SAHNEUTI (Sahnyateh, Sanytyi, Senati, Sinate, meaning “father of the runner”; initially known as Saveeah or Sawiya, signifying “rays of the sun”), Kutchin chief and fur trader; d. 1900 near Fort Yukon (Alaska).
Sahneuti’s original name, Saveeah, was changed, in keeping with Kutchin tradition, at the birth of his first son, Sahneu, in the early 1850s. He himself had been born near the site of Fort Yukon, possibly in the 1820s. At that time few members of his Kutcha-Kutchin band (Yukon Flats Kutchins) had seen a white man. Nevertheless, long before the arrival of outside traders in his region, a complex trade network had been established. Sahneuti’s people traded the products of their hunts to other Kutchin bands who, acting as middlemen, obtained for them the beads and dentalia that were considered marks of status. Sahneuti rose quickly to a prominent position among his band by developing a reputation as its best moose hunter and by amassing a fortune in beads. In keeping with his position, he had five wives.
In 1847 the Hudson’s Bay Company sent Alexander Hunter Murray* to break through the middlemen’s hold on its Yukon River trade by contacting the more distant bands directly. The site he chose for a new post, Fort Yukon, was located in the area frequented by the Kutcha-Kutchins and two other bands. Impressed by Sahneuti’s abilities and his reputation among his people, Murray appointed him chief trader, presenting him with the symbolic red coat. Sahneuti was quick to take advantage of the HBC presence at Fort Yukon. Usurping the position of the established middlemen, he now himself purchased furs for trade from even more distant bands. Constant feuding among the Kutchins over trade advantages become a fact of life on the Yukon River.
As a part of his leadership strategy, Sahneuti also readily exploited the HBC’s reliance on the local bands for provisions. In 1864 HBC trader Strachan Jones attempted to break Sahneuti’s domination of the trade by encouraging outlying bands to come directly to the fort. Sahneuti and his men immediately refused to hunt for the company, and Jones was forced to capitulate. By 1865 Sahneuti was described as the leader of the most prominent Kutchin band. But that very year a devastating epidemic of scarlet fever swept through the present-day Yukon Territory. Sahneuti’s people were not spared; his band lost at least a third of its members. He himself contracted the disease, but recovered.
Another major crisis confronted Sahneuti after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. The HBC was forced to give up its post at Fort Yukon and set up in British territory [see William Lucas Hardisty*]. A number of Indians followed the company to its posts at Lapierre’s and Rampart houses (Yukon), but Sahneuti remained behind. He was not satisfied with the Americans who arrived to trade at Fort Yukon, however. He blamed them for the removal of the HBC and was angry at their low prices and inferior trade goods, and in the fall of 1870 he led a raid on the American post at Fort Yukon, causing considerable damage. Nevertheless, the following year he travelled to the nearest American post but, according to HBC clerk John Wilson, was “awful disgusted with the Yankees.” The Americans responded by raising fur prices and bringing in better trade goods. Sahneuti was careful to maintain diplomatic relations with the HBC, and periodically sent gifts of furs or requested token exchanges of ammunition and tobacco. The trade advantage to him shifted back and forth with the competition until 1879, when the Alaska Commercial Company placed him in charge of its Fort Yukon trade. The HBC became sufficiently alarmed with his success that it agreed to modify its own prices in the northern Yukon. Ultimately much of the Kutcha-Kutchin trade reverted to the HBC, although Sahneuti chose to remain on his lands in what was now American territory.
Sahneuti and his band had also come into contact with a series of Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society, beginning with William West Kirkby in 1861. One of Sahneuti’s sons, Joseph Kwulu, was placed, according to his father’s wishes, under the religious tutelage of the Reverend Robert McDonald in 1875. None the less, Sahneuti resisted changing his own life to suit the missionaries’ teachings. He retained his five wives at least until 1884 and continued to use his Kutchin name until his death.
Even as an old man, Sahneuti retained his position of prominence among his people. When Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka led an American military expedition through the area in 1883, he visited a settlement 255 miles from Fort Yukon known as “Senati’s Village.” He observed that although the Alaska Commercial Company was no longer trading in the vicinity, Sahneuti’s “force of character has done much to hold together the handful of natives that still cling to the old spot.” He estimated that the camp consisted of 40 to 50 people. It was indeed not the large and wealthy band Sahneuti had once led. Disease and the vagaries of the white man’s politics continued to play a tragic part in the lives of the Kutchin people. In 1883 a diphtheria epidemic claimed the life of Sahneuti’s eldest son. The band lost a quarter of its number during an epidemic of influenza or pneumonia in 1899–1900. Sahneuti himself died in 1900, possibly from its effects.
A man of courage, skill, and political acumen, Sahneuti successfully protected the interests of his people in his dealings with the fur traders and the missionaries. He was one of the last survivors of an age of pride, independence, and wealth for the Kutchin people and contributed in no small way to the successes of his generation.
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