Geologic artistry in the canyon country of the Hart River. J Peepre.
In traditional times, the rewards of life on the land were hard won. People travelled great distances to survive, carrying their livelihoods with them as they hunted, and shaping their lives to the ways of the animals on which they depended. They fashioned all they needed—weapons, boats, cooking utensils, even boats– from stone, wood and the many different parts of caribou and other animals. Home was where the animals were—the winter hunt camps, the summer fish camps.
For the Tetl’it Gwich’in, the Peel was the centre of their world. They called it Teetl’it njik, meaning “along the head of the waters.” Tetl’it Gwich’in means “people who live at the head of the waters.” They were mountain people, hunting caribou throughout the valleys of the Richardson and Ogilvie mountains for most of the year. In summer, they descended to the Peel River and fished.
Other First Nations also travelled the mountains and valleys of this vast region during their yearly cycles. The Nacho Nyak Dun are “big river people,” and live on the banks of the Stewart River in Mayo, Yukon, south of the Wernecke Mountains. They are the most northern of the Yukon’s Tutchone First Nations, and their lives are oriented mainly towards the Yukon River, which runs roughly through the middle of Tutchone traditional territory.
But the Peel watershed has always been important to them as well. They would climb into the Wernecke and Ogilvie Mountains to snare Dall sheep as its meat was a special delicacy, and its supple soft skins were used for making children’s clothing. When barren-ground caribou wintered in the Peel watershed, the word would spread and they travelled over the mountains to hunt them. In more recent times, Nacho Nyak Dun also trapped and prospected in the Peel watershed.
Their life revolved around chinook salmon, which spawn every summer in the Stewart, a tributary of the Yukon River, which has the world’s longest run of migrating chinook salmon. In traditional times, the late summer runs of spawning salmon were immense—a natural spectacle on a par with the movement of the great herds of barren-ground caribou. At favoured fish camps, such as Fraser Falls, the Nacho Nyak set up weirs and wove funnel-shaped fish traps out of willow branches. Everyone stayed busy catching, cleaning and drying fish—setting aside large quantities of dried salmon for winter.
The seasonal round was similar for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in—“people of the river” in their Han language. They now live in Dawson City, where the annual run of salmon on the Yukon River is still a seasonal highlight. In fall the Han used to move north to hunt, trap and pick berries, and their traditional territory includes parts of the Hart River watershed and the entire Ogilvie and Blackstone river drainages.
(adapted from Wild Rivers of the Peel Watershed, 2008)