vanished classical first nation architecture reveals rich history

It was a hot, dry, sunny day in 1977 when I found the ruined remains. At the edge of the grassy clearing, along the bank of Village Creek in the…

It was a hot, dry, sunny day in 1977 when I found the ruined remains.

At the edge of the grassy clearing, along the bank of Village Creek in the southwest Yukon, hewn log planks were randomly scattered in the brush and protruding from the creek bank.

This confirmed my worst fears, that some of Yukon’s finest First Nation architecture had been destroyed by human action.

On previous visits to the site, my attention had focused on the standing remains left at the old site of the village of Neskatahéen on the Tatshenshini River, two kilometres or so from Dalton Post.

In 1972, another student and I had made a simple sketch map of some of the features at the site.

I had learned of the damage to the site from various individuals.

The bulldozed remains of several log cabins were still evident in the nearby site of Dalton Post, which seemed to support the stories that, in the 1960s, a small exploration company looking for copper exposures in the nearby mountains had recklessly flattened some of the historic buildings to make way for a camp or parking lot.

The timbers were, as I recall, carefully flattened planks which had been shaped with hand tools, broad axe, or adze, from locally procured timber.

They exemplified perhaps the most articulate examples of aboriginal construction in the Yukon.

There are some intriguing photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century, taken by gold rush stampeders and government geologists, which reveal the fine construction of a dozen or so log buildings in the style of the longhouses of the Chilkat people of the Alaskan coast.

It took a lot of work for the builders to gather the wood, shape and split the large timbers with hand tools, and erect the structures, which reveal much about the community, and the trade system that supported and made it possible.

They were large rectangular structures; the front perspective of the best of these structures were made from carefully squared horizontally placed eight-metre-long planks that slotted into four metre-long upright timbers that were positioned at each corner, and, which extended a metre or so above the roofline.

The side walls were similarly assembled, but to allow for greater length, some of these structures had additional upright posts midway from front to back, to allow for another row of planks to be installed.

The pitch of the roof was shallow, a massive front facade. Positioned in the centre of the roof peak was a large smoke hole, around which a skeletal wooden frame was constructed.

Most, but not all, of the buildings had only a wooden door, accessible from a raised platform, on the front façade, though  one photo taken in the early days reveals a building with several windows.

One photograph shows a building of similar design, with the familiar plank façade, roof line and smoke hole, but the side walls appeared to be made of logs left in the round.

One illustration of an interior portrays what appears to be a wooden platform or floor constructed around a large central fire pit.

I conjure up images of the dim, smoky interior with an open fire situated in the centre of the space and smoke gently rising through the opening in the roof.

Members of one or more families may have occupied the space around this fire.

At Klukwan and other places along the coast, the construction of such houses reached a high art, which was mirrored simply in the examples at Neskatahéen. In the large old coastal structures, several related families lived together, each having its own defined area within.

I wonder whether the smaller Yukon versions were utilized in a similar fashion.

The buildings represent the extension of Chilkat Tlingit influence into the Yukon.

The Chilkat exercised a monopoly over trade from the coast into the Yukon and enforced that control aggressively until 1890, when the first Europeans came into the area.

Neskatahéen was an important trade centre not only with the coastal people along the Lynn Canal, but also with those of the lower Tatshenshini and Dry Bay.

Neskatahéen was a bi-cultural and bi-lingual community, where extensive intermarriage between the Tlingit of the coast and the Southern Tutchone people of the interior cemented trading links between specific families.

In early times, there was an active exchange of goods between the two groups.

From the interior, various raw and finished furs, lichen (which was used as a dye), goat wool, copper, and perhaps even obsidian from nearby sources, were traded for eulachon fish and oil, cedar boxes and dentalia.

Later, the Chilkat added a variety of European trade goods to their inventory of exchange items. This trade network dwindled after Jack Dalton broke the monopoly over the Chilkat Pass in the 1890s, and was largely finished off by the events surrounding the Klondike Gold Rush.

Because of the abundant supply of salmon in the tributaries nearby, hundreds of people, including those from as far away as Hutshi and Aishihik would assemble to exploit the annual salmon runs on Village and Klukshu creeks.

Even today, this area is an important source of food for the people who live in the region.

In 2004, I had the privilege of participating in a summer camp for First Nation youth, where the technique of gaffing salmon was demonstrated and tried out by the excited crowd of young people.

By 1890, Neskatahéen had probably reached its zenith as an important population and trade centre.

The extended network of communities down the Tatshenshini River was fading, and the events of the gold rush and the 20th century had yet to leave their marks.

Later, the presence of a white trading post nearby diminished the presence of the original community.

Restrictions imposed by the Canadian government over the years to ensure sovereignty, followed by the establishment of Kluane Game Sanctuary, limited the access to resources from this community.

Further erosion of its importance occurred when the Alaska Highway was built, and communities gravitated to that newly created corridor.

By the 1960s, no one lived at Nesketahin anymore. Unpopulated and essentially unprotected, it was vulnerable and exposed to the elements and human intrusion, and the magnificent old long houses had probably disappeared, survived by a couple of structures built in the 20th century, whose declining shells still stand at the site.

The place, now known by the Southern Tutchone form — Shäwshe (which sounds something like Shaw-shay) is recognized by land claims and is in a protected area along the newly designated Tatshenshini heritage river.

While the Tat continues to erode the bank near the village, its memory and the wonderful buildings that once stood there, will not be forgotten.

As for my visit in 1977? It was cut short by a grizzly bear, who taught me to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

Just Posted

Lorraine Kuhn is seen with one of the many volleyball teams she coached. (Photo submitted by Sport Yukon)
The Yukon Sports Hall of Fame inducts the late Lorraine Kuhn

Lorraine Kuhn became the newest member of the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame for her work in growing volleyball amongst other sports

File Photo
A Yukon judge approved dangerous offender status for a man guilty of a string of assaults in 2020.
Yukon judge sentences dangerous offender to indefinite prison term

Herman Peter Thorn, 51, was given the sentence for 2020 assaults, history of violence

Crystal Schick/ Yukon News A former residential school in the Kaska Dena community of Lower Post will be demolished on June 21. Crystal Schick/ Yukon News
Lower Post residential school demolition postponed

On June 21, the old residential school in Lower Post will be demolished and new ground on a multi-cultural centre will be broken

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced 29 new COVID-19 cases on June 19 and community transmission among unvaccinated individuals. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs record-high 29 new COVID-19 cases

F.H. Collins prom attendees and some Porter Creek Grade 9 students are instructed to self-isolate as community transmission sweeps through unvaccinated populations

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read