American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Kaska

"Kaska" is taken from the local name for McDame Creek. The Kaskas were culturally related to the Sekanis. They are also known, or included, with the Tahltans and others, among the people called Nahani (Nahane) or Mackenzie Mountain People. Kaskas lived and continue to live in northern British Columbia and the southern Yukon Territory, in a rough triangle from the Pelly River south to Dease Lake and east to the Fort Nelson River. The Kaskas probably numbered around 500 before contact with non-Natives. Kaska, along with Tahltan and Tagish, is a Northern Athapaskan language.

Young men and women fasted to acquire animal guardian spirits in dreams and visions. Illness was said to be caused by breaking taboos. Shamans cured and foretold the future with recourse to their powerful spirit guides. Curing methods included blowing water onto the body or transferring the illness to another object.

There were at least four divisions. Each was composed of independent regional bands that had no fixed membership but generally consisted of local bands of extended families. Local band leadership was provided by the best hunters. Women occasionally served in important leadership positions.

Two matrilineal clans, Wolf and Raven, were borrowed from coastal tribes, as was the institution of the memorial potlatch. Also from coastal cultures, women acquired the custom of attacking symbolic enemies while their husbands were away at war.

Birth took place apart from the community out of fear of spiritual contamination. From late childhood on, boys began training for the vision quest, as well as building strength, with icy water plunges and other physically demanding activities. Women were secluded and observed various taboos during their menstrual periods. Girls married in their mid-teens, boys slightly later or as soon as they could provide for a family. Men served their prospective in-laws for a year before the wedding; thereafter, they avoided speaking to one another. Though frowned upon, divorce was common. The dead were wrapped in skins and left under a pile of brush; later the tribe adopted cremation and underground burial.

The people enjoyed many games and contests. Most life cycle events were marked by feasts. Names were inherited, as were some material items. Peer pressure usually sufficed as a means of social control; more serious offenses might be dealt with by exile, payments, or revenge.

Two or more families lived in conical or A-frame lodges covered with sod, brush, or skin. Most people used simple brush lean-tos in the summer. From coastal groups, Kaskas learned to weave blankets and ropes of sheep wool and goat hair. Babies were carried in skin bags padded with moss and rabbit fur. Men hunted with the bow and arrow as well as with spears, clubs, and especially babiche snares. Some groups may have used the atlatl. Men built dugouts and spruce-bark canoes; sewn caribou skin toboggans; two different types of snowshoes, depending on the quality of the snow; and moose skin boats.

Men hunted mainly caribou, but also buffalo, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and numerous smaller types of game. They drove large game into pounds, snared them, or caught them in deadfalls or pitfalls. Beavers were clubbed to death. Salmon and other fish were caught in the summer. Women gathered berries and a few other wild plant foods, such as mushrooms, onions, lily bulbs, and rhubarb.

Most clothing was made of sewn caribou skins. Both sexes wore belted breechclouts, skin shirts (hooded in the winter), and leggings, belted and fastened to moccasins in the winter. Other winter gear included mittens and hide robes. Clothing was often decorated with porcupine quill embroidery, sewn fringe, and hard material obtained from moose stomach. People tattooed their bodies and wore ear and nose rings for personal ornamentation.

Wars were fought either to steal women or to avenge violent acts performed by strangers. War party leadership was selected on an ad hoc basis. Younger men carried the supplies while seasoned warriors did the fighting. There was some limited ceremonial cannibalism.

The people traded with non-Natives through Tlingit intermediaries until Fort Simpson, on the Laird and Mackenzie Rivers, was established in the early nineteenth century as the local trade center. Forts Laird and Nelson opened soon afterward. Fort Halkett, the first trade fort located directly in Kaska territory, was established soon after 1821. The people gradually came to rely on metal pots, nails, wire, and tools as well as items such as flour, soap, candles, guns and ammunition, and kerosene.

Kaska territory was invaded by gold seekers in the 1870s and again during the Klondike gold rush of 1897, seriously disrupting their traditional way of life. A Catholic mission was established in 1926. In the early 1940s the Alaskan Highway was built through their territory. Trapping remained important well into the contemporary period.

 

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