First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia


Iskut elder Mabel Dennis being arrested on 15 September 2005 by an RCMP officer. Nine Tahltan and Iskut elders were arrested for blockading the road to Klabona, the Sacred Headwaters, in protest over coalbed methane mining by Fortune Minerals and Shell Canada.   Photo: Tahltan Bulletin



Klabona Archival Album

Stikine watershed, Tahltan Territory.
Painting: Murray Hay

Tahltan Territory is in the remote northwestern area of what is now British Columbia and encompasses the legendary Stikine River and its tributaries (right). The Tahltan (pronounced "tall-tan") people are the Original People of this vast and spectacular wilderness landscape. They occupied and lived sustainably here long before colonization and have never extinquished their Aboriginal Title by treaty or any other legal process. Today the mining industry is endangering not only the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the Stikine watershed but also the age old identity and responsibility of the Tahltan as "Keepers of the Land."


Tahltan Territory.
Map: Tahltan First Nation (Click to enlarge)

 top of page

Tahltan elder Lillian Moyer, Klabona blockade, 2006.
Photo: Klabona Keepers

The area around Todagin Lake is an ancient indigenous hunting grounds in the Klappan highlands (right). Few non natives had visited this pristine valley prior to 1952, when tourist hunters began flying into Todagin Lake with float planes. When the Spatsizi Wilderness Park was founded in 1975 - supposedly to protect the biodiversity of the area - the headwaters of the Stikine watershed were excluded to accomodate future mining development. For the Tahltan and other First Nations, the making of parks in tribal territory is a form of illegal land alienation by the government, not much different than the granting of industrial tenures.


Tahltan elder Lillian Moyer rejects the bad mining practices of Red Chris Mine and the right of bcMetals (now Imperial Metals) to endanger the ecological integrity of the Todagin Plateau, "the largest Stone sheep habitat for lambing in the world" (left). Her protest is part of the ongoing Klappan blockade under the guidance of the Klabona Keepers Elders Society which is dedicated to asserting Tahltan Aboriginal Title and Rights.

Todagin Lake, Klappan.
Photo: Klabona Keepers

 top of page

Tahltan Elders Statement, 25 February 2005.
Source: Klabona Keepers


Mountain caribou in the Klappan highlands.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen

Tahltan Territory was virtually roadless until 1972 when Highway 37 was completed, running north along the Iskut River and Lakes to Dease Lake, Cassiar and the Yukon. There are three Tahltan communities today: Iskut (Luwe Chon), Dease Lake (Talh'ah) and Telegraph Creek (Tlegohin) Iskut was not connected by road to Highway 37 until 1994. Surrounding Iskut are the Klappan highlands, a traditional hunting ground for moose, sheep, goats and caribou as well as the headwaters location of four rivers.


Other mining projects in Klappan highlands include an open pit coal mine by Fortune Minerals and a coalbed methane project by Shell Canada. To facilitate the mining boom in Tahltan Territory, a new infrastructure is being created to provide energy and transport: hydro dams, railway expansion, electrical transmission line routes, air runways and a haul road to Port of Stewart. This unprecedented development pressure in addition to the unknown cumulative environmental impact of mining motivated a group of elders to declare a moratorium in 2005: Talhtan Elders Statement.

View north along the Iskut Lakes.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen

 top of page

Fanny Woods, Tahltan elder, Telegraph Creek, 1991.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen

In 2006 to educate the community about the need to protect the Sacred Headwaters, the Klabona Keepers founded the Headwaters Educational Centre on the site of an old Iskut camping place and fishing spot near the head of Klappan. Here the elders are teaching traditional skills necessary to living on the land such as the preparing and scraping of moose hides (right). See: Hides (Tahltan Nation CD Rom).


"We, the Tahltan People, historically a sovereign nation have occupied our traditional territories since time immemorial. Our culture is organized through a matrilinear clan system. This has always been and remains our broad governing structure. Tahltan Elders held the responsibility to uphold Tahltan beliefs, customs, values and laws for future generations" Talhtan Elders Statement.

Fanny Woods was a Tahltan elder from Telegraph Creek (left). She is fondly remembered for her fish camp on the Stikine where for many years she taught traditional skills and knowledge.

Mary Dennis, Headwaters Educational Centre, 2006.
Photo: Klabona Keepers

 top of page

"Teltah," Tahltan woman, n.d.
Photo: Glenbow Archives


In 1838 the Scottish born explorer and fur trader Robert Campbell was one of the first outsiders to enter Tahltan Territory. He described "a remarkable woman, the Chieftainess of the Nahanies [who] had a pleasing face lit with fine intelligent eyes, which when she was excited flashed like fire." The explorer expressed his deep gratitude for her protection: "To the kindness and influence of this Chieftainess, we owed much on more than on occasion; in fact in all probability we owed our lives to her more than once."

The invasion of whites that followed resulted in tragedy for the Tahltan people: "Now that we understand what happened when the epidemics struck, we realize that there was a reason why our people died. We also realize that we need to look back and see who we were (and are) as Tahltans. Some of us believe that one of the reasons that we have so many social problems is because we have lost our identity. We do not know where we came from and who we are as a people" Tahltan Nation CD Rom.

"Tahltans have always had a strong tie to their land and waters through the subsistence economy of their society. European contact did not influence Tahltan culture until later than other areas of BC" Tahltan Nation CD Rom. The Tahltan people, their culture and their Athapaskan language were studied and recorded by two of the earliest professional ethnologists to work in BC: George Emmons, The Tahltan Indians (1911); and James Teit, "Tahltan Tales" published in the Journal of American Folklore (1919).

 top of page
  Today Tahltan artifacts are in museum collections all over the world. One of the early collectors was George Emmons. The Burke Museum of Ethnology has a collection of 229 Tahltan artifacts collected by Emmons including a pair of exquisitely embroidered mocassins made from caribou skin (right).

References. On the Tahltan material collected by James Teit, see: C. Fenn, Life History of a Collection. See also Sylvia Albright, Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology (1984); K. Fladmark, Glass and Ice (1985); a linguistic study by John Alderete and Tanya Bob, A Corpus based Approach to Tahltan Stress  (2005); and Bibliography of Tahltan Language Materials. To mark the 93rd anniversary of the Tahltan Declaration an exhibition called Mehodihi (2003) was presented at the Museum of Anthropology (UBC). This was the first time that the Tahltan people, their land, culture and heritage was celebrated by a museum. An excellent web source on the Tahltan is the Tahltan Nation CD Rom by School District 87 which is based on interviews with Tahltan elders.


Tahltan moccasins made of caribou skin, 1906.
Photo: Burke Museum of Ethnology


"Head of Dease Lake," HBC post, n.d.
Photo: BC Archives


Dease Lake. (Click for QuickTime)
Photo: Don Bain

In 1838 a Hudson's Bay Company's post was established at the source of a mountain stream, a place known as "Talh'ah," or Head of the Lake (left). The post at Dease Lake, as it was called, became a popular stop on the gold rush trail in 1864 and 1873. See some contemporary virtual panoramas: Along the Cassiar Highway and visit the community website: Dease Lake.

 top of page

"Stikine Territory." Map from 1862.
Photo: BC Government


"When gold was discovered on the Stikine River in 1862, it was still our country. The Governor of the crown colony of British Columbia then organized it into the Stikine Territory [right]. It was administered by British Columbia. In 1863, Governor Douglas claimed all territory north to the 60th parallel and west to what is now the British Columbia - Alberta border. This territory then became part of British Columbia ... " On 20 July 1871, the crown colony of British Columbia entered Confederation. That is how we became part of a province in the country of Canada. Notice that we did not sign a treaty with the governments of British Columbia or Canada. That is the reason we are talking about land claims with them now" Tahltan Nation CD Rom.


Detail of an engraving by Thomas Moran.
W. Bell, The Stickeen River, 1879

The 1862 Stikine Gold Rush was followed by the Cassiar Gold Rush of 1874, but it was not until the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 that Tahltan Territory was invaded on a large scale by whites, with the Stikine River serving as the major transport route inland to the Yukon.

The Stikine River was early on famous for its glaciers which were portrayed as rivaling those of Europe and the US. In 1879 when Scottish American naturalist John Muir travelled by paddlewheeler up the lower third of the Stikine River, he was astonished by the 300 glaciers he counted and he described the scenery as "a Yosemite a hundred miles long." American landscape artist Thomas Moran had never visited the Stikine River but in an age before mass reproduced photos, his illustrations (above and right) were accepted as true to life representaions. See the 1879 travel narrative: The Stickeen River and its Glaciers.


"Big Canon." Engraving by Thomas Moran.
W. Bell, The Stickeen River, 1879

 top of page

Telegraph Creek, c. 1910.
Photo: Canada Archives


Telegraph Creek was the head of navigation for the lower Stikine River during the gold rush days. A photo from 1910 shows the sternwheeler "Strathcona" at the village dock (left). The village was established above Glenora as a trading post and second mining camp on the Stikine River. The name Telegraph Creek comes from an ambitious project which began in 1866 to build an overland telegraph line to the Yukon but was not finished until 1901. Above Telegraph Creek (seen on the right in the photo) is the Tahltan graveyard. Here the Tahltan erected small buildings for the remains of their relatives. See: Death and Funerals, (Tahltan Nation CD Rom).

For virtual panoramas of how these places look today, see: Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River and The Stikine and Tahltan Rivers (QuickTime).


The Tahltan people were nomadic, moving from place to place throughout the year hunting, trapping and gathering berries and roots according to the season and returning to their salmon fisheries on the rivers in June. The Tahltan did not have permanent houses or settlements but with the influx of prospectors during the three gold rushes, their life style changed. They began working for wages and adopting non native practices instead of living exclusively on the land.

In 1897 an English missionary initiated the first permanent Tahltan winter village with log houses at a place on the Stikine River called "Goon-da-chagga" meaning "where the spring flows" (right). The mission ended in failure a few years later: Goon-da-chagga (Tahltan Nation CD Rom).


Goon-da-chagga, Stikine River.
Photo: anon

 top of page

"Indian section of Telegraph Creek," c. 1900.
Photo: BC Archives

The Catholic Mission Church for Indians was located at the end of a row of Tahltan log houses overlooking the Stikine River in Telegraph Creek (above). When prospectors set up mining camps in Tahltan Territory in the early 1860s they brought with them diseases that caused the smallpox epidemics of 1864 and 1868. The Tahltan population was devastated: by 1900, the Tahltan population had reached its all time historic low of 296. Nothing of this tragedy can be seen in the c. 1900 photo of Mary Porter, which shows an attactive young Tahltan woman dressed in stylish European clothes (right). Since colonization, the Tahltan people have recovered in numbers and rediscovered their traditional culture and beliefs. See: Confusion (Tahltan Nation CD Rom).


Mary Porter, Telegraph Creek, c. 1900.
Photo: BC Archives


Dandy Jim and Susie, Telegraph Creek, c. 1902.
Photo: BC Archives

Susie (above) is buried above Telegraph Creek in the Tahltan graveyard (right). Her gravestone reads: "In Memory of Nahgistiman. Susie Jim. Died Sept. 6 1913. Aged 48 years." Note by Terri Brown: Susie's Tahltan name is likely Nahgistimah - not Nahgistiman - as the ending "mah" means mother in the Tahltan language.

James Teit conducted field research in Tahltan Territory at the same time as he collected material objects, songs, narratives and historical photographs. See: "Tahltan Tales" in the anthology: The Man Who The Wolves Helped (1919).


"We claim the sovereign right to all the country of our tribe - this country of ours which we have held intact from the encroachments of other tribes, from time immemorial, at the cost of our own blood. We have done this because our lives depended on our country. We have never treated with them [whites], nor given them any such title" 1910 Declaration of the Tahltan Tribe.

One of the signatories to the 1910 Declaration was Chief Dandy Jim, whose wife was known as "One eyed Susie" (left). Dandy Jim was the key informant for ethnologist James Teit, one of the first white supporters of Indian rights in BC. His notes are confused on whether the Tahltan chief was a member of the Crow or the Wolf Clan.

Susie's gravestone above Telegraph Creek.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen (Click to enlarge)

 top of page

"Tahltan girls," Telegraph Creek, c. 1900.
Photo: BC Archives (Andrew Stone)


At the turn of the century, Andrew J. Stone, a wealthy big game hunter from New York City, visited Telegraph Creek. A photograph he took of five young Tahltan women in front of a log buldinging does not record their names (left).

Like the majority of whites, Stone wrongly believed the Tahltan to be a dying race. As an amateur anthropologist, he measured 36 Tahltan people including Chief Dandy Jim, his wife Susie and seven "half breeds." This research was published by Franz Boas: Stone's Measurements of Natives of the NW Territories (1901).

Stone was most concerned about the declining big game stocks which he blamed on hunting by the Tahltan. About the moose, he wrote: "The native and the wolf are its most aggressive enemies; but it is highly probable that it will outlive the former" Results of a Natural History Journey, 1900.


Andrew Stone refered to the Tahltan guides he hired as "my Indians" and he did not record their names. Nor did he credit their tracking skills which led him to his record breaking trophies. Thanks to his Tahltan guides, Stone was able to claim to have discovered two big game species. These he described in scientific papers: A New Mountain Sheep (1897); The Mountain Caribou of Northern British Columbia (1900); and New Caribou from the Cassiar Mts (1902). The new mountain sheep species was given the formal Linnaean name Ovis dalli stonei, shortened to "Stone's Sheep."

A painting of the Stone sheep by the Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman is a tribute to the magnificence of the horns of this species (right). It was largely to protect this big game animal, valued as an elite hunting trophy, that BC founded the Spatsizi Wilderness Park in 1975.


"Stone's Sheep." Painting by Robert Bateman.
Photo: Robert Bateman

 top of page

Jimmy Johnathan and his family, c. 1906.
Photo: BC Archives

A popular Canadian textbook on Indians, first published in 1931 and reprinted many times, includes a photo of an unidentified Tahltan man in buckskin (right) who represents "A Tahltan hunter, typical of the Indians of northern Canada." The undated photo was taken by the ethnologist and early Indian rights activist James Teit. It was retouched for printing, exaggerating the man's facial features to seem more ferocious. The descriptive text to the Tahltan portrait is written in past tense, signifying the prevailing attitude that the Indian hunter naturalist type represented by the Tahltan had already succumbed to the forces of civilization:

"A migratory, outdoor life, wherein man pits his wits against the habits and instincts of the game on which he preys, inevitably develops a close perception of the phenomena of nature, and calls for many ingenious methods of obtaining the daily supply of food. The Indians were keen naturalists within the limitations of their interests. They knew the life histories of the animals they hunted, the different stages of their growth, their seasonal movements and hibernation haunts, and the various foods they sought for sustenance" (Diamond Jenness, The Indians of Canada, 1932).


A 1906 photo is described as the Cassiar hunting camp of Jimmy Johnathan (left). His wife and two children are present along with his father in law, described as the Tahltan Chief.

According to a description of the Tahltan published in a 1906 textbook: "They are of medium stature, spare rather than stout, and have high cheek bones, full mouth, aquiline nose rather broad at the base, small hands and feet, coarse black hair, and mild and pleasant expression. On the whole they are an honest, agreeable, kindly people, hospitably inclined and dignified in bearing" Handbook of the American Indians.

"The Tahltan Hunter." (James Teit)
D. Jenness, The Indians of Canada, 1932

 top of page

The Scottish American naturalist John Muir made the Cassiar and Stikine country well known among the public by his true account: Stickeen, the Story of a Dog (1909). The hugely popular story was about a Tahltan Bear Dog: "a perfect wonder of a dog [that] could endure cold and hunger like a bear, swim like a seal, and was wondrous wise and cunning, etc." The dog was considered a "good luck totem" and "was named "Stickeen" for the [Indian] tribe, and became a universal favorite; petted, protected, and admired wherever he went, and regarded as a mysterious fountain of wisdom."

See: Background on Stickeen (Sierra Club). Canada honored the Tahltan Bear Dog with a commemorative stamp (right). The breed was first described by ethnographer James Teit who believed it would disappear by the 1930s. In fact, the Tahltan Bear Dog was not declared extinct until 1974.


"Tahltan Bear Dog," Canadian stamp, 1988.
Photo: Canada Post


"Tahltan Matriarch" and her Tahltan Bear Dog, 1931.
Photo: BC Archives


A 1931 photo entitled "Tahltan Matriarch" shows a woman in a traditional hunting camp smoking her pipe while her black & white Tahltan Bear Dog sits patiently beside her (left). As valuable hunting partners, the dogs were often carried in small moose hide packs during the day and released at night to guard the camp.  The dog was never successfully transplanted or bred outside of Tahltan Territory although it was often attempted.

Tahltan Bear Dogs were especially adept at winter hunting because of their lightness and small size which enabled them to run on top of the snow. They could track animals or help to herd them back to the Tahltan hunter. The little dog was bred to be a hunter and was especially known for its bravery in attacking and chasing off bears or holding them at bay for the Tahltan hunter.

 top of page

"Chips," a Tahltan Bear Dog, c. 1935.
Photo: BC Archives

During the 1930s, the population of Tahltan Bear Dogs increased due to the efforts of two police commissioners at Telegraph Creek. They succeeded in getting the breed recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club in 1939. But later a "shepard's law" was introduced in Telegraph Creek to permit the animals to be shot on sight to quell their yapping. The result was the extermination of the Talhtan Bear Dog.


The usual diet of the Tahltan Bear Dog was small bits of birds, meat and fish and they flourished in the bitter northern cold. Outside their native environment, the dogs suffered from distemper, heat prostration and problems due to dietary changes. As whites moved into Tahltan Territory, bringing a variety of other dogs, the Tahltan Bear Dog became increasingly of mixed race.

Two young Tahltan Bear Dogs, c. 1940.
Photo: BC Archives


Tahltan bear claw head dress, Upper Stikine River.
Photo: Burke Museum of Ethnology

Nanuk (right) with tourist trophy hunter, 1931.
Photo: BC Archives


Stikine grizzly. Painting by Mark Hobson.
Photo: Mark Hobson

The Tahltan were skillful hunters with an intimate knowledge of their game and its habitat. They had sophisticated hunting methods including fences, snaring, deadfalls and stalking. Spears and bows and arrows were used as primary weapons. See: Tahltan Hunting Practices, Tahltan Nation CD Rom.

 top of page

Nanuk, Talhtan guide and hunter, Glenora, 1931.
Photo: BC Archives

The hunter naturalist Allan Brooks was an early English settler in southern BC who became an internationally recognized bird artist. In 1919 he went on a hunting expedition to the Queen Charlotte Islands that included a trip up the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek. Here he collected specimens of the Bohemian waxwing which he later used as models for an ornithological illustration (right).

In pursuit of record breaking trophy heads, many wealthy European and American big game hunters travelled by boat to Telegraph Creek where they hired Tahltan guides to take them into the Cassiar to hunt mountain sheep, goats, caribou and moose. In 1945 the business magnate Richard Mellon of Pittsburg even brought along his own taxidermist to ensure his trophies were properly preserved.

Many of the habitat dioramas featured in the grand natural history museums of Europe and North America display stuffed big game animals from the Cassiar. Also in private trophy collections, the heads and horns of Cassiar big game animals are among the most highly valued objects.


Nanuk, an acclaimed Tahltan hunter and guide often appeared in photos taken by tourist hunters to document their trophy heads (left). By contrast, for the Tahltan, moose hunting and meat provided nutritional and spiritual sustenance. "Moose was another main source of meat in our diet. Before we had guns, moose were very difficult to kill. The older people tell us that for a long time there were very few moose in our country. It was as if they had all left our country. But now they are plentiful again. Moose has remained a main food in our diet, even today" Tahltan Nation CD Rom.

Illustration by Alan Brooks.
H. Swarth, Zoological Report, 1926

 top of page

Tahltan guides & tourist hunter (right) with his trophies, c. 1943.
Photo: BC Archives

The Stone sheep is one of the four bighorn sheep species located on the four continents of the world whose heads are required to become a member of the exclusive American "Grand Slam Club." Outfitters in Tahltan Territory have provided service to tourist hunters for over one hundred years. See a gallery of BC Stone sheep trophy heads: Collingwood Brothers Guides & Outfitters. Even the Guide Outfitters Association, one of the most powerful outdoor lobby groups in BC, cannot enforce a mining moratorium to protect the habitat of the big game animals that are prized world wide as prestigious hunting trophies (right).


Tahltan guides who appear in the photo on the left are: (from the left) Ned Brooks, Ben Frank and Old Dennis (the tourist hunter is unidentified). The traditional tracking skills and hunting knowledge of the Tahltan guides were seldom acknowledged by the tourist hunters who hired them. Nor were the Tahltan paid for the true value of the trophies.

Ben Frank had an intimate knowledge of his hunting grounds and he advised on determining the boundaries of Tahltan Territory: "You have to stick up for land claims - we paid for this land with our blood" Tahltan Nation CD Rom.

Stone sheep killed in Tahltan Territory.
Photo: Collingwood Brothers

 top of page

Iskut Oscar Dennis on the lower Stikine River.
Photo: Sarah Leen


Oscar Dennis belongs to the Tehkahche (Frog Family) and is a spokesperson for the Tl'abanot'in Clan of Iskut First Nation. He is doing graduate research on Tahltan funerary rites at the University of Northern BC: First Nations Studies.

A photo featured in an article on the Stikine by ethnobotanist Wade Davis in National Geographic (March 2004) shows Oscar Dennis holding his grandfather's rifle in the bow of a boat on the lower Stikine River (left). The article was seen by millions of people and read in 27 languages around the world and the photograph won an international award: Pictures of the Year. All this good publicity did nothing to stop Fortune Minerals Ltd. from invading the Klappan Valley in 2005, the traditional territory of the Tl'abanot'in Clan.


Gulf Oil trucks in the Klappan and Groundhog coalfields, Iskut, Talhtan Territory, 1980s.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen

 top of page

The Klappan Groundhog Tenure was explored by Gulf in the 1980s (above). Today Klappan Valley has four huge mining projects planned by Shell, Fortune Minerals, West Hawk and bcMetals (Imperial Metals). All of these corporations have disregarded the Tahltan Moratorium of 25 February 2005: Talhtan Elders Statement. Likewise the BC government displayed its greed and disrespect for the Moratorium when its Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum celebrated the new opportunities for the $6 billion mining industry in BC at the Toronto Stock Exchange on 19 April 2006 (right).

Mountain goat, Tahltan Territory.
Photo: Gary Fiegehen


Dubious applause, 19 April 2006.
Photo: British Columbia Ministry of Energy

"Older Tahltans tell of how goats [left] were hunted long ago, when we still used bows, arrows, and spears to hunt. Our men used to watch the animals to see where they liked to eat during the different seasons. They watched to see which trail the animals used the most. And they watched to see if there was any pattern to the way the animals travelled" Hunting Methods Tahltan Nation CD Rom. No treaty exists that extinquishes Aboriginal Title and the refusal to accomodate traditional Tahltan land use including hunting and fishing is a perilous course of action with ramifications in future legal judgements.


MiningWatch Canada warns about the unprecedented campaign for access to explore and develop new mineral properties: Assault on First Nation Lands. The Klappan coalfield near Iskut contains a rich deposit of two billion tonnes of high quality anthracite coal, one of the largest in the world. In 2005 Shell paid the BC government $10 million for the rights to drill up to 6,000 wells here. Coalbed methane production has an abysmal environmental track record and is known for endangering human health. See the August 2006 report: "Coalbed Methane: A BC Local Government Guide" West Coast Environmental Law.

A German environmental group has a campaign against Shell Canada (right). See: Robinwood. Part of the 20th century industrial growth and wealth of the Netherlands was fueled by Royal Dutch Shell's exploitation of the natural resources of the Dutch colony of Sumatra and today its stockholders continue to profit from its unethical worldwide practices.

Butt off Shell.
Photo: Robinwood

    Archival Album  
 top of page

Source:     Printed:

Copyright: All Rights Reserved. Researched, written, compiled, formatted, hyperlinked and encoded by Dr. Karen Wonders. Images and intellectual property rights reside with the credited owner. Commercial transmission and/or reproduction requires written permission. Use for educational and research purposes requires proper citation.