The South Yukon First Nations, and a cosmology of the land amidst the water

by
Adil Mansure
| Aug 08, 2022


Adil Mansure is the 2022 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

After Crow made the world, he saw that sea lion owned the only island in the world.
The rest was water—he’s the only one with land.
The whole place was ocean!
Crow rests on a piece of log—he’s tired.
He sees sea lion with that little island just for himself.
He wants some land too so he stole that sea lion’s kid.

“Give me back that kid!” said sea lion.

“Give me beach, some sand,” says Crow.

So sea lion gave him sand.
Crow threw that sand around the world.
“Be World,” he told it. And it became the world.1

I write this report while in the Yukon, upon land that has been cared for and stewarded for thousands of years by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. As I mentioned about in my previous H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship report, the act of writing about an oral history project continues to be an odd feeling. And the notion of orality of course bears special significance here as I am surrounded by several Indigenous peoples, who only recently—if at all—took to writing. Colonization has been tremendously brutal to them, having targeted where it hurt the most: killing the continuity of their language and their oral traditions, which were the primary means of propagating their knowledge and culture. I truly believe that world-building occurs primarily in and through language, and language is the site of my modeling Indigenous knowledge systems, which are wonderfully comprehensive, complex, and adaptive. This oral history project highlights the shape that orality itself gives to traditional (Indigenous) knowledge.

As I go about talking to members of various First Nations in the Yukon, I am repeatedly told that for what I want to do—conduct an oral history project where I talk to elders and knowledge-keepers of various Indigenous peoples to understand how thousands of years of (holistic and sustainable) architectural knowledge is embedded in their myths and stories—I am about 5–10 years too late. That the last generation of elders who lived purely off the land, relatively un-influenced by British and Canadian colonization, have recently passed on. Yet, in talking to various communities and hearing them recall memories of what they were told by their elders and knowledge-keepers, seeing them sustain a muscle-memory of sorts through their arts and other tactile practices, and in their efforts to preserve their knowledge through language regeneration, one cannot but be hopeful and aspire. Despite being still in a kind of post-trauma condition, where Canada is still making at-best feeble apologies to these peoples for various ill-doings, (especially sending their children to residential schools—which in some conversations I have had with Indigenous peoples have even been compared to Nazi concentration camps), the resilience of these peoples shows in the regeneration of their languages, practices, and their incredible spirit of adaptation and resilience. This is what makes learning about architecture here valuable; this spirit is what I will attempt to articulate in what follows.

I want to note first that any accounts I am sharing are deliberately being kept anonymous. This report is not the space to disclose personal stories or make "human subjects" out of the people who were kind enough to have conversations with me. I have made promises to not record or transcribe, but simply describe through abstract and third-person narratives, the attitudes and ideas that have struck me as most remarkable.

In the Yukon, I have been visiting the traditional territories of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Ta’an Kwachan First Nation, the Kluane First Nation, the Teslin Tlingit Council, and the White River First Nation. Some of the structures that I have come across that are common to many of these peoples and these lands, includes the injall (a Southern Tutchone word told to me orally, and that I have probably misspelled), the longhouse (for larger gatherings), the tipi, sod houses, and caches for storing food (most built on stilts to keep away from animals, but some buried in the ground with wooden logs atop). Some other artifacts built using similar methods and exhibiting similar tectonics include conical fish traps, boats, drums, and baskets. The point here is not to lay out a written taxonomy of these structures and artifacts, but rather to say a bit about what I learned about the cultures of habitations and migration that these buildings and artifacts afforded. And perhaps most importantly, to understand some of the attitudes associated with these lifestyles.

