Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Indians of the Yukon and British Columbia



[This text was written by J. Castell Hopkins in 1898. For the full citation, see the end of the document. Stereotypes and prejudices will be found in this document. They reflect the views of late XIXth Century Canadians about Indians.]


The Indian Tribes of the Canadian and American Yukon District and the adjacent portion of British Columbia, are a peculiar people. Dr. George M. Dawson, then assistant director of the Geological Survey of Canada, dealt with them at length in the Annual Report for 1887, and the following particulars are taken from his descrip­tion of their history and location:


"Throughout the more southern portions of British Columbia a difference of the most marked kind is everywhere found as between the maritime Indians of the coast and the inland tribes. While this difference is largely one of habit and mode of life, it is also almost everywhere co-incident with radical differences in languages ; the natural tendency to diversity as between coast-inhabiting fishermen and roaming hunters being intensified and perpetuated by the great barrier of the Coast Ranges. Only upon certain routes of trade, which have existed between the coast and the interior, is this striking diversity to some extent broken down. The Fraser, the Skeena , the Nass, and, in the region here specially referred to, the Stikine, and the passes at the head of Lynn Canal, constitute the most important of these routes.


From Dixon Entrance northward, with the exception of certain small outlying colonies of the Haida on Prince-of-Wales Island, the Coast Indians are undoubted Thlinkit, forming a series of contiguous and more or less closely allied bands or tribes, between which the diversity in language is small. The inland Indians, on the contrary, belong to the great Tinnè family. On the Stikine , as explained below, a certain overlapping of these two races has occurred ; and to the north, the Tagish, a branch of the Thlinkit, extend a considerable distance inland into the basin of the Lewes, as now first ascertained. The interior Indians are collectively known on the coast as "Stick Indians," and the fact that this name is also applied to the Tagish, in consequence of their situation and habits being like those of the Tinnè, explains the circumstance that they have heretofore been confounded with that people.


The region included between the Coast Ranges and the Rocky Mountains, to the south of that here reported on, and in which are the head waters of the Skeena, Fraser, and Peace rivers, is inhabited by two great divisions of the Tinnè people, designated on the ethnological map of British Columbia, prepared by Dr. Tolmie and myself, in 1884, as Takulli and Sikani. These main divisions comprise a large number of small tribes or septs. Since the publication of the map I have ascertained that these divisions are known to the people themselves as Tahkil and Al-ta-tin respectively. The division of the Tinnè met with on ascending the Stikine is named Tahl-tan, and consists of the Tahl-tan people proper and the Taku. These Indians speak a language very similar to that of the Al-ta-tin, if not nearly identical with it, and, so far as I have been able to learn, might almost be regarded as forming an extension of the same division. They appear to be less closely allied by language to the Kaska, with which people they are contiguous to the eastward.


The Indian village near the Tahl-tan, or First North Fork of the Stikine, is the chief place of the Tahl-tan Indians, and here they all meet at certain seasons for feasting, speech-making and similar purposes. The Tahl-tan claim the hunting ground as far down as the Stikine ; coastward, the mouth of the Iskoot River ; together with all the. tributaries of the Iskoot, and some of the northern sources of the Nass which interlock with these. Their territory also includes, to the south, all the head waters of the main Stikine , with parts of adjacent northern branches of the Nass. Eastward it embraces Dease Lake , and goes as far down the Dease River as Eagle Creek, extending also to the west branch of the Black or Turnagain River . It includes also all the northern tributaries of the Stikine and the Tahl-tan River to its sources.


The Taku form a somewhat distinct branch of the Tahl-tan, though they speak the same dialect. They are evidently the people referred to by Dall as the Tah-ko-tin-neh. They claim the whole drainage basin of the Taku River, together with the upper portions of the streams which flow northward to the Lewes; while on the east their hunting grounds extend to the Upper Liard River, and include the valleys of the tributary streams which join that river from the westward. They are thus bounded to the south by the Tahltan, to the west by the Coast Taku (Thlinkit), to the north-west by the Tagish, and to the east by the Kaska.


