In the early 1900s, chilling reports of ritual killings trickled out of the Northern wilds. Was it the hand of the occult? Or had the murderers simply gone mad? By Tristin Hopper
When the three Mounties found him, the boy had been dead for almost six months. His frozen body was cinched into a gunnysack and stashed in a pit covered with wood planks. Paw-prints surrounded the shallow grave – the calling-card of a winter’s worth of would-be scavengers.
The boy, called Atol in the 1924 police reports, had died of exposure. His hands and feet had been bound and he’d been strung up from a tree and left to die. It had happened deep in the remote Liard River country – but still, rumours of the brutal murder had drifted out, passed south through British Columbia by a network of trappers, fur traders and gold prospectors. Once B.C.’s chief Indian agent got word of it, he summoned the RCMP to investigate. An RCMP inspector named T.V. Sandys-Wunsch got the call, and within days he was on a steamship bound for Wrangell, Alaska. After hiking into the Yukon, he secured a canoe, recruited a pair of local constables and set off towards the Liard River.
Camp by camp, the officers grilled locals for information. Gradually, an astonishing story took shape. The murder had been a witch-killing. When an elderly Kaska man had become ill, Big Alec, a shaman, diagnosed the sickness as an act of witchcraft. He fingered Atol as the culprit. Edie Loots, the sick man’s daughter, and her three brothers then tied the boy up to rid him of witches. Six days later, both the boy and the old man were dead.
After digging up Atol’s body, the three officers set off in search of the Loots’ camp. The patrol was paddling into virgin land. In almost 30 years of Northern policing, no Mountie had ever journeyed into this region. One night, warning shots whizzed over the RCMP tents. Although Sandys-Wunsch held “the world’s record for revolver shooting,” he didn’t return fire, wrote the Wrangell Sentinel. They were travelling into strange territory indeed.
European contact had never been kind to the peoples of the B.C interior. Beginning in 1878, with the start of the Cassiar gold rush, waves of European immigrants started coursing through Kaska territory. Newcomers depleted the lakes and forests of food, shamans lost the influence to Christian missionaries, and hundreds began dying of new diseases. As troubles mounted, “witches” shouldered more of the blame. “The Upper Liard Indians have the reputation of being addicted to witchcraft,” wrote Catholic missionary Father E. Allard in 1929. “In times of evil or of bad luck, they will suspect one or more members of their tribe as the cause of the evil which has befallen them. The suspected individuals are punished and are often done away with.”
Slowly, bodies began cropping up around Kaska camps. Around 1900, while en route to the Klondike gold fields, three white prospectors had discovered a Kaska child killed by an axe-blow to the head. In 1926, Mounties heard reports of a pair of orphans who’d been tied up and killed on suspicion of witchcraft. “The affair shows ... the cruelties which are inflicted in the absence of control,” wrote the RCMP in their report.
The Kaska weren’t alone. Across the North, aboriginals stressed by disease, new faiths and new economies often descended into macabre forms of madness. In 1921, at the Baffin Island whaling station of Kivitoo, an influential trader named Niaqutiaq showed up to a Christmas dance dressed in white robes and angel wings. He declared himself Jesus, rounded up a band of armed apostles and began a campaign to rid the community of “bad” people. After two Inuit – a blind man and an illiterate -- had been shot and stabbed, Niaqutiaq was shot through the heart by his cousin.
Two decades later and more than a thousand kilometers southwest, a wintertime meteor shower convinced the Inuit town of Sanikiluaq the Second Coming was imminent. When three community members expressed doubt about the prophecy, they were shot, harpooned and bludgeoned to death. Six more died of exposure when they wandered naked onto the ice to welcome the returning Messiah. “After contact, a lot of strange things appear on the table, and people were grappling to deal with it, to explain it,” says Jeff Hunston, the Yukon’s manager of heritage resources.
In the 1940s, a young Yale anthropologist named John Honigmann arrived in Kaska country by way of the newly-completed Alaska Highway. The highway had been devastating to the Kaska. Overnight, they’d seen their communities overrun by an influx of alcohol, new diseases and a cash economy. Their traditional way of life was vanishing, and Honigmann wanted to see it before it disappeared. Early on, he began to uncover snippets of a dark past.
He interviewed a young Kaska man missing an ear. When he was eight years old, the man said, he’d been accused of witchcraft following the death of his infant brother. His arms were tied, his ear was cut off, but he escaped before his throat could be cut. A boatman named Bear Carlick told Honigmann about rescuing two women and a child who’d been tied up for witchcraft in the woods outside Lower Post, Yukon. The current site of the Watson Lake airport was a favoured spot to kill children suspected of witchcraft, said one man. “A mature person often sought to escape the charge of bewitchment by levelling suspicion on a child,” wrote Honigmann in 1947. “Mutual suspicion was rife and people watched their children carefully.”
After to more weeks on the river, Sandys-Wunsch found Big Alec and the Loots. The officers arrested them and began the arduous 1,000-kilometre journey to Prince Rupert to hold a trial. Big Alec got five years for manslaughter, Edie got 10 years probation and the three Loots brothers were cleared of all charges. By the trial’s end, however, the prosecution suspected they’d only scratched the surface of the witch-killing. “It would appear that the maiming of human beings, including children, has been commonly practiced among the Indians in the Northern portion of this province,” read an RCMP account of the trial.
To this day, mentioning witches to the Kaska prompts an unnerving silence. “Everybody in the southern Yukon seems to have heard about witches, but the subject is a deeply distasteful one, and people dislike discussing it,” noted ethnographer Catherine McClellan in 1975. Many locals were “impatient” at Honigmann’s questions about witches, he wrote at the time. “They rather consistently maintained that it was white people who constantly spoke of ‘witches.’” Children killed by torture were now cited as dysentery victims. When Honigmann approached the surviving Loots brothers with witch questions, the reception was chilly. Honigmann had come to Northern B.C. to help the Kaska remember a vanishing way of life. But some things, it seems, were better forgotten.