Almost six times the size of the United Arab Emirates, the Yukon in north-western Canada is a rugged, sparsely settled landscape straddling the Arctic Circle. The traditional territories of 14 First Nations are distributed throughout the Yukon. To learn about aspects of First Nations’ culture, I head south out of Whitehorse, the principal gateway for air arrivals.
The Scandinavian cities of Oslo and Stockholm are both on latitudes more southerly than the small settlement of Carcross, an hour’s drive from Whitehorse. Consequently, I gaze in disbelief at a sign indicating that a roadside expanse of golden sand is desert. I associate land this far north more with snow. Seeing people stride barefoot in the world’s smallest desert prompts a tingle of joy at the unexpected discoveries which travel brings.
Barely a minute’s drive further along the highway stands Ha Shagóon Hídi, the cultural centre of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Like stylised guards, totem poles stand outside of the building where I meet carver Keith Wolfe Smarch. By a pole depicting a grizzly bear at its base, Keith explains that the carving represents his take on the Animal Mother story. Explaining the creation of all animals, the tale was handed down through generations via faithful retellings.
The 10.7-metre-tall totem pole took Keith and his son 14 months to create. He explains that it’s crafted from red cedar, a wood that naturally repels insects. The falling of old poles was long accepted as part of a natural cycle. But in recent years efforts have been stepped up to support and photograph old totem poles carved in coastal areas by Tlingit artists.
“Their life was disappearing. We’re grateful to them for what we could learn from them. That’s why we want to preserve the poles,” says Keith.
Influenced by master carvers such as Charlie James and Dempsey Bob, artists who might be regarded as their medium’s equivalents to Rembrandt van Rijn or Vincent van Gogh, Keith has established a reputation as one of the leading contemporary creators of totem poles.
“In the beginning my designs were really complex and just cluttered,” he says in self-critical reflection of his early work during the 1990s. “Now I like to take a design and make it simple.”
Keith is one of several Yukon residents whose work showcases and consequently maintains aspects of First Nations’ culture and heritage. For many years that cultural heritage was eroded by the suppression of traditional ceremonies and the education of children at residential schools. Separated from their parents and ancestral ways, young people were made to speak English. As a result the Southern Tutchone language, once widely spoken, became endangered. Efforts are now being made to teach and reinvigorate the language.
Kwaday Dan Kenji, whose name translates into English as the Long Ago Peoples Place, is 90 km west of Whitehorse. Harold Johnson of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations opened the camp in 1995. Within its grounds, Harold shows traps, shelters and methods of caching food traditionally used by people to live off the land and explains their use.
“I understand so much about your culture and history but you don’t understand anything about my history or culture,” explains Harold about his reasons for establishing the camp. “It’s about reconciliation to foster better relationships between all people.”
Traditionally, the itinerant seasonal lifestyle would involve people salmon fishing in springtime, berry picking in summer, hunting moose and caribou during the autumn then trapping for furs in winter. In recent years changes to established weather patterns have proven an additional challenge to living off the land.
“I don’t consider myself an elder but I’ve seen a temperature change of about 20°F in my lifetime,” says Harold, who is in his 50s.
Meta Williams, who demonstrates foraging in woodland on the camp, explains that rain has become increasingly common during January and February. That results in bears waking from hibernation. Subsequent refreezing as temperatures dip affects animals’ ability to feed. Spruce tips are usually picked in March or April. “This year we picked them in June,” she laments.
Children would follow their mothers until puberty, learning what to pick and what to leave. “We go through the forest and take what we need,” says Meta, explaining that taking too much would be pointless. Almost poetically, she compares the bounty of the forest to the contents of a medicine cabinet.
Meeting Meta and Harold emphasises local concerns about how environmental change is impacting the Yukon. To an outsider such as myself that creeping threat to the region and wider world is imperceptible. Within Kluane National Park and Reserve, in the territory’s south-west, Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak is decked in snow. Crevasses and frozen pools in the world’s largest non-polar icefield look solid.
Hopefully many more generations of travellers get to experience the First Nations’ heritage and icy beauty of this remote northern land.
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