The Yukon Territory is widely known as the Home of the Klondike, the centre of one of the most frantic and exciting gold rushes in modern history. However, while the Klondike gold rush was an important event, its romantic record often overshadows a far more important development that continues today.
In the early days of European contact in the Yukon, white newcomers generally mingled easily and freely with First Nation people. However, this relationship was set aside during the first half of the 20th century when Yukon society condensed into racially divided pieces. The Yukon was one of the last places on earth where these two cultures had met, but it was also where important negotiations began for a cultural relationship between Europeans and aboriginals.
Before we examine this relationship and the impact created by the Gold Rush we need to take a look at the historic links that were established between First Nation communities before the white man’s arrival. The importance of these links was observed and appreciated in June 1995 when several people, including myself, lined the banks of the Yukon River at Fort Selkirk to await the arrival of the Tlingits, the First Nation people of the Pacific coast. We recognized the fact that the Tlingits had a long history of trading maritime goods for the furs and skins of the Yukon interior. Their return to Fort Selkirk marked the renewal of old trade and family connections that linked them with the Northern Tutchone people of the Pelly River.
As the Tlingits approached we could hear their chanted song and the beating of their skin drums. These sounds were soon answered by their hosts, the Northern Tutchone. When the boats finally landed, an elder by the name of Judson Brown rose in his boat and announced the arrival of the Tlingits and their willingness to be friends and trading partners with their hosts. A gift, namely a five-pound can of coffee, was presented to Tutchone Chief Patty Van Bibber who welcomed the visitors from Alaska and then offered hospitality, food and shelter. The Tlingits came ashore and unloaded boxes of trade goods, tents and other gear.
However, before any trading began the Tlingit dance group, dressed in traditional rich red and black or blue dance blankets decorated with shiny mother-of-pearl buttons, presented a series of dances and songs. This was followed by a few speeches, a feast of beef soup and barbecued salmon, and more speeches and stories of meetings between family and friends of days gone by.
Long ago, a Tlingit chief named Kohklux led annual treks into the Yukon interior. In 1852, he was part of a group that journeyed to Fort Selkirk and met Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The group also visited the newly established trading post. During the 1995 gathering on the Yukon River, Judson Brown noted there was a “small misunderstanding” in 1852 when Campbell’s post was ransacked and the Tlingits maintained control of the Yukon trade for another half century.
The Discovery of Gold
The Tlingit’s control of access into the interior of the Yukon was finally challenged in the early 1880s, not by traders, but by miners. Gold seekers–working in the shadow of gold rushes to California in 1849, the Cariboo in British Columbia in 1860 and the Cassiar Mountains in the 1870s–moved north during the 19th century. In the early 1880s, Joe Juneau uncovered the streak of gold that founded the Alaskan city named in his honor. The town grew quickly and the richness of the mine soon stole the Alaskan capital from Sitka, the old Russian fur trade centre. Times were changing quickly.
Rumors of gold in the Yukon seeped out to the coast in the early 1870s. Travelling the old and laborious Hudson’s Bay Co. overland route from the Mackenzie River and gradually creeping up the Yukon from the old Russian settlements, a few dozen miners found traces of gold on the rivers and creeks draining into the Yukon River. Miners on the coast pressed the Tlingits for direct access to the Yukon through their traditional trading passes. In 1880, the first party of miners from the coast was allowed to travel through one of the less important Tlingit trade routes, the Chilkoot Trail.
Over the next 15 years, prospectors fanned out over the Yukon, spending the summers panning the sand-bars of the rivers and looking for the big strike. At first, few stayed year round in the interior, but as promising ground was found, more men stayed the winter to hold on to their good spots.
The miners quickly found that the best way to survive a Yukon winter was to partner up with a First Nation woman. Her abilities to butcher and cook moose, snare rabbits, prepare and repair skin clothing and her extended family relations were invaluable assets over and above the importance and comforts of a marital relationship. It was one such relationship that spawned the gold rush that brought the Klondike to the attention of the world.
Shaaw Tláa was a Carcross-Tagish woman of the Dakl’aweidi clan in the southern Yukon. After her first husband died, she married her dead sister’s husband, an American prospector and trader named George Washington Carmack. He had operated a small trading post at the confluence of the Nordenskiold and Yukon Rivers before deciding to head north with his wife. After several years, Shaaw Tláa’s mother, Gus’dutéen, began to worry because she had not heard any news about her daughter. She sent her son Keish to get news of his sister and brother-in-law.
