Last weekend, I learned how to trap and skin a gopher.
At least I watched a demonstration on the big screen at the winter event hosted by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, March 13 to the 15 in Haines Junction. I’ve skinned a beaver before (poorly I might add), but never gopher.
It was one of the spinoff activities arising from the Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi discovery that occurred a decade ago on a decaying glacier, high in the rocky peaks of Tatshenshini Alsek Park in British Columbia, just below the boundary of the Southwest Yukon.
Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, which, translated from the Southern Tutchone language, means “long ago man, found,” was discovered by three British Columbia men during a hunting trip in August of 1999. Sensing they had discovered something unusual, they abandoned their hunting plans, hiked out of the mountains and drove to Whitehorse, where they reported the find.
What ensued has become one of the most interesting journeys of historical discovery and co-operation that ever happened in this part of Canada. Because of the location of the find, the ensuing rediscovery of this man became a negotiated collaboration between the government of British Columbia and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, on whose traditional territory the find was made.
The project became a blend of traditional values and modern science. Rather than claiming ownership of the find, the First Nation shouldered the responsibility for the stewardship of this remarkable discovery. Over the next few years, they embarked upon a widespread program of consultation and information sharing.
The community and the elders were consulted to determine the most appropriate and respectful way in which to treat this ancient ancestor. For the First Nation, this became a ground-breaking partnership with the provincial government, in which it assumed an important role in the determination of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi’s fate.
The First Nation has the responsibility for ceremonies and the final disposition of the remains. As well, they direct the interpretation of the who, what, where and when of this individual, and take the lead on land-based site monitoring and artifact reproductions, which is where the demonstration of skinning gophers comes into the picture.
Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi was found with a number of artifacts and pieces of clothing, one of which was a gopher skin robe. One of the projects undertaken by the First Nation was a replication of the ancient robe by a group of community elders.
The British Columbia government, in the form of archaeologists, took on the responsibility for the respectful scientific investigation of the remains. They were responsible for the temporary care of the remains, seeking scientific proposals, and negotiating research agreements, tracking the samples and providing conservation treatment for the artifacts that were recovered.
The result appears, from the experiences shared during the weekend event, to have been both productive and rewarding for all involved.
Using DNA research and pollen analysis, and other forensic tools, scientists have been able to extract all kinds of illuminating information about Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi and his life before he died.
During the various presentations, we learned that Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi was a male, between 165 and 173 centimetres in height, between 18 and 19 years of age, and in good health. There was no forensic evidence of a cause of death, so it is believed that he may have succumbed to exposure in a late-summer snow storm, or fallen into a crevasse.
Analysis of pollen and other microscopic particles recovered from his digestive tract tells us what he ate in the three days before his death. We learned that some time in the late summer, he departed from the coast on his fateful final journey after having consumed a meal containing beach asparagus, a plant typically found in coastal saltwater marshes. Radiocarbon testing tells us he died 200 years ago, give or take a few decades.
Stable isotope analysis of his bones tell us he grew up eating a diet of marine mammals, so is believed to have been a coastal inhabitant. Similar analysis of his hair tells us that in the months before his death, he had lived in the interior, eating a diet typical of the Southwest Yukon.
Analysis of his clothing revealed that the robe he wrapped around himself was made of gopher skin and a small bag he carried was made from beaver, while the thongs found on these garments came from moose and whale sinew. The hat he wore was typical of those woven from spruce root in the coastal Tlingit style, and came with an inside headband and leather chin strap.
The community has undertaken workshops to replicate these clothing items in the style and method of the originals.
One of the most interesting aspects of the entire project was the Community DNA study that was undertaken. Almost 250 first citizens from various Yukon and Alaskan communities donated blood samples for DNA comparison with Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi. For this purpose, mitochondrial DNA was used, which allows verification of ancestry through the matrilineal ancestors.
This is particularly appropriate in this case, where kinship is determined through the maternal line.
From this study 17 individuals were confirmed as relatives. We know that he was a member of the Wolf or Eagle clan, and that several of the elders involved in making decisions about the way project proceeded were direct relatives.
The key staff members from the First Nation who were involved in the implementation of the recovery project were from the Crow clan, which means that their involvement in the practical aspects of this project was also, according to traditional practices, entirely appropriate.
The DNA research has been a scientific confirmation of something that the people have long known, that the traditional ties between the coastal Tlingit and the people of the Southwest Yukon transcend artificial political boundaries.
The involvement of the First Nation in the management of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi is something of a precedent in this field of research and one that should emulated.
About the same time that the “ice man” was being recovered from his snowy grave in the Tatshenshini hills, controversy was raging over the remains of another ancient man that had been uncovered from the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, a few years earlier. The disposition of these remains became embroiled in acrimonious dispute and litigation between the Umatilla tribe and the scientific community.
What a difference it makes when groups with differing objectives are able to reach a state of mutual accommodation in such a situation.
This is why learning to skin a gopher was as important to the treatment of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi as was DNA research.
Michael Gates is a local
historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.