The Kaska Dena (often referred to simply as Kaska) are a Dene-speaking people who have lived in the southeast Yukon and northwestern British Columbia for thousands of years. Historically, five distinct Kaska Dena groups were identified and named according to the features of the land that they inhabited.
With the introduction of the federal Indian Act in 1867, Kaska peoples were required to more rigidly define these groups and identify themselves as either First Nations or Bands. Despite the Indian Act and the present-day provincial and territorial borders separating Kaska families, the various Kaska First Nations are moving toward nationhood. Two Yukon First Nations – the Ross River Dena Council and Liard First Nation – are part of the Kaska family.
The Kaska First Nations in British Columbia are: Dease River First Nation of Good Hope Lake; Lower Post First Nation located south of the Yukon border in northern British Columbia, south of Watson Lake, Yukon; and, Kwadacha First Nation, at Fort Ware a small community located north of Prince George, BC.
Kaska Dena also live in the BC communities of Fireside and Muncho Lake, between Watson Lake and Fort Nelson.
These were the Dena people that occupied the Tū Chō (Frances Lake) and the Tū Chō Tūé (Frances River) area. They hunted the Too-Ti (Liard) and Tū Chō Tūé (Dease River) areas.
These Dena were concentrated within a range east of the Tu tcogotena Kaska north Tsa Tue (Beaver River) and the Nahanie River. They also hunted at the junction of the Atsonne Tue (Moose Dung Water River / Coal River) and Tyagacho (Big River/Liard).
These people occupied the headwater country portion of the Liard River called Net I Tue, down to the Canyon above Daelyu (Lower Post), which means “a place where we gather to trade.” They made seasonal migrations to the salmon runs a Tu disdis Tue (Pelly River), which means “you can see clearly into the deep water.” Seasonal fishing also was done a Tuts Algua (Watson Lake) or Lu cho, and game was harvested along Agedze Tue (Hyland River), which means “too much game.” The Tu tcogotena Kaska also used the Hyland River and called it Bath-o-too-a (Dangerous River).
These people dominated the southeast of the Natitu a gotena Kaska. Their traditional range included the valleys of the Dease River south from Net I tue to the northern part of Dease Lake, where a natural divide separated them from the inland neighbors. The Ki stagotena people living along Duna za (McDames), meaning “pure place where people stay,” above its junction with the Dease River, were also known as Ozanna, “people of the same blood.”
The inseparability of the land, language and the people is illustrated by the Kaska name for Liard Tom, “Ozanna.”
These people populated the area south and east of the Ki stagotena. They lived and hunted the Rocky Mountain Trench headwaters and valleys, the Kechika range over to the Toad River area, and north to the Flat River. Some families in this group are known as Tse Tsiyinetena, or “Wolf People of the Mountains.”
According to archaeological evidence in the Yukon, people have been here since the retreat of the Cordilleran ice sheet about 10,000 years ago. The Kaska Dena most likely have lived in this area for the last 4,000 years.
A large volcanic eruption in present-day Yukon and Northern BC about 1,600 years ago displaced the Athapaskan speaking people. They may have moved from the southern region of their traditional territories to the north, through the Rocky Mountain Trench to the western coast, originating the coastal Athapaskan speakers, the Tlingit and the Eyak.
Part of this population settled in southeastern Alaska and the adjacent Yukon. There are similarities between the Athapaskan languages spoken in those areas, and Kaska, now spoken mainly in the communities of Ross River, Watson Lake, Upper Liard, Lower Post, Two Mile, Good Hope Lake, Dease Lake, Fort Ware and Muncho Lake.
By 1820, the Hudson Bay Company knew of the “Indian” people living west of the Rockies and by the headwaters of the Liard, but they did not know where these headwaters were located. Much of the Hudson Bay Co.’s knowledge of these people came from the neighboring tribes who traded with this group, who they called the “Nahanni.”
The Nahanni, according to journals kept at Fort Liard, were not Slavey, Sekanni, Beaver or Chipewyan, all of whom were identified at the time; nor were they Tahltan or Tlingit. They could only be the Kaska Dena peoples of today.
The Nahanni received goods from the Tahltan and Tlingit middlemen, who had traded with the Russians on the coast since the late 1700’s; and the Slavey and Beaver middlemen, who traded with the Hudson Bay Co. on the Lower Liard and Mackenzie Rivers.
When European traders first reached Kaska territory at the start of the Cassiar Gold Rush in 1865, the remote Kaska Dena had already established a non-traditional economy based on decades of trading surpluses with their First Nations neighbours.
By 1876, the trading post at Lower Post was set up. The majority of Kaska Dena trade took place either at McDame Post or Lower Post; however, there were also trading posts in other areas such as Frances Lake.
The Kaska of these areas were described in the journals kept at Lower Post as, “Living in a country that had an abundance of furs and food.”
The Kaska Dena only visited a post once a year. They lived a nomadic life, moving from camp to camp in isolated small family parties. Everything was packed on their backs or on dogs. Rivers and lakes were crossed in the summer by rafts.
With the increased interaction came the spread of serious illnesses and diseases amongst the Kaska Dena. Viral epidemics were attributed to the arrival of non-native people to the area.
For additional information and resources on Kaska language and culture, please refer to the Language Department area on this website.