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Yukon elder celebrates new book and exhibit

The young, redheaded student anthropologist sat overlooking the fish traps at Klukshu making observations.

The young, redheaded student anthropologist sat overlooking the fish traps at Klukshu making observations.

After watching this student for a period of time, Marge Jackson asked her, “Are you going to come and help me?”

She put the student, Beth O’Leary, to work hauling salmon. The job eventually earned O’Leary a Southern Tutchone name which, roughly translated, means “Fish-Packin’ Mama.”

That was the beginning of a 30-year relationship between the two women.

As part of celebrating women’s history month, Jackson and Dr. O’Leary were busy talking about Jackson’s new book, My Country is Alive. The book shares its name with a new exhibit at the Yukon Archives.

Both are based upon Jackson’s life and her award-winning beadwork.

Jackson is one of a number of First Nation elders whose stories and personal histories have been chronicled in collaboration with anthropologists such as Catharine McClellan, Julie Cruikshank and Frederica de Laguna.

Jackson is a Southern Tutchone elder who was born nearly 90 years ago near present day Haines Junction, during the Spanish flu epidemic that spread rapidly after the First World War.

She survived, but lost her paternal grandparents to the dreaded disease.

She grew up speaking the Southern Tutchone language, and following a yearly life cycle that took her all over the land around Champagne and Klukshu in the southern Yukon.

Marge received a little formal education at Klukshu during the 1920s. Otherwise, she learned her life skills from living off the land.

A great deal of knowledge was passed down to her by the elders of her community, including the skill of sewing moose hide clothing and doing beadwork.

During the construction of the Alaska Highway, she started to sell her work.

Since then, she has become recognized as a beadwork artist and has won many awards for her skill.

Today, she continues to sell her work and tell her stories to people from around the world who come to visit her at Klukshu.

O’Leary, a cultural anthropologist from New Mexico State University who has worked with Jackson for many years, first came to the Yukon as a young student in 1977.

Southern Tutchone culture is rich in oral tradition — the means by which knowledge of the land and social rules are transmitted from one generation to the next.

To Southern Tutchone people, the landscape is a cultural dictionary, and each elder is a volume in the encyclopedia of Southern Tutchone wisdom.

As anthropologist Julie Cruikshank pointed out, in a highly-mobile culture that moved around the landscape according to the season and availability of resources, the knowledge of the resources, where they were, and the techniques needed to exploit them was as valuable as gold.

It was all passed along by personal experience and word of mouth from one generation to the next.

Youngsters who helped elders with practical every day jobs were rewarded with stories.

When I asked her why she undertook this project, she told me she wanted to leave something for young people to remember.

And there will be a lot to pass along.

Growing up on the land, Southern Tutchone people learned about the behaviour and movements of the animals.

They learned about all the plants and their characteristics.

They also passed along the names of the places in the landscape.

Each place and name has a story that contains part of the knowledge essential to the Southern Tutchone way of life.

Contained in the place names, stories, dances and songs is the cultural code of a people and Jackson is one of the elders helping to keep the culture alive.

The current book project began back in 2002 when O’Leary started recording Jackson’s narratives electronically.

This also led to the production of the current written work and exhibit that is on display at the Yukon Archives.

Illustrated with photos of her family dating back many years, Jackson’s book recounts her growing up early in the 20th century, and describes her family.

After Jackson’s father died, her mother remarried to Big Jim Fred, who was born at Noogaayík on the Tatshenshini River.

English explorer Edward Glave photographed big Jim’s mother during a trip into the Tatshenshini country in 1890, and the picture was published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of New York.

Contained in her story are her memories of learning the skills necessary for survival — setting gopher snares, trapping, and following the seasonal round of activities in the southwest Yukon.

Jackson also describes the art of tanning and sewing moose hide.

In her book, there is a detailed description of the process of making moccasins, complete with colour photos depicting the process.

The book also contains a series of narrative stories as told by her, including the story of Crow and His Fat Wife, which explained the peculiar alternate striping of quartz veins in rocks found in the area of Klukshu.

Jackson and O’Leary also demonstrated a song that accompanies the story.

Some of the stories told by First Nations, like the story of the Girl who Married the Bear, have been described by anthropologist Catharine McClellan as being as eloquent in their oral rendering in Southern Tutchone as any of the literature created by William Shakespeare.

But many of the stories Jackson tells contain elements of past historical events and cannot be dismissed merely as interesting tales.

At Bear Creek, just beyond Haines Junction, are old lines of rock running horizontally across the hillside. They are visible from the Alaska Highway as you drive past.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the current route of the highway would have been on the bottom of a lake that was created when the Lowell Glacier advanced and blocked off the drainage of the Alsek River.

Scientists, using their own lines of inquiry are frequently finding that their observations confirm and correspond with the traditional stories told by First Nations people.

If you want to learn more about Jackson’s life and stories, you can pick up a copy of her book, My Country is Alive for $40, by contacting her at: Box 5347, Haines Junction, Yukon Y0B 1L0.

Better yet, why not visit her at Klukshu next summer?

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