Ice man secrets cometh

The discovery of a young man frozen inside the Tatshenshini glacier one decade ago triggered a lot of excitement - and raised many questions. Since then numerous scientific and cultural studies have been conducted on the

The discovery of a young man frozen inside the Tatshenshini glacier one decade ago triggered a lot of excitement – and raised many questions.

Since then numerous scientific and cultural studies have been conducted on the remains and possessions of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, who is believed to have died between 130 and 340 years ago.

This Friday and Saturday, some answers will be provided at a public meeting organized by the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations.

Scientists and community members will share what they’ve learned from the man.

It doesn’t matter that he cannot speak. Our stomach, our bones and our hair all have a story to tell, if we know how to listen.

The man’s bones indicate to scientists that he grew up on the coast and ate a seafood diet.

His hair says he ate meat inland in the months before his death.

And his stomach tells us he was heading from the coast back inland when he attempted to cross the glacier and perished.

His belongings say a lot, too. He was found with a gopher-skin cloak and a spruce-root rain hat.

Both possessions speak of the ties between the coastal Tlingit and their neighbours, the Southern Tutchone, who lived inland.

Elders in Haines Junction have studied the cloak and tried to reproduce it. It proved no easy feat. The cloak is made up of the pelts of nearly 100 gophers.

So community members spent a summer collecting gophers, and an autumn tanning hides.

In the end they produced a robe of their own. It’s not as big as the original. But it’s just about the right size for a child.

Elders who made it have given it to the young Dakwakada dancers of Haines Junction.

It’s fitting, says Chief Diane Strand. Just as the discovery of the ice man has helped connect the community to their past, the project has brought together the old and young today.

The cloak also struck a personal chord for Strand.

“My grandmother was really well known in Indian country of making really good gopher-skin robes,” she said. “A lot of her robes were traded. For me, it’s a really nice tidbit.”

The connection between coast and land was important to her grandmother. That’s why Strand has a Tlingit name, although she is Southern Tutchone.

In the old days, it was not uncommon for the neighbouring peoples to speak both languages.

The US-Canada border changed things. Trade and marriage ties between coastal and inland people began to weaken.

The spruce-root hat found near the man serves as a reminder of how strong those bonds once were.

And, to understand how the hat was made, community members from Haines Junction needed to take a trip to Klukwan on the coast to study the local tradition of weaving wood into limpet-shaped, waterproof rain hats.

Again, the original was impossible to replicate.

“This hat was just so well made for the time period. It’s just a work of art,” said Strand.

Yet the hat was for work, not ceremony. “It’s a rain hat. Your head is not going to get wet,” said Strand.

“These two pieces really signify the connection between the coastal and inland people and how connected we really are.”

What’s all the more remarkable is that both hat and cloak are believed to be about 500 years old, predating the man by about 150 to 300 years.

This suggests both may have been family heirlooms.

The man was originally believed to have been 500 years old. Confusion was produced by the discrepancy in age between him and his hat and cloak.

After the tests on the man’s remains were completed, he was cremated in 2001 and his ashes were scattered on the glacier.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from the man’s discovery is that he has 17 living relatives, discovered through genetic tests.

They are all invited to next weekend’s gathering as guests of honour.

Tests also show the man belonged to the Wolf and Eagle clans. “What that tells us is that our matrilineal line has really strong integrity,” said Strand.

It may even be possible to learn the man’s name through the oral histories of his living relatives, said Strand.

That’s a future project.

Death was known to meet those who crossed the glacier while migrating between coast and inland. Old songs and stories speak of the narrow window of time in the autumn when the crossing is safe, before bad weather sets in, said Strand.

Research has uncovered details about the man’s final days and how he died. To hear them, you’ll have to make the trip to Haines Junction this weekend.

Public lectures begin Friday evening and continue Saturday afternoon. They’re to be held at the St. Elias Convention Centre. There’s also a community feast planned Saturday evening. For details, call 634-4015.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.