Kaska (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Kaskatmp2056_thumbis taken from the local name for McDame Creek. The Kaska were culturally related to the Sekani. They are also known, or included, with the Tahltan and others, among the people called Nahani (Nahane) or Mackenzie Mountain People.

Location Kaskas lived and continue to live in northern British Columbia and southern Yukon Territory, in a rough triangle from the Pelly River south to Dease Lake and east to the Fort Nelson River.

Population The Kaska probably numbered around 500 before contact with non-natives. Their official 1991 population was 705.

Language Kaska, along with Tahltan and Tagish, is a Northern Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History 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.

Religion Young men and women fasted in order 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.

Government 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.

Customs 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 building strength, with icy 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.

Dwellings 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 summer.

Diet Men hunted mainly caribou, but also buffalo, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and numerous smaller game. They drove large game into pounds, snared them, or caught them in deadfalls or pitfalls. Beaver were clubbed to death. Meat was generally boiled, often in a dried moose stomach, but could be sun dried and stored. It was rarely eaten raw. Salmon and other fish were caught in summer. Women gathered berries and a few other wild plant foods such as mushrooms, onions, lily bulbs, and rhubarb.

Key Technology 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.

Other important items included fishing nets, weirs, and clubs; woven spruce baskets for cooking; horn or wood spoons; wood or birch-bark dishes; cordage of sinew, spruce root, and willow bark; and tools, such as axes, knives, and scrapers, made of stone, bone, antler, and horn. Skins were prepared and tanned in various ways.

Trade Kaskas traded with the Tahltan, Tlingit, and other groups along or near the coast.

Notable Arts Clothing was decorated with porcupine-quill and moose-hair embroidery. Some groups developed the custom of carving wooden animal masks for potlatches.

Transportation 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. Gas-powered boats and dogsleds have been in wide use since the 1940s.

Dress Most clothing was made of sewn caribou skins. Both sexes wore belted breechclouts, skin shirt (hooded in winter), and leggings, belted and fastened to moccasins in 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.

War and Weapons 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.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Kaska bands include Laird River, Dease River, Lower Post, and Ross River. The Ross River Dena Council and the Laird First Nation are part of the Kaska Tribal Council.

Economy Important economic activities include fishing, trapping, and professional guiding and other wage labor.

Legal Status The bands listed under "Government/ Reservations" are federally recognized.

Daily Life Kaskas have spoken English for several generations. Most are Catholic.

Two moose-skin boats sit on the bank, and the frame of an unfinished boat can be seen in the foreground (1918).

Two moose-skin boats sit on the bank, and the frame of an unfinished boat can be seen in the foreground (1918).

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