Origins of Gwich'in Athapaskan Fiddling in the Arctic region:
I've selected some exerpts from "The Crooked Stovepipe" by Craig Mishler in an attempt to paint a picture of the first exposure to the communities.
Mishler begins by describing French Canadian, Antoine Houle, who was working for the Hudson's Bay Company and was an important influence in the fiddling culture of the Gwich'in in Fort Yukon from as early as 1847:
"...little did he know how agreeable and infectious his fiddle playing would be among the Indians who visited that Hudson's Bay Company trading post. Perhaps he had some inkling of the Indian's great love for music as he watched them listen to his own playing and learn contras and other old-fashioned dances from his fellow Company servants who hailed from Scotland and the Orkney Islands.
There is no surviving record of the music Houle played, but we are fortunate enough to get a feeilng for that music by listening to the tunes played by Gwich'in Athapaskan fiddlers today. The Gwich'in have kept alive a repertoire of tunes that today are known primarily by Indian names, and they have maintained a collection of dances that have been passed down for over a hundred years.
The arrival of Antoine Houle is symbolically depicted in the traditional Gwich'in folktale of the Grasshapper and the Ants....In this story Grasshopper is a stranger who visits the country of the Ants and plays musical instruments for them in return for a promise that they will not kill and eat him. When Grasshopper rubs his legs together and plays his instruments for them, the Ants dance day and night all winter long. Eventually the Ants insist that Grasshopper marry two old lady Ants, who have a crush on him. This makes him very unhappy until finally the Chief of the Ants intervenes and tells the other Ants to leave Grasshopper alone.
...The tale can be read as a parable about Antoine Houle, the Grasshopper musician, who moved in with the Gwich'in and in real life acquired two or more Indian wives. What makes the tale all the more remarkable is that its story line is clearly related to Aesop's fable, The Ant and the Tumblebug, passed down in ancient Greek folklore.
...In addition to knowing something of Antoine's private life, it's important for us to be aware that he was just one of the seven or eight men who helped found Fort Yukon in 1847. While Houle and another interpreter, Baptiste Boucher,were of French-Canadian ancestry, Alexander Hunter Murray himself was a Scot, and nearly all of the other men were recruited from Orkney, a group of small islands off the north coast of Scotland. It seems likely that one or more of these Fort Yukon Orkneymen were also fiddlers, and it was inevitable that these men entertained themselves by performing the music and the dances of their homeland.
the Orcadian influence on the Gwich'in extended well into the early twentieth
century, especially on the Canadian side of the border. The Old Crow fiddler
Charlie Peter Charlie, for instance, claims the favorite fiddlers of his
youth were John Firth and his son William:
John Firth was born in Stromness, Orkney, in 1854 and first arrived in Fort McPherson in 1871. Rising all the way from the ranks of dog sled driver to chief factor, the elder Firth served at Fort McPherson, LaPierre's House, and Rampart House, before retiring from the Company's service in 1921. Firth married a Gwich'in woman, and William was one of the twelve children she bore him. John died in fort McPherson in 1939 at the age of eighty-five (The Beaver Magazine 1939:48)."