Van Tat Vuntut Gwich’in, ‘People of the Lakes,’ derive their name from Van Tat

Charlie ThomasCharlie Thomas’ story about trapping in Van Tat in the 1920s - 1940s

I will talk with you about how people around here made their living from dzan trapping and hunting. Long ago, this was Neil’s [McDonald] country. This is where he came to the river. Up there, his lake is called Ts’iivii Zhit. … down there too, Ta’ałshaa — in English I don’t know the name. [Phillip] Tsal Vavan is called Phillip Lake in English.

Those people living on the river in 1921, I know about that. … I will talk about Neil. This is where he came to the river [camp on Chyahnjik to travel downriver in spring]. He had strong dogs. They pulled on the bare ground. Really! It wasn’t hard for them. They hauled loads of stuff ahead to the river. Dzan skins are heavy, too. Around here in Van Tat , some families would get thousands of dzan , fifteen hundred dzan , nine hundred dzan , nineteen hundred dzan . They killed that many dzan , all the way [through Van Tat ]. Pete Lord, he’s the one that killed three thousand dzan a year in the springtime, in March. … chaeffer taught him how to trap. That’s how all the people lived by trapping.

Even so, they never killed that much. The people lived off Van Tat . There was lots of everything: vadzaih , the birds were noisy singing all over the land, all kinds of them. Now, here, I just hear one small bird. When we came in the spring, we saw vyuh lying up high in Van Tat . It started to warm up. Ah gee, it really sounded good! All over the birds were singing; the ah’ànlak too, on the lakes. …

After that it was time to stop trapping down this way [trapping season closed in mid-June]. People lived all over to the mountains, all along. There are lots of lakes on this side, too. … This river is really long. Julia McDonald [wife of Archdeacon McDonald] worked as hard as a man for her livelihood, trapping. In the winter, they trapped up this way from Old Crow for neegoo , chihthee and that. … Down at Rampart House, Thomas David Njootli, Paul Ben [Kassi], all those people trapped far up in Van Tat . In those days, the Ch’ineekaii trapped for muskrat at the head of Chyahnjik . Across from Old Crow, [is] tsuk country: in 1936, there were no tsuk . They cleaned them all out. The people lived off them.

That was how the people lived off the land around here. They made it, you know. The last year Joe [Netro] had a store, all the people living in Van Tat killed fifty-five thousand dzan . Joe gave credit for all that. When we trapped for dzan , [and] winter trapping, Joe billed up. [credit was repaid] Not only Joe, [traders] Jim Jackson and Harry Healy, [extended credit for] what [people] needed to go trapping dzan . After that they paid them back. This is the way the people lived. You wouldn’t see money in ur pockets. We only lived off the land.

Over to Fort McPherson and up further to Dawson, they trapped and lived off the land. … In the springtime, in March, was dzan trapping. … Only in the summer did they go to Fort Yukon to see their relatives. This is how it was. … I made a canvas boats, way up there. … One time my wife and I stayed here … with Norman. He paddled me up to that point and I split the logs apart. Joseph was with us too. He split them apart, while I brought dry wood for the cross-pieces inside. In six hours time I landed a canvas boat down here. That was how all the people lived up this way. They made canvas boats just like scows. After that, they paddled down. It’s a long way. Somebody was at the back with a paddle [to steer]. When it came time to camp, they camped. There were lots of dogs in the boat.

From here [it took] about 3 days [to go to Van Tat with canvas boats] I guess. From way across at Potato Creek, it took one week. My father used to do it.