Sekani (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Sekanitmp2061_thumb, "People of the Rocks" (Rocky Mountains), from their own self-designation. They were culturally related to the Beaver and the Kaska.

Location Traditional Sekani territory is the Parsnip and Finlay River Basins, British Columbia. An eighteenth-century expansion to the south was largely checked by the Shuswap. In the nineteenth century, some groups had moved west into areas draining into the Pacific Ocean (Bear Lake and northern Takla Lake) to gain access to salmon. The people also gave up large parts of their eastern territory.

Population There were probably around 3,000 Sekani in the eighteenth century and around 200 in the early nineteenth century, not counting 300 or so people in groups living west of the Arctic-Pacific divide. The 1991 Sekani population was 630, exclusive of Indians officially considered "non-status."

Language Sekanis spoke an Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History The Sekani may have originated east of the mountains and been driven west by the Cree. They may once have been united with the Beaver. They probably first encountered non-natives in 1793. Around the same time, Shuswaps stopped the southward expansion of the people.

The North West Company established two posts in 1805, including Trout Lake (Fort McLeod). Trade forts continued to be established for the next several decades. The people began a decline shortly after the trade posts opened that was mainly linked with alcohol abuse and disease.

The Omineca gold rush occurred in 1861. By 1870, over 1,000 non-native trappers and miners had occupied the territory of the Senaki. Environmental degradation and the decline of natural resources, including game animals, were the result. In consequence of these trends, mal- and undernourishment were added to the people’s woes, and their population declined even more sharply. Still armed mainly with traditional weapons, the people at that time were forced to give up their winter grounds east of the Rocky Mountains to the Beaver and Cree, who had access to firearms. Catholic missionaries were active in the area from about 1870 on.

Two new bands or groups created around the turn of the century were the T’lotona (Sasuchans intermarried with Gitksans) and Davie’s Band (Otzane), people organized around the son of a French Canadian man and a Sasuchan woman. A large dam created in the 1960s displaced many bands and separated several traditionally linked Sekani groups.

Religion Young men fasted and dreamed alone in the wilderness to acquire supernatural guides, which were associated with animals or birds. These guides were only of help in emergencies. However, men might obtain other guides later in life, associated with either animals or natural forces, that might provide more regular assistance. These men became shamans, who were able to cause and cure disease, the latter for pay.

Women could not become curers but they could, through dreaming, acquire the power to foretell the future. Disease was considered to be caused by soul loss, taboo breaking, or malice. Some people were influenced by a quasi-Christian cult in the 1830s.

Government Several autonomous bands were led by a headman of little real authority. Sekani was the name of one such band. Regional bands in the nineteenth century were, from north to south, Tseloni, Sasuchan, Yutuwichan, and Tsekani. Other groups may have been Meadow Indians and Baucanne (Says-Thau-Dennehs). Bands owned hunting territories.

Customs Names were derived ultimately from guardian spirits. Most children were nursed for about three years. At puberty, girls were secluded and forced to observe special food and behavioral taboos, all designed to keep them apart from men and animals. Boys fasted and dreamed for spirit guides.

Men might have more than one wife, especially if the wives were sisters. Newly married men served their in-laws for a year or so but lived apart from them during that time. The dead may anciently have been buried in the ground or covered in brush huts; they were later cremated. Chiefs or other people of authority were placed in hollow-log coffins deposited in trees or on platforms. Daily mourning (wailing) could last for years after a death. The Sekani adopted matrilineal divisions and even quasi-potlatches for a short time in the nineteenth century, in imitation of the Carrier and Gitksan.

Dwellings Temporary conical lodges were covered with spruce bark or, later, moose hide. The people also built lean-tos covered with brush, bark, or skins as well as brush menstrual huts.

Diet Large game, such as moose, caribou, mountain sheep, and bear, constituted the bulk of the Sekani diet. Many other animals were also hunted, including porcupine, beaver, and marmot. There was some buffalo hunting, at least around 1800, in the eastern foothills and prairies. Some groups hunted in both summer and winter. Meat was boiled, roasted, or smoke dried.

Trout and whitefish were the most important fish species. Fish were occasionally taken at night, from canoes, in the light of pine torches. Other foods included fowl and berries. Surplus food was cached in trees.

Key Technology Hunting tools and war weapons included the bow and arrow, club (fashioned from a moose jawbone), and spear. The people also used deadfalls and babiche snares to take both large and small game. They caught fish with willow bark or nettle-fiber nets, bone hooks, spears, and some weirs. Most tools were made of bone, wood, and antler, with some stone for points and blades. They made spruce-bark or woven spruce-root containers and hide or netting bags. Babies were carried in bags lined with groundhog or rabbit fur.

Trade The Sekani traded with Carrier groups. They exported mainly products of the hunt.

Notable Arts Sekanis decorated their clothing with porcupine-quill and moose-hair embroidery.

Transportation Most people traveled overland, carrying their possessions on their backs. They used snowshoes in winter and, occasionally, some spruce-bark canoes.

Dress Men wore a sleeveless skin shirt, which they sometimes laced together between their legs, high skin leggings, and moccasins lined with fur. They added a breechclout after sustained contact with the Cree. Women wore similar clothing, although their leggings were shorter and their shirts were longer. Sometimes they wore a short apron as well.

Items of personal adornment included horn and bone bracelets. Hunters wore grizzly bear claws around their necks. Both sexes painted their bodies and wore marmot or hare robes, caps, and mittens in winter.

War and Weapons Enemies included the Cree, Beaver, and Shuswap. The Carrier were mostly friends, with notable exceptions. There was also some interband fighting. Bows were tipped with stone point "bayonets" for stabbing at close range.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Fort Ware Band owns three reserves with a total land area of 391 hectares. There were 328 band members in the mid-1990s, of whom 277 lived on the reserves. A chief and councilors are elected by custom. The band is affiliated with the Kaska Dene Tribal Council.

The Tsay Keh Dine Band (formerly known as Ingenika, a part [with Fort Ware] of the Finlay River Band [Tseloni and Sasuchan Bands]) owns five reserves with a total land area of 201 hectares. There were 282 band members in the mid-1990s, of whom 2 lived on the reserves (much of their land was flooded by BC Hydro) and a number on Crown lands. A chief and councilors are elected by custom. The band is affiliated with the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.

The McLeod Lake Band is located in British Columbia.

Economy Important economic activities include freighting, trapping, guiding, logging, and construction.

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

Daily Life Children attend federal and/or band and/or provincial schools. Fort Ware Band facilities include offices, a school, a community hall, a store, a clinic, and a motel. Tsay Keh Dine facilities include an airstrip, a school, offices, a fire station, and a community center.

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