Keish was also known as “Skookum (strong) Jim” for his feats of packing goods on the high mountain trails to and from the coast. Keish, like many First Nation individuals, had a spirit helper that gave him luck and reminded him of his community and family obligations. Some time previous to his mother’s request, he had several dreams where his spirit helper, a frog, appeared. Once, in the form of Wealth Woman, his spirit helper promised to guide him to great wealth.
In the spring of 1896 Keish and two of his nephews, Káa Goox (Dawson Charlie) and Koolseen (Patsy Henderson) started downstream to find Shaaw Tláa and her husband George.
The small group of men met George and Shaaw Tláa far down the Yukon River during the salmon run. Eventually, they settled on a good fish camp and began cutting a timber raft to sell at the mining camp at Forty Mile. On the advice of a passing Nova Scotia prospector, Robert Henderson, the group did some prospecting on a nearby creek. OnAug. 16, 1896, Skookum Jim found gold and the group quickly staked several claims. They then travelled to Forty Mile to register their claims at the North West Mounted Police post.
The Klondike Gold Rush
The news of a gold strike moved quickly through the Yukon River country. Hundreds of prospectors rushed to what became known as the Klondike, a derivation of the Han First Nation word Thron’duick, or hammer water. This was in reference to the fish-trap posts that were hammered into the riverbottom there. The miners eagerly staked claims and spent the winter digging into the frozen soil in pursuit of the big pay streak. However, the winter closed the doors of the Yukon before anything more than rumors of a gold strike could trickle outside.
What finally set off “Klondike Fever” was the arrival of two gold-laden ships on the American West Coast the following summer. On July 15, 1897, almost a year after the original discovery, the Excelsior steamed into San Francisco with a score of Yukon miners and hundreds of kilograms of raw gold worth3/4 of a million dollars. Two days later, Seattle’s waterfront was the scene of an even more dramatic arrival as the Portland docked. Newspapers trumpeted the arrival of “more than a ton of solid gold.” The phrase, “a ton of gold” was soon on everyone’s lips.
However, reality surpassed rumor because the Portland actually carried more than two tons of gold. For the next two years, tens of thousands of people stampeded to the North in search of their fortunes.
For many, the northern frontier offered a promise of free land and free gold. For those crushed by a deep economic depression and confined by the growing congestion of industrializing cities, it was seen as an opportunity for a fresh start. Esther Lyons, a young woman crossing the Chilkoot Pass in the spring of 1897, paused at the summit and wrote: “What pen can describe that hour on the summit of the Chilkoot? Behind us civilization; before us vastness, silence, grandeur. What a place to think, to dream!”
The appeal of the frontier, especially in 19th century North America, was powerful and it drew a tide of people who wanted to settle on land that was presumed empty and free for the taking. Would-be miners claimed vast areas, sawyers cut whole forests for lumber and businessmen laid out townsites and began selling lots to people building stores and houses. The old relationships between the early prospectors and First Nation communities, which were tenuous at best, were now gone. The aboriginal inhabitants were swept aside in the rush to “civilize” the wilderness of the Yukon.
At Dawson City, the boom was a three-year binge of construction and frenetic boosting. The existing Han fish camp at the mouth of the Klondike River was taken over by the newcomers. Soon a brewery, market gardens and eventually even a railway yard were spread over the site. Across the Klondike, the main townsite included an extensive government reserve with a courthouse, large administration office and even a palatial commissioner’s residence for the leading federal government official. A major commercial area developed along the Yukon River and as many as a dozen stern-wheel steamers were tied up to the docks, ready to deliver freight and passengers.
Warehouses filled with winter supplies occupied the swampy lots behind the stores on Front Street. Beyond these lots–on the hillsides–were hundreds of houses, including log cabins like the one that housed Robert Service. The town was an imported wonder; it looked like a transplanted southern city.
It was no surprise then that the Han First Nation people were pushed aside. The Anglican missionary, Bishop Bompas, lobbied for a separate reserve for them, and the commissioner during the Gold Rush, William Ogilvie, warned Ottawa about possible conflicts between the Han and miners as the latter expanded their search for gold.
However, the Canadian government cautioned Ogilvie that “the Indians were not to be recognized in any way which would lead them to believe the government would do anything for them as Indians.”
