Violet Storer, 1995,“We use to go all through there, what they call Shakat, drying meat and stuff like that as we go along we made caches and end up at M’Clintock and from there we drift down to Marsh Lake and stay at Marsh Lake for a while with Mr. Johnnie Joe and there again my dad would set nets for whitefish and trout.”
For the First Nations people, the land was their livelihood, their larder, and their ancestral home. They traveled year round by foot over a network of trails that extended hundreds of square kilometres. In summer, they also navigated the waterways by rafts, dugout canoes and mooseskin boats.
In the 1920s, people caught and dried salmon at summer fish camps above and below Whitehorse Rapids. At the larger lakes, they fished for burbot, lake trout and white fish. In fall they hunted moose, sheep and caribou. The area now covered by Schwatka Lake was a favourite berry-picking spot. In winter when fur was at its best, families trapped for fox, mink, lynx, marten, coyote and wolf.
After Whitehorse was established, First Nations people adapted their seasonal rounds to the new economy. They sold wild meat and fish and took seasonal jobs for the railway, on sternwheelers, and at wood camps. They came to Whitehorse to trade, visit and work, staying on the edges of town. One settlement was near the bluff, west of the present Robert Service Campground.
Two Yukon First Nations have their traditional lands in the Whitehorse area – the Taa’an Kwächän and the Kwanlin Dün. The Southern Tutchone names for these people reflect their ties to the land. Taa’an means “head of the lake,” referring to Lake Laberge, while Kwanlin means “water running through a narrow place,” describing the turbulent waters of Miles Canyon and Whitehorse Rapids.
For centuries the Southern Tutchone had strong trade and family ties with groups from all over the Yukon and the Alaska panhandle. In 1898, their lives changed radically. According to one elder, the Klondike gold rush brought “so many white people, there was like water running all the time.”
For Aboriginal people, their close links to the land are crucial to their cultural identity. Land claim settlements recognize the Yukon’s First Nations as separate levels of government working with the governments of Yukon and Canada. Yukon’s First Nations rely on wisdom and experience of their elders to draw from tradition and direct their paths into the future. Irene Smith, 1990, “You know where Lake Laberge is now, the new village… my grandma used to go out grouse hunting, gopher hunting. All through there, there were lots of old bush camps… they all burned up when there’s fire in 1958.”
Excavated artifacts found in the Whitehorse area date back as far as the end of the last Ice Age, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago.