Da Ku Cultural Centre celebrates 150 years of the Kohklux Map

Tom Buzzell points out Haines Junction in the Kohklux map. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Yukon First Nations and Alaska Natives gathered at the Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction Saturday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Kohklux Map. That’s the oldest map of the Southern Yukon region from Klukwan, Alaska to Fort Selkirk in the Yukon Territory.

The maps are kept in a climate controlled room in the Da Ku Cultural Center while they are on loan from the Bancroft Library.

Tom Buzzell is a local expert on the maps. He also shares a traditional name with Kohklux. As visitors filter in to peek, he explains its historical significance.

“We right at the moment are right here at the beginning of the Alsek River,” Buzzell said, pointing at the map.

The Kohklux maps were drawn in 1869 by Chief Kohklux of the Chilkats and his wives. To say the stars aligned for the maps to exist is no exaggeration—he drew them for American scientist George Davidson who traveled to Klukwan to view a solar eclipse. He used to to tell Davidson a story from his youth.

“It was the story when people from Klukwan went to Fort Selkirk to stop some of their competition in the fur trade,” he said.

Kohklux’s map charts the trade trails that Klukwan Tlingits took to trade goods with tribes from the north. In the generations since Kohklux told Davidson his story, the maps have become a physical symbol of all the stories that belong to that land.

The halls of the cultural center echoed with stories as denizens of the region shared their histories in the main hall

“Country,” on this map, is not national lines and government ownership. It’s the land and the trails that connected the people on it. Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief Sam Smith says the map now charts a new route.

“It’s another tool that brings our people back together,” he said.

He says national borders create an artificial boundary between indigenous groups that share family ties, economic relationships, and cultural history.

“You can go to Klukwan and hear Athabascan songs that are hundreds of years old. You can come here and hear Tlingit songs. What does that mean? We are a together people. The map just shows that to everybody, shows that even to our own citizens,” he said.

Haines Mayor Jan Hill helped plan the event. She shared historical knowledge of Klukwan. She lives in Tlingit territory but is also a member of the Champagne and Aishihik (a-shyak) First Nations.

“The map shows just how close we are to our neighbors and family in Canada,” she said.

Its trails connect parts of her identity. She said Kohklux left a legacy beyond the map.

“He was an ambassador. He had friends that were native, non native, military, and civilian. I think he set a good example for us,” said Hill.

The day’s story sharing ended in a potlatch feast, drums, and dancing. One participant said it felt like a big family reunion, where the general public just happened to be welcome.