Let us begin with the latter, and with an anecdotal example. First, note that several of these lands I mentioned have witnessed record levels of condensation in the last 2 to 3 years, both from plenty of snow melt in the summer and also from record snowfall in the winter. It is noticeable how high waters are on lands that are not used to them, and how both the peoples and ecosystems are already adapting to them. (But this also means tree roots being over-watered and therefore trees dying out, insects that breed off still water increasing in numbers, and animal migration patterns being rapidly disrupted.) Even in Southern Yukon terrains of innumerable lakes, these recent changes are severe. In one particular example, an injall had got somewhat submerged, and the person who built it was wondering about how to navigate the waters and the situation. The instinct, however, was not to preserve the building or keep the water out using aggressive high-technological methods—which I have observed to be the case in places with cultures of owning and valuing property rather than stewarding both the lands and the waters—but rather this elder person’s instinct was to move, reassemble, salvage, and move on. There was an understanding and an appreciation of any kind of unpredictability with regard to not only land and water, but also other agents bringing uncertainty. And it was clear that these changes were not linear or reversible, in fact, each minor change would cause a complex series of un-forecast-able ripple effects. The elder’s approach wasn’t one to safeguard from change, but to move along with. What is key here are these attitudes toward mitigating change, and not specific techniques, technology, or methods of building. And arguably, land is not a given and is by no means static or permanent; as is also evident in the orally transmitted origin story of the Crow: it emerges from and can dissolve back into the water.

The buildings, building methods, and migratory lifestyle all made sense to me in a new light. The Southern Yukon First Nations always lived lives of migration which put first the health of the ecosystems they depended on. First, the seasonal migration: usually centered around picking berries and other plants in the summer, fish and bigger game in the Fall, and smaller game in the early Spring. But there are also longer-duration migrations involved. For example, moving away from certain areas so as not to deplete the growth of berries or not over-fish or over-hunt. Of course, weather-related incidents such as forest fires also led to migrations to nearby areas. The instinct was not to put them out (as is the case with many forestry departments today) but to understand them as natural and necessary, let them occur, and change one’s course accordingly. In Southern Yukon, forest fires are often followed by the growth of fireweed, a pink flower that can rapidly paint burned-out landscapes and flood them with color and life. The circle of life and death, and fire and water are wholly and simultaneously evident. Generally speaking, thinking of land as so precious so as to attempt to effectively remove it from the course of natural environmental change has not been the Yukon First Nations’ way, and their architecture follows this understanding.

Other migrations also occurred due to their tribal, community, and family structures. The primary factors are the moiety and the clan.2 The moiety structure (wolf and crow in most of the Yukon First Nations I mentioned), which was maternally passed on, ensured a diverse gene pool as marriages were only to be cross-moiety. A significant socio-cultural practice associated with the moiety structure, as pointed out to me by an elder, was that a young man would go spend some time (often a year or two) with his maternal uncles who might belong to different First Nations (but to the same moiety) to learn their ways. Such chosen cycles of migration also led to knowing large terrains well, and to building empathetic relationships with the species of flora and fauna that inhabited them. And this also ensured a cross-pollination of traditional knowledge associated not only with hunting, trapping, fishing, and reading the information-rich land and waters but, and especially in the last three to four centuries, understanding the complex relations owed to the growing trading networks. The phenotypical expressions, as it were, of these gene pools of the Southern Yukon First Nations were thus prone to continuous diversification and enrichment. And these expressions were well encapsulated in their traditional knowledge, myths, and stories all passed on through their oral traditions.

