Sometime in August, a long time ago, perhaps 160 to 300 years ago (we can’t be sure of the precise date), a young Chilkat Tlingit man, possibly of the Daḵl’aweidi clan, headed to the interior from what is now coastal Alaska, probably from the village of Klukwan, near modern-day Haines.
He was wearing a gopher-skin robe, definitely a product from, and suited to, the interior. The robe had been repaired with sinew of the blue whale. He wore a woven fibre hat. He carried some tools, and some dried sockeye salmon to chew upon when he became hungry. Perhaps he was planning on a quick trip to his destination, one of the villages that populated the Tatshenshini River at the time.
Evidence tells us that he had spent the previous year feasting on land mammals, suggesting that he had been in the interior, rather than at the coast. Is it possible that he was returning to the interior, probably to the village of Ńughàyik, or Alseck, after a short visit on the coast? He was around 18 years old, healthy, and physically fit. He would have been accustomed to travelling through the landscape of the coastal mountains.
He climbed the mountains to Mineral Lakes and then crossed the Samuel Glacier. Two days after he departed on his journey, in an ice-filled pass near the highest point between saltwater and the Tatshenshini River, he perished in the most remote northwest corner of what is known today as British Columbia. There is no evidence that it was a violent death; perhaps he became trapped in one of the sudden storms that were known to descend upon these mountains quickly and unexpectedly.
His body became buried in ice and snow and remained there for centuries, but global warming melted back enough ice and snow that three hunters hiking through the area in 1999 came upon the remains of the young man. This heralded the beginning of 17 years of collaborative work, intended to learn who he was, where he came from, and to give his remains the respectful treatment that tradition dictated.
The story of how his life was revealed is captured in a new book titled Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį: Teachings from Long Ago Person Found. This publication, nearly 700 pages long, was published by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C..
The book was edited by botanist Richard Hebda, anthropologist Sheila Greer, and archaeologist Alexander P. Mackie. The compilation includes articles from 66 contributors, among them scientists in various fields of discipline, a dozen First Nation members, and one of the hunters who made the initial discovery back in 1999.
The 37 chapters are gathered into six sections, one pertaining to the discovery of the remains, the history of the people and the place where the remains were found. Another speculates about the destination of the subject of this study. Others report the results of the examination of the remains, both human and the material items. Another section discusses the journey the young man made, and a concluding section, titled “Connections,” brings the project to its conclusion
The various chapters are profusely illustrated by photographs (200, of which 50 are in colour in a section at the end of the appendices), maps (eight of which are in colour), tables, graphs, charts, microphotos, X-rays and facsimile images. There are 47 pages of references at the end of the book, coordinated with each chapter of text, as well as notes for certain chapters, three short appendices and an index.
Many of the chapters are technical in nature, but for those who are interested in a more general understanding of the contents of each report, one can refer to the conclusions at the end of each article. Technical subjects include procedures for examining and recovering the remains, radiocarbon dating, parasitology, study of microorganisms and pollen, mitochondrial DNA and stable isotope analysis. These in particular, contributed to an understanding of the health and condition of Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį.
The sections covering the material remains address the conservation and study of the artifacts found in the area surrounding the human remains: a fibre-woven hat and wooden artifacts, a knife, gopher-skin robe and a beaver skin bag. I found the article on the native copper bead interesting: it enhanced my understanding of the use of native copper in the region, and describes how the raw material was worked into the one copper artifact recovered at the site.
The material aspect of the find spawned specific projects designed to gain an understanding of traditional crafts and to stimulate the transmission of the techniques within the First Nation community. Examples are described and illustrated in detail in articles on the gopher robe project and spruce-root weaving.
Perhaps the most important lesson in this book is about the shifting relationship between First Nations and the scholars who study their culture. The project was designed as a full partnership between the archaeology branch of the Government of British Columbia, and Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who saw their role not as the owner of the remains of Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį, but as stewards.
This is summarized in chapter 34 which notes that the successful collaboration between scientists and the First Nation was built upon the collaborative prototype established during the earlier study of the ice patch discoveries, the land claims in the Yukon and the Tatshenshini Park Management Agreement. The nature of the collaboration that developed as a result should serve as a model for scientists and Indigenous peoples elsewhere in Canada and around the world.
This book contains knowledge about the way of the world before the arrival of Europeans. It helps the reader to understand the complex relationships between various Indigenous groups in the period before direct contact with European traders. It paints a picture of a land, now considered “pristine wilderness” by many, as it really was: a rich landscape in which people lived and travelled.
As this monumental report makes clear, there is still much to be learned about the past in the southwest Yukon and extreme northwestern British Columbia, and about the First Nation cultures that continues to thrive and evolve in step with our changing world.
It might be a hefty volume to read, but Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį: Teachings from Long Ago Person Found is a must read for anybody interested in the Yukon’s cultural history, and it also serves as a blueprint for how such projects can succeed in the future.
My only complaint about this publication was the font chosen for the text, which was a challenge to read for several hundred pages. Despite this editorial choice, I heartily recommend the book.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org