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Ethnographic Overview of Athapaskan Culture in the Region
Prior to their expropriation by the colonizing nation-states of Canada and the United States, this region was the traditional territory of the Dineh - the aboriginal people who spoke the Dene, or Athapaskan, language. More specifically, in the late prehistoric period at least, the area was the homeland of speakers of the Athapaskan language known as Upper Tanana, Ahtna, and Tanacross.
These people lived a foraging lifestyle which took them widely across the landscape in seasonal and longer term cycles: to the west from about the watersheds of the Donjek and Nisling Rivers in Yukon, easterly to about the Tok River in Alaska, into the highlands of the Dawson Range to the Yukon River to the north, and south to exploit the montane resources of the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains. The boundaries of Upper Tanana territory were never clearly fixed in the past, rather there were clear centres of occupation which extended out into and overlapped with lands shared with their other Dineh and Tlingit neighbours, relations with whom were solidified by regular marriage and movement into each other's communities. Today the Canadian portion of the region falls within the jurisdiction of the White River First Nation, a local native government whose members include descendents of both Upper Tanana and Tutchone speaking Dineh (see Fig. 2).
The basic features of late 19th century Upper Tanana culture have been described by McKennan (1959 #635), based on his fieldwork in 1929-30; however, due to transportation difficulties, he was unable to visit the territory of the Scottie Creek Dineh (McKennan, 1959:3). McKennan returned to the area several times in subsequent decades to conduct demographic, land use, and archaeological studies among Alaskan Upper Tanana (1969; 1964; 1981; and 1968).
Since McKennan, additional ethnographic work in the region has included Guedon's analysis of potlatch reciprocity in Tetlin (Guedon, 1974) and a short essay on spiritualism (Guedon, 1994), Vitt's (1971) study of hunting practices, Pitt's (1972) thesis on changing settlement patterns and housing types, a series of resource exploitation and management studies (Halpin, 1987); an unpublished manuscript on Upper Tanana plant use (Kari, 1985) and a historic study of the potlatch at Tanacross (Simeone, 1995).
Additional Ahtna references needed.
An oral history of Walter Northway, born in 1876 in Scottie Creek territory, has been published (Northway, 1987), as well as a short collection of oral history and mythology related by Mary Tyone, who was born at Big Scottie Creek village at the confluence of Scottie Creek with the Chisana River (Tyone, 1996). Tlen developed a glossary of the Scottie Creek dialect of Upper Tanana in collaboration with Bessie John (John, 1997); Mrs. John has also produced a set of Upper Tanana language lessons in the Scottie Creek dialect in collaboration with her daughter (Yukon Native Language Centre, 1994). Dobrowolsky prepared a manuscript on land use and occupancy for the White River First Nation, which includes material from my own field research (Dobrowsky, 1997). John Ritter and James Kari have undertaken unpublished linguistic research of the Scottie Creek dialect of Upper Tanana. As well, Frederica De Laguna, Catherine McClellan, and Julie Cruikshank have collected unpublished fieldnotes based on their intermittent travels through the region and work with contiguous Athapaskan groups. My own research has resulted in several papers and publications on contemporary ethnicity (Easton, 2001), a tribute to Scottie Creek elder, Mrs. Bessie John (Easton, in press) and an examination between place names and navigation in the Scottie Creek valley (Easton, n.d.); a major ethnohistory of the Dineh of Scottie Creek is in preparation.
The Dineh of this region were once exclusively foragers. In this regard they shared much with their Athapaskan cognates within the western Subarctic, such as the Tutchone (McLellan, 1981) the Koyukon (Nelson, 1983; Nelson, 1973), and the Ahtna (Kari, 1987; Kari, 1986).
Their economic adaptation of hunting and gathering available natural resources followed a seasonal round within an ecological region defined by a geographical watershed. They aggregated within villages for labour-intensive economic and ritual activity around fishing locales and along ungulate migrations, and dispersed as small extended families during times of resource scarcity. They traded with their neighbours for resources unavailable in their occupancy area. They traveled widely for the purposes of establishing and maintaining consanguinal and affinal kin relations, through whom alternative territorial access was facilitated in times of ecological stress (McKennan, 1959 #635).
