First Nation history’s Pied Piper

Surrounded by a swarm of native children on the beach in Carcross, Catharine McClellan "sure got excited" about a boring old rock.

Surrounded by a swarm of native children on the beach in Carcross, Catharine McClellan “sure got excited” about a boring old rock.

It’s one of Doris McLean’s favourite memories of the woman who gave Yukon First Nations a written history.

McClellan, known affectionately as Kitty, passed away at her retirement community in New Hampshire on March 3.

She was 88.

“There were seven or eight of us children walking with Kitty on the beach that day,” said McLean, remembering the woman she admired.

“And she picked up this rock and said, ‘Look, children, look what we found—you know this is precious?’”

McClellan was holding up an arrowhead.

“She said, ‘Imagine your ancestors shooting a duck here, or maybe a moose,” said McLean.

“And afterwards, us kids thought, ‘Gee, poor Kitty got so excited about that rock.’

The next time McLean saw “that rock” was at the Museum of Man in Ottawa.

McClellan first came to the territory in 1947 as an anthropology undergrad from the University of California.

“At that time it was unusual for people to be interested in aboriginal history,” said friend and colleague Julie Cruikshank from BC.

But McClellan’s professor and mentor Frederica de Laguna had worked in Alaska, and sparked her young student’s interest in the North.

“When she came to this country, she was really awful friendly,” said Tagish elder Ida Calmegane.

“And every time she came, she brought little gifts, like candy or chocolate.

“The little kids used to follow her around like the Pied Piper.”

McClellan learned to speak both Tagish and Tlingit.

“And this fascinated my grandma,” said Calmegane.

“Sometimes when Kitty was talking she’d make a mistake and laugh, but by the end she knew the language well.”

It was such a novelty for the elders to hear this tall, young woman with remarkable blue eyes speaking the language, said McLean.

Cultural traditions prohibited McClellan from visiting elders alone, so she took McLean along as a young companion.

“I got to sit there and listen to all the stories as Kitty recorded them,” she said.

“And I’m very grateful to Kitty because she preserved our history and culture.”

The flow of oral history was interrupted when First Nations were thrown in residential schools, and forced to speak and write in English, said Whitehorse Native Women’s Circle executive director Ingrid Johnson.

“That’s why (McClellan’s) written records are really valuable,” she said.

“These are some of the best resources we have as researchers working today, because there’s so much detail.”

McClellan even recorded all the old songs, said McLean.

“And I have some of them on tape—she’s given me a lot of bounty over the years.”

When she first started visiting the Yukon, there weren’t many nonnatives around, added McLean.

“We didn’t see anyone except maybe the storekeeper and the postmaster.

“And Kitty was so loving and treated everyone with so much respect—it gave me a vision of how another race of people were.

“And I carried that through my life, that there are good people of all races.”

Through the 1950s, McClellan visited the territory every summer and she kept returning regularly through the ‘70s and sporadically thereafter, said Cruikshank.

Her books about Yukon and Alaskan First Nations include My Old People Say, an Ethnographic Survey of the Southern Yukon Territory, and Part of the Land, Part of the Water (1987).

She also wrote a book commissioned by what was then the Council of Yukon Indians for use in schools, said Cruikshank.

Although her principal goal was to record ethno-history, McClellan ended up gathering hundreds of stories from elders, and even from the kids.

“We didn’t want to be beat by the elders, so we told Kitty stories too,” said McLean with a laugh.

“I remember telling her where the porcupine lived, and where the rabbits lived—we mostly made it all up—and she took it all down.”

In the last few years, McClellan focused on documenting all the stories she’d recorded, said Cruikshank.

“The most important thing for her was getting these done—it preyed on her mind.”

In 2007, My Old People’s Stories, A Legacy for Yukon First Nations was published, with support form the Yukon heritage branch.

And all the recorded materials McClellan was unable to publish went to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, said Cruikshank.

“She wanted them in Canada, so they were accessible to people in the Yukon.”

McClellan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, also donated her library to the Yukon Archives, said former archivist Linda Johnson.

“It speaks to her generosity and love for the Yukon,” she said.

Some younger people question McClellan’s work, said Calmegane.

“But Kitty had elders check everything she wrote and she had a tape recorder.”

Calmegane’s grandmother had so much respect for McClellan, she adopted her and gave her a native name.

“It was my name also,” said Calmegane.

“My mom called her a sister, and, in the ‘90s, we went and visited her in Wisconsin, where she lived.”

McClellan never forgot her Yukon family.

She sent countless cards and letters to the friends she made, until the end of her life.

“As I grew up and all through my married life I was always in contact with Kitty,” said McLean.

“We not only knew her—we loved her.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at