The loss of the aboriginal family is synonymous with the loss of First Nations’ clan systems, says Champagne and Aishihik First Nation elder Chuck Hume.
A recent panel discussion for CBC’s The Current, held in Whitehorse earlier this month, looked at the startling statistics of broken families in Canada’s aboriginal populations.
Remembering, respecting and reviving clan structure within First Nations could help the problem, said the 69-year-old Hume, who has 22 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Traditionally, clan was family and the laws that supported the clan system protected the family structure, he said.
Hume remembers what life was like traditionally, before alcohol and residential school.
It was rare for a man to leave his wife or for him to play no role in his children’s lives, he said. Domestic violence was uncommon. In fact, it was forbidden.
“The father couldn’t lay a hand on the opposite clan,” said Hume. “You could not fight with your wife because if you struck your wife, you also struck the opposite clan. If there was any time that people found out that you were having problems, the village would deal with it and get you back together. It even came to stages where, what I gather, they tied you back to back for almost six months with leather tongs until you learned to get along. This is the truth. It is the way our people were. Once your wife was picked for you, that’s the one that you’re going to live with and probably die with.”
Chiefs and families would choose marital matches. Women, the keepers of the clan, would stay in their family’s village while men would leave their village for that of their wife.
Hume grew up in Dalton Post, a traditional village on the Tatshenshini River, just west of the Haines Highway.
He and his siblings were born in the bush there. About nine families made up the community.
“Dalton Post was a family structure,” said Hume. “Aunts and uncles, everyone, lived within the one community. Our people were one huge family.”
Hume is part of the grey whale clan and so the entire Dalton Post community was grey whale. Nesketahin, three kilometres away, belonged to the wolf house where his grandmother’s brother was a chief.
“We were basically raised by our grandparents in the old traditional method,” said Hume. “Your mother and father weren’t around a lot because they were out fending for the family and looking for food.”
Providing for the family was the main objective behind the “men’s stuff,” as he calls it.
“It was more the responsibility of the women to raise the children,” said Hume. “The father was, basically, the one that brought in the feed; did the hunting and trapping, fishing.”
Because of clan law, the father rarely disciplined his own children. If the men were out hunting or fishing, it was the mothers’ brothers who kept the children in line.
Store visits to Champagne only happened once or twice a year, he remembers. Mostly they lived off the land.
“Learning how to hunt, fish, trap – that’s the first thing you learn,” said Hume. “That was the better part of your education, what your grandparents taught you.”
Imaginary boundaries existed and were respected by each clan in the area, he said.
“I never used to hunt in the Takhini area or the Aishihik area,” said Hume. “The only area I could hunt was the Dalton Post area that belonged to our family. We looked after that. Each family had their own boundary.
“You had to respect all the other clans. You never spoke strongly about another clan. You left that business up to their families.”
But then gold seekers started poking around the North and life for Yukon First Nations began to change.
“When the gold rush came up there was people that were accessing a lot of alcohol,” said Hume. People started to break the laws of the clan system.
And there was little hope to correct it because soon after the gold rush “they stole our children,” he said.
“Men started fighting with their wives; there were kids being taken away and sent off to mission schools, and families left in terrible states,” said Hume. “It broke up a lot of the villages.”
Hume was six when he was taken away.
“All of our family were put into residential school,” he said. “Then after my dad got a job with the army (and) the military put a school in the Haines Junction area, we had military personnel teaching us our education.
“One was no better than the other,” Hume added with a chuckle.
Being taken away from the family and village meant fending for yourself, he said.
He caught pneumonia during his first year at the military school, an experience he’ll never forget.
“The army nurse kind of laughed at me. What she said was, ‘Turn the water taps on and give yourself a hot bath.’ I didn’t even know how to turn one on. You come from basic living off-the-land … It’s a total lifestyle change.”
First Nations’ family and clan structures were broken – no longer there to obey or be supported by.
And overall, with the loss of land and connection to it, men lost their purpose: providing for their families, making tools like knives, traps and fish nets, and teaching their sons how to do the same.
Residential schools separated children from the land and their traditions.
“You had to learn your place within the structure of the family,” said Hume of life before residential school. “When you’re being raised up, especially by your grandparents, you sit down and listen to what they have to say. That’s not taking place anymore. The younger generation is not listening to the elders. So you’re finding a lot of, I guess I’d say, wayward children getting raised and they’re not really paying attention to the old clan systems and what takes place within the clan system.
“We’re losing our language, we’re losing our culture, we’re losing our direction on the land.”
As an adult, Hume became one of the lucky ones.
“After mission school, the only thing that was left in us was to drink hardy and poison your life,” he said. “That happened a lot.”
Hume put himself through school and became an electrician for about 18 years. After that, he became a national park warden for more than 16 years.
“People really need to know what tests we were put through and to know how we came this far in life – we’ve lost a lot of our friends to alcohol,” Hume said. “Ninety per cent of the people that I hunted, fished and trapped with over the years – I’m the only one out there now.”
Hume credits his success and survival to the best education he ever received – the one his grandparents gave him.
These days Hume runs programming for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation for mission school survivors.
“I’ve been doing it for the past three years now,” he said. “You try and relate. You know the stories and the problems that everyone has. People keep it in their systems for too long and you have to start releasing that. You have to start talking about what took place when we were younger. That’s the only way. It’s hard. And there is a lot to do yet.
“But it’s quite important that these things get taught back to the younger generation. I’m doing it with my family. We’re pretty closely tied together because we know what it was like when we got split up.”
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