I have digressed… somewhat. Returning to the incident about the injall being submerged by the new pools of water formed, the elder’s attitude toward packing up and moving or dis- or re-placing made immense sense. My initial thoughts (having been over-exposed to Western and Enlightenment attitudes of the stasis of settlement and ownership, and always protecting the land from the water) harbored a sadness at the prospective architectural loss of the sun-silvered patina of the wooden injall, the falling apart of the roots that had wound around and between its various logs, and the falling away of the sod that inhabited its various joints. To these thoughts, the elder’s very different attitude taught plenty. For him, what was valuable was not that specific material or property, but the knowledge and ability to adapt, redo, remake, and live on—and the decision-making skills factoring in the longevity of relations between peoples, species, and spaces. The migrations and lifestyles discussed earlier ensured that such attitudes and skills permeated the connected tribes and formed their common ground. We might attribute some of these current changes like the record levels of condensation to recent climate change narratives, and think that our actions as architectural thinkers must move towards working with these changes; however, with the communities in Yukon I have spoken to, what was significant for them was not climate change, but change itself that always occurs over the longue durée of environmental history. And it is centuries of adapting to the latter that prepares them to deal with the changing climate or any other changes today. In the stories I have heard from members of various South Yukon First Nations, this much is clear: that in their relatively young geo-scape, the land is not what is permanent, but appears and disappears over the years amidst the changing courses of rivers and glaciers, formation and dissolution of peaks and valleys, and hence also of islands, lakes, and forests. The land appears amidst the water in both time and space; and the migratory lifestyle (both seasonal and generational) and architecture all reflect this deep understanding. And this is precisely what the creation story of the crow—which has been repeated since time immemorial—encapsulates. The trickster raven or crow may throw many a détournement our way, how do we stay afloat? Ultimately the emotion I remember from this community on the verge of one or another predicament related to the changing course of waters was not devastation (although there would be loss and pain) but laughing off the lack of luck, and even a curiosity about how to do it differently the next time—and anticipating that there probably would always be a next time.

Animism, empathy, and Indigenous space

Let us think through some of the traditional activities of the South Yukon First Nations and further understand how notions of space emerged from their know-how. As might be evident by now, these peoples’ lifestyles revolved around the various supplies of food, its responsible harvesting, while of course care-taking of the land and the waters. Hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging still often form the baselines of conversations in the region. For thousands of years, the various techniques associated with these activities were currency in their trades and other exchanges that occurred between families and bands. In fact, in talking to various First Nations, while sharing their knowledge, they have often asked me to share techniques or methods from my culture(s) of how we processed wood, fish, hide, beads, etc.

Architecture, or rather spatiality, also first emerges out of their lifestyles and traditional activities. Primary conceptualizations of space are evident in the peoples’ relations with animals and their bodies. Unlike Western conceptions of neutral or homogenous space (or general theories of space derived from the proportions associated with the human figure in the ages of Humanism), the spaces that we are dealing with here are not understood in the abstract, but rather, quite directly and empathetically from the various animal organs out of which objects of daily use were made from.3 For example, the intestines of moose and caribou used as vessels to store in, and their stomachs used as vessels to boil and cook in.4 These organs and membranes have astonishing plasticity and variances, and these properties are evident in the peoples’ conceptualization of space. Furthermore, the geometry that they work with is astoundingly complex, dealing with topologies of both curvature and flexibility. The knowledge of how to work these surfaces is very much tactile—and even tacit—and propagated by being practiced communally. In being shown some traditional methods that make use of different parts of an animal, I have marveled at the sheer ingenuity of some of the chemical combinations, for example, the tanning of hides using moose brain. A deep understanding of the animal body, the various networks of arteries of fluids, and the relation of these to other parts of the body are all consonant to, and in some way mirrors to understanding their shifting terrains of land and water. What happens in the animal body is a reflection of what occurs outside, and vice versa. Space is thus conceptualized abstractly and through a holistic understanding of both species and spaces.

