The Teslin Tlingit are descendants of the Taku Qwan who moved inland from the coast of Alaska in the early 18th century. The Taku Qwan married into their trading partners’ families but retained social and economic ties with their coastal relatives.
The Inland Tlingit of Dakh ka Tlingit live in Teslin, Carcross and nearby Atlin, B.C. Each community has a slightly different dialect which is also different from the Tlingit spoken on the coast. Coastal speakers say that some Teslin words and phrases are an older style of Tlingit.
The Teslin Tlingit traditions, culture and social patterns played an important role in modern treaty negotiations and their self-government implementation. Their 1995 land claim agreement emphasizes the roles of the five clans: Yanyedi (Wolf), Dakhl’awedi (Eagle), Kukhhittan (Raven Children), Deshitan (Beaver) and Ishkitan (Frog).
The construction of the Alaska Highway brought drastic change to the Teslin area but the patterns of an older society remain. The United States Army Corps of Engineers followed George Johnston’s pioneer road to Fox Creek when they surveyed the tote road past this rest stop in 1941.
Learn more at the George Johnston Museum in Teslin and the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre at Nàgas’ê X’àyi (Fox Point).
Travel on Teslin Lake
Before the Alaska Highway was constructed, boats of all sizes travelled Teslin Lake to bring supplies for the trading posts and deliver families to their hunting, fishing and trapping areas.
Klondike stampeders and the Canadian military used the Teslin Trail from the Stikine River and then boarded or built boats at Teslin Lake to travel the water route to Dawson.
Teslin Lake freezes solid in winter, allowing travel by various means including dog tem, showshoes, snowmobiles and skis.
“Tes-lin-too” (long, narrow water)
Early Tlingit traders followed trails from the coast to Teslin Lake. They brought wooden boxes, baskets, seaweed and eulachon oil to trade for obsidian, copper and furs. When Russian and European trade goods became available in the 19th century they added axes, tobacco, blankets, calico, guns and matches.
Inland Tlingit travelled the country following the seasonal migrations of fish and game. They trapped beaver and hunted waterfowl around the Nisutlin River delta in the spring and then traveled up the Nisutlin River to fish for salmon. Families went into the mountains to hunt caribou, sheep, moose and gophers in late August. Winter was the fur trapping season and by February families were looking for good ice-fishing lakes and fresh meat.
In spring 1942, a highway construction camp was established in the area and for the first time, the local First Nation people stayed in a community over the winter instead of going out on their trap lines.
Only a few Teslin people spend time on trap lines today, but most still hunt and fish to fill their freezers.
The Naming of Fox Point - Nàgas’ê ei X’àyi (As Related by a Teslin Elder)
Many years ago some women wanted to come up to their salmon cache at Yéł Łitayi (Crowknife) up the Nałasìn River (Nisutlin River). They camped along the lakeshore at the mouth of Teslin River. There was a woman Indian doctor living there also and she had a vision that something bad would happen if they went to this cache and she told them that they shouldn't but they went. So she went along with them and her grandchild was with her.
She told them they would see three signs and that these were bad luck. The first sign they saw was a wolverine coming across the lake and it was dancing. They kept on going then they saw lynx coming across and it was also dancing. They still kept on going and the last sign they saw was a fox dancing across the lake and she told them this last sign was really bad and that they should turn back but they wouldn’t listen So she told her grandchild no matter what happens you hang onto my belt and never let go.
That night they camped under the cache and she told them to be ready all the time and to dry out their clothes good. In the morning someone went to pack water and they saw a war party coming and she hollered to warn the rest of the women but they were not ready and the woman took her grandchild and went around the people.
She came onto their trail and followed it. She could hear the people fighting. She came to below present village and she hollered twice and a big north wind came up and covered their tracks. The war party followed her tracks to where the north wind came up but couldn't follow her from there.
She went back and told the people what happened and they got ready to fight back. They started back up this way. The war party was camped where the present graveyard is. They surrounded them right there and killed them all off. That’s where Fox Point got its name from.
Cold Water, Few Nutrients, Old Fish
Like many large lakes in southern Yukon, Teslin Lake is said to be ‘oligotrophic’, meaning it has a low concentration of nutrients, such as iron or phosphorous. While the reasons for low nutrient levels vary, oligotrophic lakes tend to be cold, clear, and deep. Under these conditions, plants and animals live at low densities and grow slowly.
With few nutrients to feed on, plankton in the lake exist at low densities. Small fish, like the Round Whitefish, eat plankton and have to spend more time searching for food. With less plankton available, small fish also exist at low densities.
Large predatory fish such as Lake Trout depend on small fish for food. When densities of small fish are low, Lake Trout grow slowly and take a long time to reach reproductive age. In many Yukon lakes, Lake Trout do not begin to reproduce until they are nine to twelve years old!
Lake Trout are a precious Yukon resource. If you choose to fish, be sure to follow the Yukon fishing regulations.
The average Lake Trout caught in Teslin Lake is 49 cm (19”) long and 14 years old – like the fish below! Some individuals grow even more slowly – a 49 cm Lake Trout caught was found to be 42 years old!
Small Birds, Large Lakes, Great Distances
Songbirds are a diverse group of small birds with beautiful voices. They sing to attract mates and to help defend their territory. Warblers, sparrows and thrushes are all examples of songbirds.
Many songbirds migrate thousands of kilometres each year, from wintering areas in Central and South America, to summer breeding sites in northern Canada and Alaska. Impressive for an animal weighing less than an ounce.
The shores of Teslin Lake are a great spot to view migratory songbirds in the spring and fall. Why? The birds are hesitant to fly across the large expanse of the lake and are therefore funneled along the lakeshore, which may also act as a navigation aid. Birds also stop to rest and feed on insects in the forested areas near the lakeshore.
Just north along the lakeshore is the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory. Here, songbirds are briefly captured and tagged with a light, metal leg band. The bands have a unique number, which is recorded in a database shared by Canadian and American agencies. Information about bird movement patterns, life spans and populations can be gathered through bird banding.
Yukon is Sheep Country
About 22,000 Thinhorn Sheep live in the mountainous terrain of Yukon – more wild sheep than in any other part of Canada. Thinhorn Sheep (Ovis dalli), are only found in northwestern Canada and in Alaska.
Both male (rams) and female (ewes) sheep have curved, amber coloured horns. Ram horns are longer and curled: some can be more than a metre (three feet) in length!
Two Types of Thinhorn Sheep
Dall’s Sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) are the famous white sheep of Yukon, and the more abundant type. Some Dall’s Sheep have unique patterns of light and dark hair. These animals are called Fannin’s sheep and are found in the Pelly Mountains of central Yukon.
Stone’s Sheep (Ovis dalli stonei) are darker in colour and fewer in number in the territory. They are found in south-central Yukon. DNA research suggests the Stone’s Sheep may be the result of long-ago breeding between thinhorns and bighorns.
What’s in a Name?
Appropriately, rams of this species have thinner horns than those of their southerly cousins, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis canadensis). Thinhorns also tend to be smaller and lighter than bighorns.
Horns, Not Antlers
Unlike antlers which are shed each year, sheep horns grow continuously throughout a sheep’s life. You can tell the age of the sheep by counting the rings on its horn, like the rings of a tree trunk.