Porcupine River

LaPierre House

Photo from LaPierre House

Welcome to Zheh Gwatsàl: LaPierre House

LaPierre House sits in a rich and diverse area that was part of the homeland of the Dagoo Gwich’in of the upper Porcupine River. The area has a long history of use by Dagoo Gwich’in, Van Tat Gwich’in (also spelled Vuntut Gwich’in) from the Old Crow area, and Teetl’it Gwich’in (also spelled Tetlit Gwich’in) from the Fort McPherson area, Northwest Territories. Drawn by the abundance of flora and fauna, people came here to hunt, trap, fish, gather plants and congregate. Gwich’in stories emphasize an ancestral connection to the land that is deep and timeless. The stories are complemented by archaeological findings of artifacts and animal bones that date back over 2,500 years in this area.

LaPierre House is a former Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, established in 1846 and run as a winter supply post. Named after the man who built and ran the post for the first few years, LaPierre House is known as Zheh Gwatsàl [small house] in Gwich’in.

Nestled in a rich hunting area, LaPierre House became a meeting point between Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories and Fort Yukon, Alaska, and supplied the dried caribou and fish consumed there. After the Hudson’s Bay Company left Yukon in 1893, it was run by private traders. By 1940, use of LaPierre House had dramatically declined. Today, the site welcomes visitors and tells the fascinating story of history and continued cultural connections to LaPierre House. You are invited to tour the site and experience its rich natural and social history.

Tread Softly at LaPierre House

LaPierre House is a historic site in a delicate ecosystem. Tread softly and leave the site as you found it. This site is protected under the Yukon Historic Resources Act and the Vuntut Gwitchin Heritage Act. Do not disturb archaeological or historic remains.

“A good place. That’s the main place, that’s the reason the Gwich’in people pick that place to stay around there because it’s good for fish, good for trapping, good for hunting and that’s the main place for caribou. People used to gather there and dry meat.”Charlie Peter Charlie

LaPierre House: A rich environment

The area surrounding LaPierre House is part of the unique natural environment of the upper Porcupine River. Looking downstream at the river banks, the bluffs, the canyon and the cliffs, the geology of this region tells the story of change. At one time the Porcupine River (Ch’oodèenjik) drained northeast of LaPierre House via McDougall Pass, through the Richardson Mountains and into the Arctic Ocean. During the most recent glaciation, ice on the east side of the mountain blocked the river causing it to back up and form a glacial lake. There was a similar effect on the Peel River. The bluffs on the Crow and Porcupine rivers show sediment from these lakes.

Eventually, these lakes became connected and, around 12,500 years ago, they cut a new outlet at the Ramparts just upriver from the Alaska/Yukon border. The huge volume of water eroded the bedrock to form spectacular cliffs. As you travel downriver from LaPierre House, you can occasionally see this history revealed in old beach lines and sediment bluffs, far from where the current river flows.

In more recent times, the numerous rivers and lakes in the area of LaPierre House formed extremely rich habitat for plants, fish, caribou, moose and fur-bearing animals. The Porcupine River valley continues to be a rich food source for the Gwich’in.

“You see that hill there: it was good for cranberries in the fall…. We picked it all winter alongside that hill. You see all the way back that way, it was good for marten too. It was good for everything.

Then, there was lots of fish. [Now] it’s dried up, not the same. There used to be so many fish through there. Coming down this way there was lots of mink. That’s because there was lots of fish there. Today it’s not like that.”

Mary Kassi (Vuntut Gwitchin Oral History Collection)

LaPierre House: Travel and the fur trade

LaPierre House is situated among the most remote destinations in North America. Until about 1840, Gwich’in traders travelled great distances and traded through middlemen known as “trading chiefs”. Travel to the Porcupine River required an extensive and challenging journey. At various times, traders travelled to the area through the river systems from present day Alaska, through the Mackenzie River system from eastern Canada, or by ship to the Arctic Coast followed by a considerable overland journey. These routes were used by traders seeking to purchase furs or meat from the Gwich’in in exchange for basic tools and, later, foodstuffs.

The first non-Gwich’in traders in Van Tat Gwich’in country were from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The company ran a post on the Peel River (at present-day Fort McPherson) from 1840 and moved west across the mountains to establish outposts at LaPierre House in 1846 and Fort Yukon (in Russian territory) in 1847. Both outposts were moved after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. The Hudson’s Bay Company closed LaPierre House and Rampart House and, in 1893, withdrew to Fort McPherson on the east side of the Richardson Mountains.

A series of private traders came to the area and established stores at Rampart House, LaPierre House, Whitestone Village, Johnson Creek Village, and later, at Old Crow. Van Tat Gwich’in Elders born at the turn of the 20th century remember these individuals and the time when Gwich’in traveled and traded throughout this area.

Between 1925 and 1935, Jim and Frank Jackson operated a trading post here. By the late 1930s, it was all but abandoned, used only sporadically by local hunters and trappers. Around 1940, the last residents of LaPierre House moved to Fort McPherson.

