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An Introduction to Carcross/Tagish First Nation History

Prior to European contact the Tagish people were highly organized, sophisticated occupants of the Tagish Village. The original Tagish Village was located three miles south of present day Carcross on the east side of Tagish Lake. With the activity and railroad construction in the early 1900s, most of the village moved to the settlement at the narrows known as Caribou Crossing.

The original language of the area was Tagish, an Athabascan dialect. With the influx of the coastal Tlingit and intermarriages between the two Nations of people, the present day language of the area has evolved into a mixture of both languages. The Tlingit language spoken today in Carcross is unique from all other Tlingit dialects. The Tagish language is in danger of extinction, and measures are being taken to unsure the survival of both languages.

The Tagish were longtime middlemen in the trade between the Coastal Tlingits and other Northern Athabascans. The Chilkoot Trail was the lifeline of the trading network in pre-contact times. The Trail was colloquially known as the ‘grease trail’ because the primary ingredient carried across the mountains was Eulachon oil. Dried seaweed, dried clams, plant medicines, cedar boxes and seashells were also brought to trade for things like copper, furs, tanned hides, lichen dyes and mountain goat hair, which was used to make the traditional Chilkat blanket.

Before 1839 the entire population of the Yukon was said to be natives, except for a few Inuvialuit (Western Eskimos) along the Arctic Coast. In the mid 1800s the Hudson’s Bay Company funded three expeditions to the Yukon to establish trading posts to trade with the First Nations people and the Russians. The Tlingits were very jealous of other traders being in their area, and it was not until the late 1880s that Europeans successfully crossed into the mainland.

On August 14, 1896, direct descendants of the Tagish/Tlingit people—Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie—struck gold with George Carmack and launched the Klondike Gold Rush, the beginning of a new era in the Yukon. The Tagish peoples figured prominently in the Gold Rush, with men, women and children all working as packers for many stampeders.

Once the gold seekers made it over the Chilkoot Pass, they stopped in places like Lindeman City, Bennett City, Caribou Crossing and Tagish. With this huge wave of people came churches, schools, stores, hotels and North West Mounted Police Posts. For the Tagish/Tlingit peoples, the Gold Rush was a cataclysmic event that ended much of their traditional way of life.

The Tlingit people once called this place Naataase Heen, meaning ‘water running through the narrows’. The Tagish people called it Todezzane, meaning ‘wind blowing all the time’. After the Gold Rush, a Bishop by the name of Bompass requested to have the name Caribou Crossing changed to Carcross. In 1906, the government approved his request.

Photo Courtesy of Yukon Archives