Discovery of iceman’s living relatives keeps oral history alive

The discovery and scientific study of a 300-year-old iceman supports years of First Nations’ oral history, says Champagne/Aishihik Chief Diane…

The discovery and scientific study of a 300-year-old iceman supports years of First Nations’ oral history, says Champagne/Aishihik Chief Diane Strand.

Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, — Long Ago Person Found in southern Tutchone language — was found near a retreating glacier in Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in northwest British Columbia nine years ago.

That’s in the traditional territory of Champagne and Aishihik First Nation.

Now, DNA tests have confirmed some of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi’s relatives are from the First Nation.

The tests of 241 people from BC, Alaska and the Yukon found 17 living direct descendents, most of the Wolf clan.

This affirms the accuracy of First Nation traditional oral history, said Strand.

Science always needs to be able to prove what is right, but oral history can be just as important, she added.

“You don’t need to have science to say this is the way First Nation people have said for years and years it will be — our oral history is just as much a reaffirming tool as hard science,” said Strand.

“The fact that all of these people are Wolf or Eagle really does mean that our culture and oral history have integrity.”

The discovery will help keep oral stories about migration trails and glacier travel alive, she added.

The test results were released at a weekend conference in Victoria that brought scientists and First Nation leaders together to discuss the discovery and subsequent research.

A 15-person delegation from Champagne/Aishihik attended the conference along with several representatives from the Yukon government and other First Nations.

Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi was a young hunter who lived between 1670 and 1850, say scientists.

His death on the glacier might have been accidental.

The man was wearing a long coat made of dozens of gopher or squirrel pelts.

Among his possessions were a walking stick, a knife and spear thrower.

Half of his living relatives reside in the interior of the Yukon and the others on the coast, said Strand.

They all come from the same matrilineal descent, meaning all relatives have had the same female ancestor as Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi.

Scientists used mitochondrial DNA tests because it’s easier to do work in the female line.

“It’s a definitive way of looking at genealogy,” said Strand.

Relatives can be found in Little Salmon/Carmacks, Teslin, Kwanlin Dun and Carcross/Tagish First Nations.

There are many more relatives than the 17 volunteers, said Strand.

“If I had done the test and it came back that I was a relative, it doesn’t mean it’s just me: there are all of my siblings, all the females within my line, that means my mother and grandmother,” she said.

“And if you take my grandmother, then you have to think about her female siblings and their kids.

“You can go back quite a ways and the potential is that this could be quite large.”

Response from DNA volunteers has been enthusiastic, said Strand.

“Some are saying they’re really honoured, and that it’s a good connection between the coast and the interior,” she said.

“The biggest thing that came from this is our connection with the coastal people. A lot of people are saying, ‘We knew we came from the coast, we knew that we were related to people within Little Salmon/Carmarks or Champagne/Aishihik to Teslin and now science is confirming this.’”

First Nation leaders are discussing how Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi will be memorialized.

“From the beginning, we wanted to do things culturally and traditionally in the right manner and when Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi was found, we felt it was imperative we give him a proper burial,” said Strand.

But before the DNA testing, no one knew where he came from because he was found in a “bi-cultural” area, said Strand.

The Wolf, Eagle, Raven and Crow clans came together to organize a funeral potlatch, but it was decided to wait until scientists discovered what clan Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi came from.

Now that Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi has been traced to the Wolf Clan, preparations for a memorial potlatch are underway, said Strand.

Sixteen of the 17 relatives have been notified, but Strand declined to release the names.

It’s up to the individuals to come forward, she said.