“In my father’s day they used to travel back and forth, they used to walk from Zheh Gwatsàl over to Fort McPherson. You go past this glacier in the mountain. No matter whether there is water or not, you have to be brave to pass there…. When they walked, it took them two days.”John Joe Kyikavichik (LaPierre House Oral History, 1995:28-132)

Who Lived Near Zheh Gwatsàl?

Zheh Gwatsàl is in the traditional homeland of the Dagoo Gwich’in. The Dagoo established settlements at Johnson Creek Village and Whitestone Village and, for a time, traders had posts there as well as at LaPierre House. Neighbouring Gwich’in groups, the Van Tat Gwich’in to the west and the Teetl’it Gwich’in to the east used local travel routes, and were drawn to the area for the abundance of hunting and trapping opportunities. Beginning in the early 20th century, non-Indigenous trappers and traders began to use Dagoo Gwich’in territory.

By the mid-20th century, upper Porcupine River (Ch’oodèenjik) and the surrounding area had been “cleaned out” of furbearers and food species. This was the result of over-trapping and hunting during the 1930s by non-Indigenous trappers who were seeking a living during the great depression, as well as pressures from Gwich’in and other First Nation trappers.

Practices used by some non-Indigenous trappers, such as strychnine poisoning, overwhelmed the Dagoo traditional conservation practices and management methods. The decline in animals that provided fur and food was one factor that led the Dagoo to leave and disperse amongst their neighbours, primarily Van Tat and Teetl’it Gwich’in.

More recently, Gwich’in wildlife monitoring indicates there has been a noticeable return of animals to this important hunting and trapping area. In the spring, many Gwich’in have high-water camps in the area. In the winter, hunters travel overland through this region and in spring the communities of Old Crow and Fort McPherson visit each other by traveling the ancient travel route.

“Long ago, they said a lot of people lived around here [upper Porcupine River], the Dagoo people. From here, the Dagoo people scattered all over: Dawson, Eagle, lots went over to Fort McPherson. My grandfather Ch’ichi’Viti’ along with his children, he stayed behind and lived here. He made his living around here with his children during the winter. In the summer, they went down to Rampart House. They came back in the fall time and stayed here all winter.” Alfred Charlie (Vuntut Gwitchin Oral History) VG2000–4–8:041–061 VGG photo Collection

Travelling Ministers

In 1858, Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries travelled to the Gwich’in lands seeking Indigenous converts. The Anglican Church Missionary Society, supported by the Protestant traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, successfully converted many Gwich’in people in Yukon.

Largely due to the personality and efforts of the Reverend Robert McDonald, who first journeyed to the Yukon territory in 1862, Gwich’in people developed a strong attachment to Christianity. A talented linguist, McDonald learned the language of the local people, created an alphabet, a dictionary and translated religious books into Gwich’in. He visited their camps, married Julia Kutuq, a Gwich’in woman, and trained First Nation catechists to bring the Christian message to outlying camps.

Many Gwich’in people became church leaders. In Canada, Ellen Bruce, John Martin, Richard Martin, William Njootli, Amos Njootli, Big Joe Kyikavichik, Edward Sittichinli, Lazarus Sittichinli, Percy Henry, Hannah Alexie and Marion Schafer were ordained. Amos Njootli, the deacon at Rampart House for many years, saw St. Luke’s church built during his time there. The congregation moved to Old Crow in 1921, when the majority of the people relocated there.

Ellen Bruce

Ellen Bruce was born in Rampart House and spent her early years on the land. She moved to Old Crow permanently in 1949. She learned to read Tukudh and conduct church services from her father, Big Joe Kyikavichik (Kaye). She became a lay reader, was granted an honorary Doctor of Divinity from St. Stephen’s College, and became the first ordained First Nations woman in the North in 1987. A spiritual leader in her community, she was honoured as a Member of the Order of Canada for her over fifty years of service.

LaPierre House and Gwich’in: Times of Change

Looking at LaPierre House now, you might wonder how the changes over the years have influenced the people who used it. Today, there is no fur-trading post at Zheh Gwatsàl and the Gwich’in economy is no longer based on trapping.

Over time, Gwich’in have incorporated new occupations, education, languages and land use into their lives. Today, people continue to hunt, fish, trap and travel on the land and most families have one or more camps out of town.

Through active efforts to share traditional knowledge with younger generations, including visiting and telling stories about places like Zheh Gwatsàl, Gwich’in connection to the land, culture and tradition remains strong. Elders share their traditional knowledge in museum displays and school programs. Gwich’in traditional knowledge informs the management of lands, fish, animals and other resources.

Vuntut Gwitchin Traditional Territory has been formally recognized under land claims as a cultural homeland. Zheh Gwatsàl, is situated at a crossroads for travel over the Richardson Mountains and down the Little Bell and Bell rivers. It is a rich environment for fishing and hunting and is an important site within the Vuntut Gwich’in cultural homeland.

“[My mother] talked to us about hard times coming back. Today, my mother was telling the truth, I think to myself. She told us, ‘When you go out on the land, look after the land well. That land is sacred.’… She said it will be hard times coming; today we see it. That’s why it’s important to teach our children how to hunt, how to work with meat. If they’re taught all that today, that will be good.”Marion Schafer (Vuntut Gwitchin Oral History Collection    VG2002-03-19:090-105)

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