In early 1902, Chief Jim Boss of the Southern Tutchone people living around Lake Laberge approached Whitehorse lawyer T.W. Jackson to write a letter to the government. He wanted to request compensation for the loss of lands and hunting grounds by the incursion of the white man during the recent gold rush.
He had previously requested that William Ogilvie, commissioner of the Yukon, set aside 1,600 acres of land on the upper end of Lake Laberge for his people. Ogilvie acknowledged the long-term occupation of the site by Indian people, and on July 13, 1900, Canadian government set aside a reserve, reduced to 320 acres, “for the use of the Indians in the vicinity.”
Chief Boss may not have been impressed with the reduced allocation that was granted by the commissioner, so the letter, written on Jan. 13 of 1902, was directed instead to the superintendent of Indian Affairs in Ottawa.
“Before the advent of the white man,” wrote Jackson, “the Indians had no difficulty in procuring game sufficient to their wants whereas at the present time, because of the white trappers and hunters taking possession of the country the Indians are unable to subsist as they were formerly able to do.”
If the government was willing to entertain the proposal, Boss offered to gather the people of the region together at any time.
This is the first known attempt of the First Nation people of the Yukon to enter into land claim negotiations with the government of Canada. The government ignored the request, and so began a process that was to continue for a century before reaching its conclusion.
Similarly, Chief Isaac of Dawson City frequently and firmly reminded white settlers in the Klondike region that his people had occupied the land before the stampeders of the gold rush arrived.
In 1933, Joe Squam of the Teslin people also claimed land in the Wolf Lake area, stating that he had “hunted and trapped over this land since a child.” The government hastily denied that claim too.
The formal process that has resulted in 11 Final Agreements in the Yukon Territory started in 1973 when a proposal for the settlement of land claims entitled “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow” was accepted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It had been a long time coming.
Chief Jim Boss (Kashxoot) was born about 1871. His father, Mundessa, originally from the Hutchi area, was the chief of the people around Lake Laberge. His mother, Lande, was from the Tagish people southeast of Whitehorse. Many of the Ta’an Kwach’an people of today can trace their ancestry back to this couple and their children.
He had, during his life, three wives. He first married Kathleen Kitty and adopted her son Fred. His second wife was Maude, with whom he had four children; Alice, David, Lena and Ned. Maude died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. With his third wife, Annie, he had two more children, Agnes and Sam. He lived in the Whitehorse area until his death in 1950.
Kashxoot was seen by his people as a successful and wealthy man. He adapted well to the economic opportunities made possible by the influx of newcomers that resulted from the gold rush.
He supplied firewood and fish to the sternwheelers that plied the waters of the Yukon, and provided wild meat to the Burns meat outlet in Whitehorse. Despite the messy nature of some of this work, he was well known for keeping an extremely tidy camp. He built a roadhouse on Lake Laberge and subsequently operated several roadhouses during his life. He operated a fox farm during the period of high prices. He is credited with discovering Takhini Hot Springs, and owned it until his death in 1950.
He owned several houses and a team of horses to transport him back and forth. He held several potlatches over the years, including one in 1905, across the river from Whitehorse, which lasted several days. In his later years, he could be seen attending various events in Whitehorse, decked out in specially made regalia, some of which is today housed in the MacBride Museum.
Because of his family connections, his linguistic skills, and his ability to adapt to and successfully exploit the white economy, he was widely respected within his own society, and acknowledged by the white community. On more than one occasion, he represented his own as well as his people’s interests to the government, and acted as a go-between on many occasions.
Had the government entertained the negotiation of a treaty, Kashxoot would have been the obvious choice to bring people together for such a purpose. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and it was left to another leader, Elijah Smith, to advance the First Nations cause to Prime Minister Trudeau many years later.
On Jan. 13, 2002, precisely 100 years after his letter was submitted to the government suggesting that a treaty be negotiated, representatives from the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, the Government of Canada and the Government of Yukon formally signed the Ta’an Kwach’an Council Final Agreement in a public ceremony.
Featured on the cover of the final agreement is an image of Chief Jim Boss dressed in ceremonial regalia. I think that he would have been pleased by the outcome of this momentous agreement.
The final agreement included provisions covering financial compensation, transfer of 785 square kilometres of land to the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, protection of heritage values, opportunities for economic development and creation of a new level of self-government for the First Nation.
In August 2008, Chief Jim Boss was recognized as being of national significance when a brass plaque in his honour was unveiled in a ceremony at Lake Laberge in front of a large crowd. On it, written in English, French and Southern Tutchone was the following:
“Chief Jim Boss, of the Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation, was one of the first Yukon aboriginal leaders to recognize the importance of preserving the land and its resources for his people. He is remembered for having initiated the first Yukon land claim in the year 1902. His leadership allowed the First Nations from the southern region of the Yukon to make the transition from a traditional way of life to a Euro-Canadian economy. Throughout his lifetime, Chief Jim Boss was an influential and outspoken leader whose insight helped guide the Yukon First Nations.”
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org