The territorial claims of the Tahl-tan and Stikine Coast Indians (Thlinkit) overlapped in a very remarkable manner, for while, as above stated, the former hunt down the Stikine valley as far as the Iskoot, and even beyond that point, the latter claimed the salmon fishery and berry-gathering grounds on all the streams which enter the Stikine between Shek's Creek (four miles below Glenora) and Telegraph Creek, excepting the First South Fork, where there is no fishery. Their claim did not include Telegraph Creek nor any part of the main river, nor did it extend to the Clearwater River, or to any of the tributaries lower down. In whatever manner the claim to these streams may have been acquired, the actual importance of them to the Coast Indians lay in the fact that the arid climate found immediately to the east of the Coast Ranges enabled them to dry salmon and berries for winter provision, which is scarcely possible in the humid atmosphere of the coast region.


The strict ideas entertained by the Indians here with respect to territorial rights is evidenced by the fact that the Indians from the mouth of the Nass, who have been in the habit of late years of coming in summer to work in the gold mines near Dease Lake, though they may kill beaver for food, are obliged to make over the skins of these animals to the local Indians. Thus, while no objection is made to either whites or foreign Indians killing game while travelling, trapping or hunting for skins is resented. In 1880 or 1881 two white men went down the Liard River some distance to spend the winter in trapping, but were never again seen, and there is strong circumstantial evidence to show that they were murdered by the local Indians there.


With the exception of the houses already referred to as constituting the Tahl-tan village, and some others reported to exist on the Tasku, the residences and camps of these people are of a very temporary character, consisting of brush shelters or wigwams, when an ordinary cotton tent is not employed. We noticed on the Tahl-tan river a couple of square brush houses formed of poles interlaced with leafy branches. These were used during the salmon-fishing season. At the same place there were several graves, consisting of wooden boxes or small dog-kennel like erections of wood, and near them two or three wooden monumental posts, rudely shaped into ornamental forms by means of an axe, and daubed with red ochre.


On attaining the chieftaincy of the Tahl-tan tribe, each chief assumes the traditional name Nanook, in the same manner in which the chief of the coast Indians at the mouth of the Stikine is always named Shek or Shake. The Tahl-tan Indians know of the Creation hero Us-tas, and relate tales concerning this mythical individual resembling those found among the Tinnè tribes further south, but I was unable to commit any of these to writing. Amongst many other superstitions, they have one referring to a wild man of gigantic stature and supernatural powers, who is now and then to be found roaming about in the summer season. He is supposed to haunt specially the vicinity of the Iskoot River, and the Indians are much afraid of meeting him."


The Following Account of the Principal characteristics of some of these tribes was prepared for Dr. Dawson by Mr. J. C. Callbreath, who had spent many years amongst the Tahl-tans:


"Maximum stature about 5 feet 7½ inches; maximum girth about the chest 37 inches ; legs and thighs well muscled; arms rather light; as a rule, full chested; heads, unlike the coast tribes, small; feet and hands generally small, as are also the wrist and ankle, especially in the women. The trunk is generally long and the legs short - the former nearly always straight, with small waist and broad hips, the latter usually curved or crooked, a circumstance which appears to be due to too early walking and carrying packs by the children. Brain capacity small ; head round ; forehead low and bulging immediately above the eyes, but generally broad.


The half-breeds are more like the father, and three generations where the father is in every case white, seem to obliterate all traces of Indian blood. If the case were reversed and the male parent in all cases an Indian, the result might be different. Have never seen or heard of an albino among them. Their most common ailments are pulmonary consumption and indigestion. The former caused by careless and unnecessary exposure, the latter by gorging and drinking at their periodical feasts. They have other diseases peculiar to themselves, induced, as I believe, by imagination or through fear of the medicine-men or witches.


Their acuteness of sight, hearing and smell is great, but I do not believe racial. Practice and training as hunters render them proficient in these respects. Their eyes fail early, and are even more liable to disease than those of whites. It is rare to meet a man of fifty among them with sound eyes. Snow and sun, together with the smoky dwellings, probably explain this. The children are cunning and clever when young, more so than those of the white race, but grow dull as they age.


I have never seen anything like gesture-language among them, and will not attempt a description of their common tongue, except to say that I can see no similarity in it to that of the Chinese, with whom I have had intercourse to a considerable extent for the past forty years. They reckon time by moons, and now seem to rely more on what the whites may tell them as to the coming of winter or spring than on their own knowledge. The Stone Age is now scarcely more than a tradition, though they know of the time when they had no iron, axes, knives, guns, or the like. Stone knives, adzes and sledges or hammers have been found by the miners from time to time, and it is said that the sledges were used for killing slaves on certain occasions, as well as for braining bears in their hibernating dens.


