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Kaska Pitek, Emily


The Kaska are native to the Canadian regions of northwestern British Columbia, southern Yukon, and southwestern Northwest Territories. This entry focuses primarily on the Upper Liard Kaska (located northwest of Lower Post, British Columbia) around the time of 1900, predominantly using reconstructive ethnographic information collected by principal authority anthropologist John Honigmann during field expeditions in the 1940s. For the Kaska, continuous contact with Europeans began in the 1820s at the Hudson Bay Company post Fort Halkett, on Liard River. During this time, Protestant and Catholic missionaries visited the area, but did not start continuous work until the establishment of the mission at McDame Creek on the Dease River in 1926. Consequently, this entry focuses on Kaska beliefs and practices as they existed prior to major changes as a result of contact with foreigners. Traditional Kaska beliefs recognized a variety of supernatural beings, including spirits, souls of the departed, and monsters. However, these beings are not described in substantial detail, perhaps because, as Honigmann (1954:100) notes, “cosmological speculation remained unelaborated in aboriginal Kaska culture.” Kaska religious practitioners were known as shamans and specialized in curing, divination, and clairvoyance. Anyone could become a shaman and gain powers by successfully completing a vision quest, during which the individual would dream of animals and communicate with their spirits. Ethnographic materials reference religious ceremonies including the vision quest (undertaken by young men around the time of puberty), as well as summer dances and potlatches. The most important socio-political unit among the Kaska is the local band, which is typically comprised of the matrilocal extended family and led by the head of the family. The Upper Liard River Kaska were divided into two exogamous matrilineal moieties: the Wolf and the Crow. For the Kaska, religion is not a distinct sphere of life. It is interwoven throughout the functioning of society as a whole. Consequently, this entry considers the religious group to be coterminous with the society itself.

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