How Yukon's melting ice reveals human artifacts and Indigenous history

"That whole idea of eliminating First Nations’ history is disappearing with this tactile, tangible way of actually seeing your culture come back out of the ice."
Northern Canada, the frontier for archeology and climate change is revealing stories of ancient people due to rapidly melting ice. 1:12
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Story transcript

Melting ice patches in the Yukon are helping scientists make new discoveries about human history and Indigenous communities. 

That whole idea of eliminating First Nations history is disappearing with this tactile, tangible way of actually seeing your culture come back out of the ice- Andrew Gregg

Andrew Gregg, filmmaker for the CBC Nature of Things documentary, Secrets from the Ice, says the artifacts are especially meaningful to Indigenous elders who went to the residential school system.

"A lot of them were told their history was worthless and they came out of it with ... a sense of shame," Gregg tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The artifacts are akin to lost family heirlooms for Indigenous people, and a way to connect to their past, Gregg says.

"That whole idea of eliminating First Nations history is disappearing with this tactile, tangible way of actually seeing your culture come back out of the ice and it's quite an incredible thing," he adds.

For some members of the Indigenous community, the melting ice has offered more than heirlooms.

In 1999, hunters discovered the frozen remains of a young man who is believed to have lived some 300 years ago.  

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations claimed the young man as their relation and named him Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi or Long Ago Man Found.

The First Nations group agreed to let scientists conduct research on his remains for a year and later had a cremation ceremony for him.

Scientists also did DNA tests in the community to see if Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi had any living relatives — there were 17 matches.

You feel validated. I come from this land. I am part of this land.- Pearl Callaghan

Pearl Callaghan, a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, was stunned to discover she is one of the 17 people who share a common ancestor with Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi.

"You're very emotional, it's exciting," Callaghan tells Tremonti.

"Naturally you feel very connected. You feel validated. I come from this land. I am part of this land."

After a man's body is found in the Yukon ice, the story of who he was comes to light. Scientists trace his living ancestors. 2:48

The First Nations communities in Yukon are deeply involved in the search and treatment of the artifacts found on their territories.

Archeologists must get permission from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations each time they head to the mountains in search of artifacts and they're often accompanied by members of the community.

It's almost as if the ice waited.- Andrew Gregg

"It's … amazingly coincidental to me that they started finding this stuff just as the land claims were being settled, just as political power was going back into hands of the First Nations," Gregg says.

"It's almost as if the ice waited."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Yamri Taddese.