I cannot learn that these Indians ever used copper before its introduction by the whites. Yarn is spun from the wool of the mountain goat (not the mountain sheep or big-horn), and is woven into excellent blankets, which are highly coloured and ornamented. The process of boiling water with hot stones in baskets or wooden bowls was formerly common. A chief's son has no right to his father's title, or any claim to rule by virtue of his being the son of the chief, although the tribe may choose him as their chief. A chief's brother (full or half) or his sister's child is the legal heir; but his right must be sanctioned by a majority of the tribe, and the office frequently passes to whoever has most property to give away:


All these Indians are very miserly, and they often go hungry and naked for the purpose of saving up blankets, guns, etc., with which to make a grand "Potlach" (donation feast) to their friends. This secures them consideration and a position in the tribe. Practically very few of the men have more than a single wife. When a man has two wives, the younger, if she be sound and lively, is the head. Separation and divorce are easy and require no formal act, but if a man should send away his wife, on whose hunting-grounds he may have been staying, he must leave her inherited hunting-ground, unless he has another wife who has a right to the same ground. These hunting-grounds are extensive and are often possessed in common by several families.


The laws are based on the principle that any crime may be condoned by a money payment. If a man should kill another, he or his friends must pay for the dead man - otherwise himself or one of his friends must be killed to balance the account. Gratitude and charity seem to be foreign to the natures of these people. A man often gives away all he has to his friends, but it is for purposes of personal aggrandizment, and his father, mother or sister may be sick, freezing or starving within sound of his voice. His presents bestowed upon those who are strong and above want bring him distinction, which is, his only object. The young Indians are, however, more humane and charitable than the aged.


The Tahl-tan Indians have no totem-poles, although they preserve the family lines, and observe them as strictly as do the salt-water tribes. They have no fear of death, except from dread of the pain of dying, and this is very much lessened if they have plenty of goods to leave to their friends. They are very stoical, and not emotional, in any sense. I have never seen one of-them tremble or quake with fear or anger. There is a belief propagated by their medicine-men or witches that the otter gets inside of their women and remains there until death, sometimes causing death by a lingering illness unlike anything I have ever seen, in other cases allowing the woman to live on till she dies from some other cause.


The Kaska have the reputation of being a very timid people, and they are rather undersized and have a poor physique. They are lazy and untrustworthy. We met practically the entire tribe of the Titsho-ti-na, at the little post at the mouth of the Dease, and their curiosity proved to be very embarrassing. Mr. Egnell, who was in charge of the post, excused it by explaining that they had never seen so many whites together before. Of these Indians, only two have been as far west as Dease Lake , and none had ever seen the sea. They are, however, fairly well off, as their country yields abundance of good furs. They visit the trading post only once in the course of the year, spending the remainder of their time moving from camp to camp in isolated little family parties, hunting and trapping, each one traversing a very great extent of country in the course of the twelve months. Some of their traps or household goods are packed on dogs, but the greater part of their impediments is carried by themselves on their backs, canoes being seldom employed. Rivers and lakes are crossed in summer by rafts made for the occasion. They generally bring in only fine furs, as bear skins and common furs are too heavy to transport. They evinced great curiosity with regard to our equipment, being particularly struck by a canvas boat and an air pillow. These and other objects, I have no doubt, furnished subjects of conversation round many camp-fires for the ensuing year." The subjoined table, giving a census of the Indian population. of the Mackenzie River district, and including the Yukon region so far as known to the Hudson 's Bay Company, in 1858, is of interest, as showing the tribal subdivisions as recognized by the Company, and as throwing some light on the questions discussed above. The table is due to the late Chief Factor, James Anderson, and had been communicated through the kindness of his son:


Slaves, Dog-Ribs, Chippewayans, and Yellow Knives, who are all of the same race,   and speak, with slight variations, the same dialect of the Chippewayan language: 2749.


Nahanies, or Mountain Indians, who speak a very corrupt dialect of the Chippewayan: 435.


Sicannies or Thicannies, also speak a dialect of the Chippewayan language: 151.


Loucheux,or Koochin, and Batord Loucheux (half Hare, half Loucheux). Only some words of this language are understood by   ....................................... the Slaves: 1274.


Total: 4,609


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Source : J. Castell HOPKINS , Canada . An Encyclopaedia of the Country , Vol. 1, Toronto , The Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, 540p., pp. 245-249.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College