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November 2, 2020

Everywhen* 2: The Wiki. Yukon Ice Patch – Kevin Hubbard, MFA Digital + Media, 2020

by Kevin S Hubbard

One of the easiest ways to describe the Yukon Ice Patches is to explain what they are not. Ice Patches are not glaciers. Glaciers are massive bodies of ice that move slowly over land. Ice Patches are large stationary accumulations of snow that compress into ice over thousands of years. According to a 2004 scientific journal there are eighty-five such ice patches in southern Yukon. Sixty-five of which have been ground surveyed, in part. Occupying a study area of 18,000km2, many of the sites are accessible only by helicopter. As for why the ice patches are important—the first question most commonly asked of anyone involved with the Ice Patch Project—the answers are many.

FIG. 1. Study area showing archaeological ice patches in the southern Yukon. From: The Archaeology of Yukon Ice Patches: New Artifacts, Observations, and Insights, 2012. P. Hare, C. Thomas, Timothy N. Topper, Ruth M. Gotthardt

Established in 1997, after sheep hunters Kristin Benedek and her husband Gerry Kuzyk found an arrow near Kusawa Lake in Southern Yukon, the Yukon Ice Patch project was formed between the Government of Yukon and the six Yukon First Nations on whose traditional lands the patches are located. Ranging in age from a late 18th-century musket ball to a dart shaft more than 9000 years old, the patches have revealed more than 200 archaeological artifacts and 1700 faunal remains. Artifacts that have become visible only because the ice patches are melting – a direct result of global warming.

Now residing in the collections of the Government of Yukon Archaeology Program, these artifacts of archaeological significance indicate ‘a tradition of alpine hunting that spans most of the Holocene epoch and provides evidence of traditions from ancient technologies of throwing arts to bows and arrows and musketry’ (Hare et al. 118). Of special importance, these artifacts mostly used for hunting caribou indicate an abrupt technological replacement from throwing dart to bow and arrow in the last 1200 years. Revealed when the covering ice melts, the artifacts are found atop thousands of years of accumulated caribou dung, many feet in depth.

In 2004, the substantial remains of a leather moccasin with drawstring was retrieved from the Gladstone Ice Patch. The size of a contemporary men’s size five shoe, the moccasin was made from three pieces of hide, sewn together using sinew thread with traces of what is thought to be ochre painted on the heel. 

Leather moccasin. Image: Government of Yukon.

Through the retrieval of objects and faunal remains Iand-use patterns and caribou patterns can be documented. Prior to 1997, it was difficult to identify specific areas of resource harvest that formerly relied upon ethnographies and oral histories. 

The ice patches occupy the traditional territories of six Yukon First Nations: The Carcross/Tagish, Champagne and Aishihik, Kluane, and Kwanlin Dün First Nations, and the Ta’an Kwächän and Teslin Tlingit Councils. All of these self-governing First Nations are partners in the Yukon Ice Patch Project. Far beyond ‘representing’ something, according to authors Sheila Greer (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations) and Diane Strand (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations), for these First Nations the ice patches are a tangible connection to the past that communicate intangible cultural heritage, an opportunity to strengthen culture, enhance citizens’ understanding of their history, and a vehicle to express First Nations values regarding cultural resources (Greer and Strand 136).

Beyond markers of a physical past, artifacts connected to caribou hunting—animals which are now found only in a limited area in the southern Yukon—are vital to the history and culture of local first Nations. Caribou are frequently mentioned in traditional stories set in the long-ago time when animals and humans could talk together. (Hare et al. 9) .

Together, the collaborative Ice Patch Project Group consists of Yukon and First Nation governments and research institutions. These are the principal partners: Yukon Government Department of Environment; Yukon Government Department of Tourism and Culture; Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN); Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN); Kluane First Nation (KFN); Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN); Ta’an Kwäch’än Council (TKC); and Teslin Tlingit Council (TTC). In the past decade partners have included University of Alberta, University of Alaska, Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University, Geological Survey of Canada, and Icefield Instruments Inc. In addition, many Yukoners have assisted with fieldwork – visiting the ice patch sites. And many others have assisted with laboratory studies.

As for what this project is, and what it may become…Everywhen* it is not a means to communicate already well documented facts about the Yukon Ice Patches, the Ice Patch Project, or the groups involved with the IPP. Rather, the aim is for it to be an evolving, process driven, exploratory artistic investigation of the individuals and their procedures in relation to the Ice Patch Project work. For the most part, the details l have shared here, the inclusion of others’ research, and the direction to other sources of information will constitute the totality of this reiteration of fact. Going forth, Everywhen will delve into the nuances of overlapping story, opinion, conflict, histories, and desires. In this way, Everywhen will be a cultural artifact of a particular undertaking inextricably tied to place and time. It will be an artifact of today.

*Note: currently the title Everywhen is a placeholder working title; one of which I am still ambivalent. Some sources cite the term ‘everywhen’ as originating in a 1956 essay by Australian anthropologist WEH Stanner in relation to the concept of Jukurrpa as related to the belief systems of Indigenous Australian Peoples. This is in addition to the commonly known anglicized versions of ‘dreaming’ or ‘dreamtime’, which are also contentious terms.

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