It must be noted first that the harvesting of the animal body was a sacred act of sorts. It had to be done in ways that paid full respect to the animal. The traps and snares usually ensured that the deaths of animals would be almost instant and least painful. This of course is another dimension of empathy. Generally speaking, only what was necessary should be taken from the land. There is a complete absence of the notion of waste in the traditional techniques I have observed. This is also perhaps where the ethos of the spiritual realm of respecting an animal align with the rather practical scarcity of materials in the sub-Arctic north. "No waste"—which is tacitly practiced—is perhaps the most astounding aspect of Indigeneity I have noticed, and a trigger for immense ingenuity, creativity, and the invention of clever instruments and artifacts. For example, the numerous uses of the skin of a caribou or moose.5 There are of course animal furs that are used as clothing. Skins are often tanned and these membranes (leather, effectively) have found many uses. Several skins stitched together provide large fabric surfaces which are used for tenting. Babiche is a kind of strong string produced by cutting up processed or tanned hide in a variety of desired widths, and is used in bows, snowshoes, and several other instruments and articles. Smaller skins yield a variety of artifacts such as hand drums, clothing, floor and wall layers (such as rugs), and so on. The inland Tlingit First Nations (in Teslin and Atlin, for example) produce the outer surfaces of canoes and kayaks using stitched-up hides, as these fine specimens made by Doug Smarch from Teslin show. (Fig 1 & 2) These are dried to produce both translucency and lightness, but also hardness and sturdiness that one might today associate with a material such as fiberglass. Incidentally, the drum and boat hide surfaces are similarly stretched out with numerous babiche strings, and the boat surfaces even acquire a tonality when stricken, and could probably be tuned like a drum by controlling the tension in the strings. This is what is perhaps captured by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk) in their artwork Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin). (Fig 3) I can imagine even thinking about boats in terms of aurality, tonality, and pitches. But perhaps this is not too far to imagine; traditional knowledge emphasized listening to the sounds of nature, so perhaps boats were, even if not deliberately or explicitly, instruments involved in a wet aural ecosystem. "No waste" is evident in these examples, too. And not only is this empathetic (because of a deep understanding of the animal body), but the notion of space is itself empathetically produced, practically speaking, out of the understanding of working various membranes, organs, and geometries found in nature. And it is a holistic notion of space that encompasses not only visuality, but also touch, taste, and sound. A key idea in this all is, that innovation and the invention of simple yet highly sophisticated technology using various parts of the flora and fauna available were ultimately also ways of paying respect to the animal that the peoples believed had offered itself to them, which is indeed a significant dimension of empathy.

kayak

canoe
Fig 1 & 2: A kayak and canoe made by Doug Smarch from Teslin, exhibited at the Adäka Festival 2022 in Whitehorse, Yukon.

art installation
Fig 3: Vadzaih dhòh (Caribou Skin) by Copper Caribou (Montana Prysnuk and Delaney Prysnuk), exhibited at the Yukon Arts Center, Whitehorse

This empathy precedes the harvesting of an animal: many Indigenous peoples around the world believed that the hunting of animals involved complex human-animal relationships. Hunting did not simply imply the domination of all animal species by the human6; but as some scholars argue, human-animal relations can be construed in similar terms as human-human relationships, where notions of exchange, trade, and gift-giving, respect, and so on apply in all cases. The fact that numerous hunts could fail, that some animals appeared to allow themselves to be hunted, and other such factors have been vastly documented and interpreted as animals also having agency in the human-animal relationship.7 It is also claimed that some animals understand the ways that humans protect them; for example, keeping wolves and other predators away from herds of caribou and reindeer, and they reciprocate by offering few of their kin.8 It is evident that Indigenous peoples saw the relation between hunter and hunted as a courtship of sorts, where the gift of meat and other products was given by the animal to only those humans they perceived worthy. In such cases and anecdotes, the specificity of the context of each place, time, and human and non-human involved is significant, and much is lost if abstracted to any general theories. Indigenous notions of space are nuanced and information-rich, and only accessible when care and empathy are exercised from the beginning of any relationship.

As each animal is different, each tree is also different. As an elder pointed out to me, in traditional ways of boat building, logs were often floated out on the water to see how they would behave, float, turn, etc. Each log had a predisposition to become a certain kind of boat (or other artifact), and one had to pay special attention to what to do with each piece of material, as this was not predefined. An agency of sorts was thus given to each tree involved, too. Furthermore, boats and carvings were usually made from fallen trees; humans, animals, and inanimate beings were similarly and co-involved in the lifecycles of these artifacts. Harvesting material, both floral and faunal, was thus an act of a deep understanding of the complex ecosystem, its history, and the many actors involved. While philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead and even Bruno Latour offer conceptual frameworks to attribute similar tropes (actors and agents, in the case of Latour) to human, animal, and inanimate objects; with various Indigenous cosmologies, stories, and art forms, we can see this reified and occurring naturally and inevitably when empathy and care are involved in these peoples’ foraging, fishing, hunting, art-making, and building of buildings.