There was a belief at the time that the Klondike gold rush would pass quickly and the miners would move on, leaving the government with unnecessary, and expensive commitments to the First Nations.
Even so, the pressures in Dawson demanded action. In the spring of 1897, the Han were removed to Moosehide, a reserve that was only finally surveyed in 1900. It was situated five kilometres downstream from Dawson.
And so, two cultural solitudes were in place; the whites looking after their affairs through the local government and the First Nations under the administrative care and control of the federal government.
Closer Contacts and Yukon Land Claims
After the excitement of the Gold Rush, the Yukon quickly settled into a quiet backwater of Canada. By 1912 the population had dropped from a turn-of-the-century peak of nearly 30,000 to only 6,000. The inhabitants, split almost evenly between newcomers and First Nations, lived largely separate lives. The newcomers concentrated on mining or on commercial and transportation businesses at Dawson and Whitehorse. The First Nations, meanwhile, lived off the land and trapped for fur in their traditional territories. For 30 years there was little change in the situation.
Then, in 1942, some dramatic events unfolded that were prompted by the outbreak of war in the Pacific and specifically the early victories of Japanese military forces, especially in the Aleutians. In April of that year, three regiments of United States army troops disembarked from the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway train in Whitehorse. These men were the first of a force of almost 35,000 men. Over the next few years, this army from the south built a network of roads and airstrips as well as oil refineries and pipelines. It also stretched telephone and power-lines through previously isolated portions of the territory. After the war there was only a temporary letup in construction. Throughout the 1950s there was increasing national interest in the North as a field of potentially limitless development.
All this work radically changed the cultural and social structure of the Yukon Territory. While the existing white population struggled with the sudden influx of outsiders, the people of the First Nations were even more challenged as their way of life eroded around them. Trapping became uneconomic as fur prices dropped during the war. Many First Nations people left the bush and took construction jobs on the highway. As the road network continued to expand, the old river boat system was abandoned, forcing yet more First Nations people off the land to the growing communities on the roads.
The wider access to the land also coincided with a growing federal government presence in the lives of all Canadians. Wildlife management policies, introduced from the south, often conflicted with traditional ways of life. The establishment of the Kluane Game Sanctuary in 1942 effectively reduced several First Nations to poverty by cutting off access to much of their traditional trapping and hunting grounds. Even family allowance and old age pensions, welcomed in the south as protection against a repeat of the hardships of the Depression, clashed with traditional First Nation values. Often these were also used as lures to get First Nation families to settle in communities and place their children in school. There was, indeed, a great deal of pressure to assimilate the First Nations into mainstream Canadian society.
By the mid-1960s the Yukon First Nations were a decided minority in the Yukon. Fearful of completely losing their cultural identity, they began to organize. Elijah Smith, a Southern Tutchone veteran of the Canadian Army, came from the small Yukon community of Champagne. He became one of the important leaders of this movement. During hearings for the Indian Affairs white paper at Whitehorse in 1968, he spoke: “We, the Indians of the Yukon, object to…being treated like squatters in our own country. We accepted the white man in this country, fed him….helped him find gold, helped him build and respected him in his own rights. For this we have received little in return. We…would like the government of Canada to see that we get a fair settlement for the use of the land. There was no treaty signed in this country, and they tell me the land still belongs to the Indians.”
The first territory-wide Indian organization grew out of Yukon First Nation anger over the terms of the white paper. Initiated in the fall of 1968, the Yukon Native Brotherhood was organized to press for a comprehensive claim. Elijah Smith was elected as the first president. The Yukon Native Brotherhood prepared a statement of claim that was presented to prime minister Pierre Trudeau in January 1973. This document was the first comprehensive claim ever submitted to the federal government by any Indian group. Its intent to establish a co-operative government model for both cultures was accepted as the basis for the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement.
Almost 20 years later, the 14 First Nations of the territory and the federal and territorial governments agreed upon the terms of an umbrella final agreement for a land claims settlement. Although individual First Nations are still negotiating the details for their own communities, the overall principles of a compact between Yukon First Nations people and Yukoners of other backgrounds are now set.
The agreement represents a milestone in the process of cultural contact that began over a century ago. And while the formal process only began in 1973, it is interesting to note that the roots of these negotiations go back to the days of the Klondike gold rush.