highway in 1942-43 brought more than 30,000 U.S. Army personnel into the Yukon. A series of airstrips and a highway were built to transport war supplies to Alaska. Some Yukon First Nations people worked in the construction camps and Yukon women played an important role doing domestic work for the highway crews.

When the highway was completed, most of the Americans left but the road changed the territory forever. Sternwheelers were pulled from the water, and Yukon First Nations people who lived along rivers and lakes moved to communities along the highway.

The permanent population of the Yukon had almost doubled and continued to rise through the 1950s and 1960s. By 1950, most of the Yukon's economic activity was centred in Whitehorse so the capital was moved south from Dawson City in 1953.

Today the mineral industry forms the base of the Yukon's economy. Tourism, government services, retail trade, construction, and fur production also support the territory's economy.

The steamer ‘Seattle’ returned from Dawson City in November 1897 with $800,000 in drafts and securities and 35 lbs. of gold.

In 1898 about 25,000 gold-seekers hiked the Chilkoot Trail for the boomtown of Dawson City.

A gold nugget was unearthed in the Klondike that weighed over 72 ounces. Its value in 1898 was $1,158 - value today is well over $30,000.

One of the first women crossing the Chilkoot Trail in 1897 was Belinda Mulroney from Scranton, PA.

The 1,520 mile (2,446 km) Alaska Highway was constructed in eight months and twelve days in 1942.

Up to 200 people died shooting the Miles Canyon and Whitehorse rapids. The rapids were named because the spray resembled the manes of a herd of white horses. The rapids are now dammed, but the City of Whitehorse retains the name.

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