Over a million years, ago a thick lava flow layered the Whitehorse valley.
I’ve heard a geologist speculate this volcanic river of magma originated from a side vent off the Golden Horn.
Whatever the fiery source, rapid cooling left durable formations of irregular hexagonal basalt columns spread across our landscape.
Erosion among other earth-shaping forces has exposed the aging remnants of this pyrotechnic event in several places locally.
The most prominent of these monuments to the tectonic churning deep below us is Miles Canyon.
On July 1, 1883, a US Army lieutenant by the name of Frederick Schwatka gave the narrow canyon its popular name while leading a geographic expedition down the Yukon River.
As we know, Lt. Schwatka plastered names all over the countryside with little regard for the names that the land’s first peoples had long used for the features of their homeland.
The Southern Tutchone people called the canyon, which dramatically constricts the Yukon River, ‘Kwanlin.’
It literally means the place where “water flows through a narrow passage” according to my source at the Yukon Native Language Centre up at Yukon College.
The ever politically astute Schwatka chose to rename Kwanlin Canyon after his commanding officer, the then Brigadier-Gen. Nelson Appleton Miles, commandant of the US department of the Columbia.
The general’s responsibilities for the US Army from 1880 to1884 included its affairs in Alaska and by extension, I suppose, the Yukon.
Schwatka picked his patrons wisely; Miles eventually became the commanding general of the army.
Nelson Miles came up through the ranks during the Civil War.
His fighting prowess won him the rank of lieutenant in 1862.
Taking part in all the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac he rapidly advanced to become a major general of volunteers in 1865. He was only 26 years old at that time.
Following the Civil War, he chose to remain with the regular army. From 1869 to 1890 Gen. Miles fought throughout the American West.
As field commander in the Red River War he fought the Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne peoples.
By 1876, his superiors transferred him to the northern plains where he battled the Lakota who also were desperately resisting alien domination.
Following the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Mile’s troops pursued Sitting Bull and his people until they crossed safely into the sanctuary of the Canadian Cypress Hills ahead of them.
A year later the Nez Perce under the leadership of chief Joseph weren’t so lucky.
Miles and his troops rode them to ground less than a 100 kilometres from the Canadian border.
After their futile resistance flight of nearly 3,000 kilometres, chief Joseph eloquently proclaimed, “Hear me, my chiefs; my heart is sick and sad. From where the Sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The fighting didn’t stop for Gen. Miles though.
By 1886 he held the command of the Army’s department of Arizona. There he had 4,000 soldiers campaigning hard against the just over three dozen Apaches under Geronimo who continued to defy US authority.
Miles broke their resistance by forcibly removing their families from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona to Florida.
Geronimo surrendered to Miles in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.
An exile of hard labour in squalid conditions in Florida followed.
Geronimo never returned to his homeland.
Miles ‘illustrious’ career continued. He bore overall responsibility for the troops that opened fire on the Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 and the Pullman strikers in Chicago in 1894.
He gained further notoriety by personally leading the troops ashore at Guanica, Puerto Rico, in the invasion of that island during the trumped up Spanish American War of 1898.
Miles retired from active service in 1903, but his strident views weren’t silenced.
Among other things became a leader of an anti-Catholic organization known as the Guardians of Liberty and opposed the League of Nations that early attempt to bring order to the world following the First World War.
Miles died in 1925 but the ideas and attitudes he embodied can still be seen all around us.
Instead of what Miles called “savages” and “hostiles” we demonize people by calling them terrorists or fanatics.
We still see war as a way to solve the problems that confront us rather than trying to understand the root causes of conflict and dealing justly with those issues.
Maybe it is time to change old attitudes as well as the name of a canyon.
The Social Justice Committee has organized a special ecumenical Lenten evening of prayer on the crying need for peace and justice in the land where Jesus first proclaimed his message of hope.
Using a Contemporary Way of the cross prepared by the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre of Palestine, all are invited to participate in a liturgical journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa Friday, March 30 from 7 to 8 p.m. at Sacred Heart Cathedral.