Regeneration

In the last few decades, much progress has been made in Canada in empowering Indigenous First Nations to return to self-governance and to return to practicing their traditions (hunting, fishing, etc.), which they have been denied for many decades. Much effort has also been made in attempting to regenerate their languages, which colonial powers had barred them from speaking, causing severe generational ruptures of knowledge transfer. Although most conversations today about becoming whole again and cultural regeneration in the Yukon inevitably begin with residential school experiences, there is also much hope, enthusiasm, and effort expressed in the regeneration of traditional activities, languages, and importantly, art. What the cosmology of the land amidst the water of the Southern Yukon First Nations also represents is their deep understanding of various cycles of disruption and regeneration in history, and thus also their abilities to adapt and regenerate. This is precisely what is evident in their continuing and augmenting their traditional activities, their reparation of the fabric of their languages by teaching and speaking them, and in their renewing their traditional art forms by reinvigorating lost methods and even integrating them with contemporary ones. While much of their knowledge is protected, and to be passed on only through the moieties and clans of the Yukon First Nations, much else is common and told repeatedly to regenerate a common ground of the region. An inductive research method such as mine opens one up to precisely this common conversational fabric. In this brief report, I hope I have not shared anything that wasn’t mine to share or that couldn’t be gleaned by someone present in the places I have been. I want to end with simply mentioning my immense gratitude to those who, through conversation, shaped a rendition of what Southern Yukon is and used to be.


1 From an origin story of the land, as told by Angela Sydney to Julie Cruikshank. See Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002), p 42–44.

Being from Teslin and from an inland Tlingit First Nation (influenced by the coastal Tlingit whose worlds were shaped by the oceans), the balance or shifting conditions between the lands and the waters were a significant part of their environment, and indeed their cosmology. Elders from different places have told this story with different characters, for example, the sea lion is replaced with a gull in the versions told by inland First Nations.

On a slightly separate note, it must also be mentioned that there are two important aspects that are the backdrop of this allegorical story (and many others of the Yukon First Nations): the ice ages and a great flood that the Yukon witnessed.

2 For detailed accounts and thorough explanations see Catharine McClellan, My Old People’s Stories: A Legacy for Yukon First Nations, vol. 1, 2 & 3 (Yukon Tourism and Culture, Cultural Services Branch, Occasional Papers in Yukon History, 2007), and; Catharine McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1987). The following has been summarized from conversations with various people and from reading McLellan’s work.

3 As I had pointed out in my previous Brooks fellowship report, the notion of empathy has been used in theories of German aesthetics (by H.F Mallgrave, Heinrich Wölfflin, August Schmarsow, etc.) to conceive of space using both, the abstract or general human figure and the spatial relations between an observer and an architectural body—or in other words, the identifying of an architectural body using tropes of understanding the human body. See Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994). I suggest that German Aesthetics and Indigenous notions of space share common ground, and I elaborate in what follows, how the latter can add several layers of complexity, nuance, and context to those of the former.

4 For detailed descriptions of many more traditional acts, skills, and methods, see McClellan, Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians.

5 This and the following practices or methods are common to several Yukon First Nations—common to the extent that they have been raised in numerous conversations I have had.

6 See the introduction of Tim Ingold, ed., What Is an Animal? (Routledge, 2016), and; Tim Ingold, “From Trust to Domination: An Alternative History of Human-Animal Relations,” in Animals and Human Society (Routledge, 2002), 13–34.

7 I am grateful to Norman Easton for clarifying this insight, and for pointing me to some very valuable literature. For reference, see Norman Alexander Easton, “‘It’s Hard Enough to Control Yourself; It’s Ridiculous to Think You Can Control Animals.’ Competing Views on ‘The Bush’ in Contemporary Yukon,” Northern Review, no. 29 (2008): 21–38; Paul Nadasdy, “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): and; Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (Routledge, 2002).

8 Bathsheba Demuth, “Reindeer at the End of the World,” Emergence Magazine, July 5, 2020, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/reindeer-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

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