Kin-based economic and ritual activity was promoted and regulated by clan membership bifurcated into moieties. This included prescriptive marriage and ritual relations between moieties, especially during life crises, which were socially recognized through "potlatch" aggregations. Extensive oral histories of clan membership and achievements provided historical continuity (Guedon, 1974 #642).
Political relations were egalitarian, with a strong emphasis on the authority and responsibility of the individual in determining and pursuing an appropriate choice of action, buttressed by vision quests and the private knowledge and power which visions transmitted to both men and women (Ridington, 1982). Principles of political flux based on achieved status and residential fission (Turnbull, 1968) regulated most social conflict, while the most extreme infractions of societal norms were responded to with consensual community shunning, abandonment, or sanctioned execution (Easton, n.d.).
An extensive mythological corpus provided the ideological basis for many aspects of social life, as well as support to a naturalistic worldview that understood humans and nature to be bound by reciprocal ties. The interpretation of dreams, visions, and communications from animals informed decision-making, contextualized experience, and explained misfortune. Shamans undertook the retrieval of souls and the identification of social enmity causing community hardship, and engaged in "dream wars" with malicious others (Easton, n.d.; Nelson, 1983; Ridington, 1968).
The interior Athapaskans experienced the effects of the arrival of Europeans to North America long before they ever came into direct contact. These effects were diffused along existing aboriginal exchange networks and, though it is difficult to pinpoint their earliest occurrences in time, they included the trade of material goods (e.g. metal and beads), the spread of disease (e.g. small pox and influenza), and the communication of ideas (e.g. shifting from cremation to burial of the dead). These effects increased in volume and intensity as the western fur trade escalated in the 19th century (VanStone, 1974; Helm, 1975).
The actual arrival of Europeans in the interior western subarctic was hampered by the formidable stresses of an environment of which they had little adaptive knowledge and by shrewd native groups (principally the Tlingit in this region) who vigorously protected their monopoly positions as fur trade middlemen. However, by the end of the last century native control had been eroded by a series of forays into the interior by white traders, prospectors, and government sponsored exploration parties through much of the Yukon drainage, culminating in the establishment of permanent settlements associated with the gold rushes between 1896 and 1902 (Hosley, 1981; McClellan, 1981).
The territories of the southern Yukon - Alaska borderlands, however, were not exposed to the new settlers, lying as they did outside the gold fields and their access routes. Their lands remained largely unexplored until the first decade of this century, and practically inaccessible until the building of the Alaska Highway in 1943. During the first half of this century some families lived for a part of the year around the trade posts on the Nabesna and Snag rivers, but never for more than one to four months. While store-bought foodstuffs and clothing were obtained, the majority of Upper Tanana continued their mobile subsistence lifestyle, integrating fur-trapping into the native economy. The magnitude of potlatches became somewhat inflated with the new levels of material goods that trading made available, but the goods remained functional: blankets, rifles, scarves, and beaded moccasins and mittens. The introduction of the rifle affected the reliance on the communal hunting of caribou, but fish camp aggregations and cooperation continued in the summer and winter (McKennan, 1981). Christian missionary work in the area during this period was short-lived, peripheral, and largely ignored (McKennan, 1959).
As a consequence, with the exception of depopulation brought on by disease (which was significant, according to oral historical accounts; (Easton, n.d.) and the occasional intrusion by state representatives associated with border maintenance (Green, 1982), the Scottie Creek Dineh were not affected as much as many other interior Athapaskans by emergent State activity until the latter half of this century (McKennan, 1981). With little formal state presence prior to the building of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s, and virtually no interference in their internal social and economic relations, it seems that many Upper Tanana retained almost complete control of their adaptations to the new nation-states which were evolving around them - accepting and pursuing innovations which seemed useful and congruent with their values, rejecting those which were not, and in general demonstrating their continued ties to their landscape through the efficient and successful use of the complex resources it offered them.
