Friday, June 25, 2010

Jack Chief of Boya Lake

Staying on the Cassiar Highway towards Alaska, we drove to Boya Lake Provincial Park as our next destination, about 45 miles south of the British Columbia -Yukon border on May 29th, nine days after crossing into Canada. I love this slow life to adventure!  We rarely drive more than four hours a day and aim to keep the speed to 50 miles an hour.  This helps with fuel economy but most importantly allows us to observe wildlife and the spectacular scenery along the way.

We had heard that Boya Lake was very special not only for its colorful setting but as one of the finest kayak and canoe lakes in this part of BC. We weren't disappointed! As we walked around to search for a camping site, we found lake views that were breathtaking with a background of dark green forests and distant mountains reflected on the turquoise waters.

My wife and I constantly kidded each other.  These were our front and back yards. No mowing of grass, no cabins or houses to keep up, no gutters to clean, no snow to plow.  And, we practically had the lake to ourselves. Our only problem was to select the best campsite. Geez! What a challenge!

The campsites were pristine and I wondered who took care of these places in the middle of nowhere next to a highway close to the Yukon Territory.  We finally selected our home space where we would settle for the next four days.

The weather was warmer than expected with few bugs much to our surprise, evidently due to a dry, early spring with temperatures in the 60's.  It didn't take much nudging to take over the breakfast duties the next morning and prepare an outdoor feast on our new lake front property.

It was during this time that we met the caretaker of the park and our first opportunity to talk with Jack Chief, born and raised in this northern part of BC, an Athapaskan Indian who was a member of the Kasha tribe, belonging to the First Nation Peoples of Canada.

Over the next few days Jack would stop and share his background with us in answer to my many questions of his life in the North.  The Kasha belong to the indigenous peoples of Alaska and Northwestern Canada, part of the Athapaskan population who live in the interior where there is an abundance of fish and wildlife in the many streams, rivers, lakes, dense forests, and lofty mountains especially during the long days of light in the summer months.  They were originally a subsistence, hunting-gathering, semi-nomadic people living primarily off the land in harmony with the seasons, following the animal migrations for food and clothing. His ancestors originally traveled across the Bering land bridge from Asia that connected Alaska and Siberia some 18,000 years ago. They had their first contact with Europeans in the 1820's with trappers of the Hudson Bay Company, followed by gold prospectors in the 1890's, and the Roman Catholic Missionaries of the 1920's. Finally, the Alaska Highway Construction crews and the US Army advanced in 1942 and in the process changed their lives forever. In 1977, there were 750 members of the Kasha tribe in Northern British Columbia.

From what I recall, Jack Chief originally lived with his clan of parents, siblings, and extended family members, was taught to fish and hunt in the same waters and lands where he works today as an independent contractor for the Provincial Parks.  He was sent away to Catholic Boarding School for eight years as a young boy. There he was  taught the ways of the white man as part of the cultural integration movement into Canadian mainstream life. This was similar to the steps taken with Native Americans by the US Government.  Although things improved during the 1950's as the Canadian Government expanded social services and started to recognize the needs of the Aboriginal population, Jack, like many of his fellow tribal members, was abused in school, become an alcoholic for many years, and suffered through a very difficult period of life.  A gentle, soft-spoken man, he was about my own age in his early seventies, who has been free of alcohol since he was in his fifties.  With a wide grin, he said "I finally realized how to work in the white man's society.  I am happy now."


At June 26, 2010 at 9:03 PM , Blogger David said...

As a side note, Kasha is often spelled Kaska. And, Athapaskan (often referred to as a language group) is spelled with a b as Athabaskan in many references. Jack Chief mentioned in our conversations that when he visited some Navajos, he understood many of their words. I have seen both spellings used for these words that varied according to the author and source. (David)


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