Taissumani: July 30, 1820 — Akaitcho and John Franklin, A Meeting of Two Chiefs
In 1819 John Franklin, an officer in the Royal Navy, was given command of an expedition that was to cross the northern part of North America by land, descend the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean and then explore and map the coastline eastward. Three other names well-known to Arctic history also had their introduction to the public as members of that expedition — John Richardson, George Back, and the unfortunate Robert Hood.
Having sailed to York Factory on Hudson Bay, they continued on to Cumberland House, a Hudson’s Bay Company post, where they spent part of the winter. Franklin and Back left on snowshoes in January for Fort Chipewyan. The other two followed later in the spring with supplies. In July, once the parties were reunited, they proceeded down the Slave River and across Great Slave Lake to Fort Providence, a North West Co. post. The manager there recruited Indians to guide Franklin and his party to the Coppermine River, as well as to hunt for them.
The Indians in question were the Yellowknives, a north-western band of Chipewyan. Franklin called them the Copper Indians. They ranged from the east arm of Great Slave Lake to the Coppermine River, along the shores of which copper was said to exist. Both names by which the tribe was known derived from the alleged presence of this metal.
On July 30, 1820, the leader of the largest band of Yellowknives arrived at Fort Providence to meet John Franklin, whom he had agreed to assist. This was Akaitcho — the name means “Big Foot” in the Athapaskan language — and he led a group comprising about forty men and boys. (Curiously the number of females is not mentioned.)
His arrival was designed to impress. Franklin recorded it this way: “On landing at the fort, the chief assumed a very grave aspect, and walked… with a measured and dignified step, looking neither to the right nor to the left… but preserved the same immoveability of countenance until he reached the hall, and was introduced to the officers. When he had smoked his pipe, drank a small portion of spirits and water himself, and issued a glass to each of his companions, who had seated themselves on the floor, he commenced his harangue, by mentioning the circumstances that led to his agreeing to accompany the Expedition… He was rejoiced… to see such great chiefs on his lands, his tribe were poor, but they loved the white men who had been their benefactors; and he hoped that our visit would be productive of much good to them.”
The neighbouring Dogrib and Hare Indians feared Akaitcho. He was a “fierce and aggressive leader” who had driven them from parts of their traditional hunting range, stolen furs and women, and on occasion murdered them.
Franklin was to learn that Akaitcho was stubborn and unyielding where the interests of his tribe were concerned. Once the journey was underway, Akaitcho resisted suggestions that they should reach the Arctic coast that season, and as a result the party wintered at Fort Enterprise.
But the following year, when Franklin’s depleted and starving party straggled back from the Arctic coast, Akaitcho showed them the “utmost tenderness.” Franklin said that he “shewd us the most friendly hospitality and all sorts of personal attention, even to cooking for us with his own hands, an office he never performs for himself.”
In 1821, the North West Co. and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged and two years later the trading post at Fort Providence closed. The influence of Akaitcho diminished rapidly, for he had now to trade into Fort Resolution, where trade was dominated by other Chipewyans. At about this time, the Dogribs massacred a group of 34 Yellowknives, 30 of them women and children.
As a result, Akaitcho refused to join Franklin’s second expedition, to Great Bear Lake, sending word that he would not go into the land where his relatives had died “lest we should attempt to renew the war.” But he rendered essential assistance to a later expedition under George Back at Fort Reliance. Back wrote that “during this appalling period of suffering and calamity, Akaitcho proved himself the firm friend of the expedition.”
Back even reported a speech given by Akaitcho.
“It is true that both the Yellowknives and Chipewyans, whom I look upon as one nation, have felt the fatal severities of this unusual winter,” he said. “But the Great Chief trusts to us; and it is better that ten Indians should perish than that one white man should suffer through our negligence and breach of faith.” But even Back remarked that the man’s authority was much reduced and that he was in poor health.
Akaitcho died in 1838 and is buried on an island in Yellowknife Bay.
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.