The Tagish people whose culture was changed by a gold rush

Tagish is a North Athabaskan language that is spoken by the Tagish people, who lived around the Yukon Lake, in the Yukon Valley in Canada. Tagish was largely spoken until the mid 19th century, when it began to decline. The Tagish language is almost extinct. As of 2001 there were only 2 people left, who could speak the language. One of the speakers can speak the language semi-fluently, while the other speaker is elderly and deaf.

Some of the major reasons for the extinction of the language includes internal as well as external pressures. Internal pressure included pressure from the dominant Tlingit language. Most Tagish people intermarried with the Tlingit and absorbed their language and culture. That is why the Tagish language is sometimes confused with the Tlingit language. The intermarriages between the 2 communities led to a mixture of both languages. Some of the few remaining passive Tagish speakers are fluent in Tlingit. External pressure included European pressure, that came about due to the arrival of non-natives to the Yukon Valley. This was mainly as a result of the Klondike gold rush. Some members of the Tagish community were the first to discover gold, which eventually led to the Klondike gold rush. This included Skookum Jim, Kate Carmack and Dawson Charlie, who became some of the well known Tagish speakers. Thousands of gold seekers flooded the area and ended the traditional way of life of the people and changed the region forever. Some of the gold seekers chose to settle permanently in the area, while it was a seasonal camp for others. With this wave of people, it became necessary to set up a post office, churches, schools, trading centers and hotels. Eventually, the Alaska Highway was constructed in 1942. This led to the interlinking of Tagish with the rest of the Yukon Valley.

The Tagish language is closely related to the Tahltan and Kaska languages. So closely related are they that some linguists classify them as a variety of the same language. The word Tagish is a place name, derived from a Tlingit loan word that means ‘it (spring ice) is breaking up’.

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