Chief Isaac: The gentle diplomat

He greeted visitors who arrived in Dawson on the riverboats in the early days. He met royalty and represented his people on many special occasions throughout the territory. He was the gentle and dignified emissary who bridged the gap between two cultures.

He greeted visitors who arrived in Dawson on the riverboats in the early days. He met royalty and represented his people on many special occasions throughout the territory. He was the gentle and dignified emissary who bridged the gap between two cultures.

He was Chief Isaac, the leader of the Moosehide band near Dawson City.

Chief Isaac was probably born around 1847, most likely, in the upper Tanana country south of the Fortymile district in Alaska. That was at a time before there were real boundaries between Alaska and British North America. He spent his younger years in the Fortymile area and moved to the mouth of the Klondike after marrying Eliza Harper. Four of their children survived into adulthood.

During the winter of 1897-98, Dawson City fell desperately short of food. Hundreds had fled the newborn town in the fall before the Yukon River froze, but still it wasn’t enough. Meat, if it was available at all, was selling for 30 times the price that it fetched Outside.

Chief Isaac led his villagers up the Klondike valley to its extreme reaches, where they were able to bag 80 moose and 65 caribou, which eased the hardship in Dawson immeasurably. With the proceeds, they were able to invest in finery, repeating rifles, and presumably, food from the Alaska Commercial store.

Chief Isaac lived during the Klondike gold rush when his community was subjected to more social change in a short time than any other First Nation in the country. He served as an important link between the old ways and the new. He was probably the right man to lead the Han people into the 20th century.

He could see at the very beginning of the gold rush what a profound impact it would have on his people, so he engineered the move a short distance to the village of Moosehide, which survives today and holds much meaning for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in in Dawson.

Chief Isaac represented his people at every occasion when the two cultures met, and he handled these events with great diplomacy and patience. His message was always the same:

“Long time ago before the white man come along Yukon Indian was happy. Indian had plenty game, no trouble and was fat. White man comes and Indian go out and kill meat to feed him. Indian give white man clothes to wear and warm him by Indian fire. Byemby … million white man come and cut down Indian’s wood, kill Indian’s game, take Indian’s gold out of ground, give Indian nothing. Game all gone, wood all gone, Indian cold and hungry, white man no care.”

The core message that he repeated with regularity at every opportunity was to remind the newcomers, the Europeans, that it was his people’s land onto which they were welcomed. They were welcome to the gold, but they should leave the fishing and hunting to the natives. Sadly it didn’t happen that way.

In 1902, he embarked on a long journey to San Francisco and Seattle, sponsored by the three Dawson trading companies. His aim was to improve his health (he is reported to have been suffering from consumption), and to become better informed about life on the Outside.

He departed Dawson dressed in newly tanned moose skin apparel covered in decorative beadwork and velvet stripes, topped off with a cap and several tall feathers. His goal was to tell the white people how “his people and the whites were brothers, and the Indian women and the white women were sisters.”

Having endured constant bouts of sea sickness, he arrived in San Francisco with his younger brother, Walter. He was shown all the sights. He rode in an elevator for the first time, took a ride in an amusement park, and visited the zoo. He was amazed that the moose would come to the fence and take sweets, rather than run away!

During his stay in San Francisco, Yukon veteran Jack McQuesten was his guide for a day. Speaking in Isaac’s native tongue put him at ease during their short visit together. Isaac took his first train ride on the journey from San Francisco to Seattle, where the NAT&T Company representative showed him around. Talking to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, he tactfully, but bluntly stated: “While the coming of the white man killed our business or trading, fishing and hunting, yet we are glad to have him on the Yukon.”

Six weeks after departing, his health apparently restored, he arrived back in Dawson aboard the steamer Zealandian, dressed to the nines. Upon his head now was a stylish new hat. Beneath his suit he wore a beautifully striped muslin shirt with sparkling white collar and a brightly coloured tie. In his right hand, he sported a cane, while in his left hand, he carried a satchel filled with souvenirs. A couple of days after his return, the entire community convened in his Moosehide cabin to hear his account of his visit to the outside world.

Members of the white community were entertained by traditional dances at events in Dawson, as well as at proceedings at Moosehide. Chief Isaac always presided, dressed in his formal regalia. These events afforded him the opportunity to deliver his message about the European impact upon his community, usually followed by everyone present removing their hats and singing “God Save the King.”

He was the spokesman who intervened on behalf of Han members who were convicted of minor offences, and he represented them when petitioning for jobs or seeking assistance from the government. He was actively involved in the business of the Anglican Church in Moosehide, but maintained a careful balancing act with traditional spiritual beliefs.

In 1922, he was introduced to Lady Byng, wife of the governor general. Dressed in beaded moose skin from head to foot, he talked to her for a short while, and then presented her with some fine leather crafts from the people of Moosehide. It was one of his last documented official functions.

Chief Isaac died of influenza on April 9, 1932, at 85 years old. He is remembered fondly by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in of Dawson. Chief Isaac Hall is named in his honour. Mount Chief Isaac is located in the Ogilvie Mountains north of Dawson. Dawson residents even made him an honorary member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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