As with most cultures, we cope with the sadness of losing a loved one through set rituals and gatherings that help support us through our mourning. People of the opposite moiety took on the responsibility for preparing the corpse before looking after the burial or – in the early days – cremation. There are also accounts of a person’s remains being wrapped and placed in a tree. Thus if a Crow person died, people from the Wolf side handled any needed duties.
A year or two after the death, the relatives of the deceased hosted a memorial potlatch. During this time they made and collected gifts for the occasion. The intent was to honour the members of the opposite moiety and thank them for their help. In the case of a potlatch for an important person such as a chief, invitations were sent to people in neighbouring groups. Celebrations might last from a few days to as long as a few weeks. This time was marked by feasting, dances, singing, speeches and near the end, handing out gifts to all the guests.
Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in was often called upon to officiate at festivities in other communities. In 1904, he played a major role at a potlatch at Forty Mile when Peter succeeded his late father David as hereditary chief. Three years later in Eagle, Chief Isaac presided over the formal ceremonies and gift giving at the potlatch for Chief Charley. When Chief Jackson died at Fort Selkirk in 1915, Chief Isaac delivered an eloquent eulogy at his funeral.
Today we still draw on potlatch traditions. Often the memorial gathering is a headstone potlatch, coinciding with setting a headstone on the grave of the deceased. The celebration is shorter, usually only a day or two, but people still travel from all over the Yukon and we still give gifts to those who helped us in our time of need.
Potlatch at Eagle, Alaska, spring 1907, in memory of Chief Charley. Front kneeling: Edward Wood; front, L-R: Paul Chancy, Henry Harper, Charley Steve, Billy Silas, Ben Harper, David Taylor, David C. Roberts, Peter Thompson; back row, L-R: Kenneth, chief Alex, Joseph, Jonathon Johnson, Canadian Joe, Esau Harper, Andrew Silas and Chief Isaac.
Yukon Archives, Martha and Brian Kates coll. #5781
Chief Isaac's funeral, April 1932. Pallbearers L-R: Billy Silas, Alfred Titus, Fred Harper, Michael Wood, George Walters and Kenneth Harper.
Dawson City Museum, Isaac family coll., #1990-77-26