Genealogical work preserves the Southern Tutchones' story

A Yukon News story originally published December 11, 1998


Thanks to the detailed memories of several Southern Tutchone elders, and the dedicated work of one of their descendants, 150 years of their people's genealogical history have been preserved and recorded for future generations.

Margaret Workman, the Southern Tutchone specialist at the Yukon Native Language Centre, began gathering information in 1992, working with Sam Williams, an elder from Aishihik who passed away two years ago.

Workman is a fluent speaker of the language. She grew up in the traditional way with her parents and extended family members around the Aishihik Lake area.

"It was Sam who really got it started," she explained. "He told me, 'It's good that you ask all these questions, otherwise you won't find out anything.'"

With Williams' encouragement and input, Workman began organizing the information she was collecting into a family tree, using large sheets of chart paper.

Williams was the great-grandson of Isaac Chief, a prominent elder and leader from the Aishihik area who lived during the 1800s.

Isaac Chief is important because most of the Aishihik people are related to him, Workman explained, and because he assisted his extended family in many ways.

He was known as a healer, a good dancer and a great singer, and his three Indian names recognized these skills.

In fact, Williams was named after Sam Isaac, the oldest son of Chief Isaac and the brother of Williams' mother.

Workman explained that her genealogical work was made more difficult because the missionaries and traders of the time often used the Christian first names of First Nations men as surnames for their children.

The aboriginal names were largely ignored by the newcomers, or considered too difficult to pronounce, even though they were still being actively used and passed on by the native people.

That meant, confusingly, that Isaac Chief's children were known by the last name of Isaac, and that his grandchildren had different surnames depending on their father's first name.

It was Williams, as well as Bessie Allen, another elder from Aishihik, and Jessie Joe, an elder from Burwash, who helped Workman sort out the confusion with the different surnames.

But it was while working with Bessie Crow, an elder from Haines Junction who died last summer, that Workman was able to determine many of the traditional Indian names for Isaac Chiefs family.

Crow was a great-granddaughter of Isaac Chief, whose mother, born at Aishihik, was the sixth child of the eldest son of Isaac Chief.

Over a four-year period starting in 1993, Workman taped their conversations while Bessie Crow recited the history of the Isaac Chief family going back five generations.

"Doing this with Bessie everything fell into place because she knew so much and remembered everything," Workman explained.

"She remembered the names of every member of the family."

"I'll give you all their Indian names," Crow, who was also Workman's great-aunt, told Workman.

"I know them in the order they were born. For some of them, I don't know the English names, but I know all the Indian names."

Workman marvelled over Crow's phenomenal memory: "She wouldn't miss a beat.

"If she missed someone, she would go back and be able to fit them into the family history without getting lost."

Bessie Crow was also able to provide important information about the history of the Southern Tutchone people, thanks to the stories she had listened to as a child.

Her great-great-grandfather, Golan, was a Tlingit from Klukwan, Alaska, who first came to the Yukon as a young man with a group of Tlingit traders.

In Selkirk he met and fell in love with Màdàka, a young Southern Tutchone woman. Because her family did not want her to leave and go to Alaska, and because she was not yet of age, they sent her to Aishihik to live with relatives.

She and Golan married the following year and settled in Aishihik, where their children, including their son Isaac Chief, were born.

It was Golan's people, the Tlingit, who brought the first trade goods from Russian traders into the interior from the coast.

Bessie Crow remembered her mother and grandmother telling her of the first knife and the first pot coming into the country. Tlingit traders exchanged them for soft tanned moosehide.

The moosehide was highly prized by the Tlingit, and the Southern Tutchone people would hunt all winter in preparation for the spring visits of the traders from the coast.

Crow also remembered being a little girl - "so high," she explained to Workman, holding her hand three feet from the ground - when the last big potlatch was held in 1925 at Aishihik.

It was held to commemorate Chief Isaac (the son of Isaac Chief), who had died the year before, and people came from Champagne, Selkirk, Moosehide, Kloo Lake, and Klukshu for this important event.

Key to the success of Workman's research work was her knowledge of both spoken and written Southern Tutchone.

That meant that Bessie Crow could describe family members and tell stories about the family and its origins in her own language while Workman asked questions and taped the conversations.

It also meant that Workman could transcribe the interviews by listening to them in Southern Tutchone and simultaneously translating them into English as she typed the information into a computer.

Each personal name requires individual attention, and she meticulously notes each consonant, vowel, and tone pattern, and where possible gives the English translation.

Many names resist translation into English because they are so old.

The information collected was then transcribed onto the growing family tree being developed on chart paper.

Workman has sent the information she has gathered to the Champagne-Aishihik heritage department for input onto computer, to provide members of the First Nation with information about their ancestry as well as ensure that the data is preserved.

She will keep the information up to date by adding the names of new family members as they are born, including both English names and traditional Indian names if these have been passed on from grandparents and other relatives.

And her own children will also now have answers to the questions they used to keep asking her.

"My grandmother used to tell them stories about who they were related to, about relatives in Burwash, Carmacks, Pelly and Champagne," she said.

"And then they would ask me how these people were inter-related, but I didn't know all the details."

Now, thanks to the patient and comprehensive work of Workman and her informants, they do.

Submitted by the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College in Whitehorse.