An extensive oral history is held by the Dineh of the region recounting their early interaction with non-natives, particularly the physical establishment of the international boundary by survey crews along the 141st meridian in the period of 1907 through 1913 (Green, 1982). This included the clearing of a 20 foot wide cutline along the length of the meridian that ran through the middle of the traditional fish camp known as Tsoogot gaay at Little Scottie Creek. While anecdotal details differ in the telling of this event a singular consistency stands out. After days of being harangued to move their village and take up occupancy on either the American or Canadian side, the residents of Tsoogot gaay negotiated and signed an agreement that they would continue to be free to occupy and use their territory on either side of border (John, 1989; Easton, n.d.). Several accounts of this interaction can be found here.
Until the 1960s it seems that this is precisely what the Dineh of the borderlands did. Before this time there was little State administrative presence in the region and the borderlands were not overseen in any regular fashion by either government - both countries’ custom houses were over 100 km away from the border. Some children of the 1950s, for example, were born and raised in the bush, away from the highway in the hills of the upper Scottie Creek drainage. In the past three decades, however, State regulation of the border has increased, culminating in the construction of a large permanent US Customs facility atop the traditional village site of Tsoogot gaay in the 1980s. Today it is occupied by an array of US Customs, Immigration, and Drug Enforcement Administration officers. The Canada Customs house has moved from its former location at Snag to Beaver Creek, 30 km to the east of the border.
The upgrading and increased maintenance of the Alaska Highway through this same period has expanded the presence of non-native highway and service workers and state facilities. Primarily introduced to support non-native frontier settlement these facilities include electrical generation, schools, nursing stations, hotels, taverns, and state and national police. Despite these changes, the population remains largely native, about 80% of the approximately 350 people living year round in the region.
Today, most of the historic occupants of the region and their descendents live within a number of villages (Beaver Creek, Yukon and Northway, Tetlin, Tanacross, Mentasta, Chistochina, and Copper Center, Alaska) which lie within two separate nation-states. This division has produced differential access to state resources, such as health care and education, as determined by separate national policies. It has also affected the form and function of local political structures and other aspects of the relationship between indigenous natives and the state.
The relations bundled up within the term "land claims" are perhaps the most important - American Natives settled their claim along with the rest of Alaska's Native peoples in the 1970s (see ANCSA); as of the Winter of 2002/03, the White River First Nation of Beaver Creek had not reached a final land claims agreement under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement for native land claims.
The right of free passage across the international boundary, as defined in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation of November 19, 1794 (the "Jay Treaty"), is recognized by the American state but not by the Canadian state (Thomson, 1981; anon, 1996); hence "Canadian" Natives may enter the United States for traditional purposes but Canada restricts entry. For example, Dineh living in Beaver Creek have reported that some gifts received by them in Northway have been subject to tariffs and, in the case of potlatch rifles, seizure (Easton, n.d.).
Finally, many communities have members of other Dineh speaking groups within them. For example, Beaver Creek's Native population is predominantly Northern Tutchone, although the First Nation's membership includes a majority of Upper Tanana descendents, many of whom live outside the community in Alaska, while Northway's Native population is comprised of several nucleated Upper Tanana Dineh dialect populations from the Nabesna, Chisana, and Scottie Creek drainages.
Despite these differences, however, there seems to remain considerable continuity in the identification by some residents in both Northway and Beaver Creek as Scottie Creek Dineh, with distinctive rights within the region. This is explicitly stated at potlatch speeches and reflected by frequent (at times daily) inter-village visits between "cousins" and hunting "partners", continuing potlatch ritual and other forms of kin-based reciprocity, particularly of country foods, use of land-based natural and spiritual resources, and, at least to some extent, marriage patterns and language (Easton, n.d.; see also Simeone, 1995).
Oral historical and cultural geographic research undertaken by Jim Kari, John Ritter, and Easton, has identified over two hundred localities or geographic features within the Scottie Creek watershed with specific names in the Upper Tanana language. These include sixteen village sites, numerous encampments and lookout sites, and most of the many lakes and side-streams in the valley. We hope to expand this place names corpus in this current study, by documenting native terms for geographical features within the Chisana watershed.
The following links will take you to more comprehensive discussions on various features of social organization originally developed for my course in Subarctic Ethnology (Anthropology 220):