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.