New play portrays injustice and misunderstanding

On May 10, 1898, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, were shot on the McClintock River, a tributary of Marsh Lake. Meehan was killed outright and Fox was seriously wounded.

On May 10, 1898, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, were shot on the McClintock River, a tributary of Marsh Lake. Meehan was killed outright and Fox was seriously wounded.

The events that followed, through cultural and linguistic misunderstanding, led to a flawed administration of justice. This event was portrayed in the play Justice, which was performed at the Yukon Arts Centre last week after touring several Yukon communities.

Christian Fox managed to escape the ambush perpetrated by several Tagish men who had been camped nearby. He reached safety, and the North West Mounted Police were sent for. Corporal Rudd and three constables, plus a police surgeon, arrested Jim Nantuck a short time later. The bullet-riddled body of Meehan, which had been weighted down with a pick axe, was soon dragged from the river.

A manhunt ensued and 11 days later, Dawson, Joe and Frank Nantuck (the latter a boy, only 15 years old) were taken into custody.

They were transported to Dawson City, where, in a subsequent trial, they were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Upon their arrival in the gold rush capital, a local American-owned newspaper revealed its sentiments about the event: “The treacherous Instincts of the Aborigines Will Get Their Necks Stretched By Hemp.”

The murder trial for the three older brothers, held on July 28, was brief. The facts, bolstered by incriminating testimony from Frank and an admission of guilt by Jim, seemed straightforward, and the jury took only half an hour to return a verdict: Guilty!

Frank was tried the following day with a similar verdict, but also with a recommendation that he receive the clemency of the court.

On July 4, 1899, after several delays of execution, Dawson and Jim, the only brothers to survive the ravages of tuberculosis, were hanged along with another convicted killer, a white man named Edward Henderson.

A review of the circumstances later revealed judicial flaws in the carriage of justice. For reasons of expediency, self-interest and racism, the brothers were denied a retrial, although Henderson was granted one on the basis of similar procedural irregularities.

The court did not supply adequate translation, which raises the question of whether the accused brothers fully understood the events that were unfolding around them.

Eight years later, at a huge potlatch held in Fort Selkirk, a special dance was performed in commemoration of the Nantuck brothers who, according to the Dawson newspaper account, “murdered the white men without the slightest provocation.”

Accounts rendered by native elders Angela Sidney and Kitty Smith, paint a different picture. Some time before the shooting incident, an old man and a boy died after consuming food that was mistakenly prepared with arsenic, instead of baking powder.

White men were the source of the arsenic and were held responsible for this tragedy. In accordance with Tagish social rules, the crow clan, to which the two dead belonged, had to seek redress from the opposite clan. The usual practice was to negotiate for some form of compensation, or, failing that, the killing of a social equivalent of the victims.

Meehan and Fox became the unwitting representatives of the “white clan.” Unaware of the situation into which they had ventured, and hampered by a lack of understanding of the local Tagish dialect, the two prospectors failed to offer the expected compensation, so they were shot to balance the account.

By contrast, a similar death from poisoning had happened nearly two decades before at the pre-gold rush trading post of Fort Reliance. The outcome there was different because the trader Jack McQuesten, returning for the summer, was forewarned that three women had died after baking with arsenic taken from his stores. Using a translator to complete the negotiation, he made acceptable restitution.

Justice was written by Yukon journalist Leonard Linklater, who first encountered the Nantuck story 15 years ago, while attending the Institution for Indigenous Government in Vancouver.

“It was then,” said Linklater, “that an article appeared in a legal journal on the judicial homicide of these four Tagish men during the Klondike Gold Rush. Why had I not heard of it before?”

Over time, Linklater developed, refined and streamlined the story, melding history with drama to create a compelling play about the competing systems of justice, and how linguistic barriers, social misunderstanding and politics led to the sad conclusion. He lays out important issues without forcing an interpretation. One system of justice prevailed over the other, and only in more recent times has an alternate understanding of the facts emerged.

Interest in the murders, the trial and the execution were given a dramatic kick-start in November of 2010, when the discovery of several executed criminals unearthed from unmarked graves during construction work in Dawson City made the national news. After forensic examination of the remains by physical anthropologist Susan Mooney, two of the skeletons were identified as those of the Nantuck brothers.

The schedule to bring the play to the stage was well underway when this occurred, according to Linklater, but renewed interest spawned by the macabre discovery has heightened the impact of the play and intensified discussion about the underlying story.

The play was tightly woven around six characters and two sets of events: one relating to the shooting of Meehan and Fox, the other pertaining to the subsequent administration of justice in Dawson. Director Floyd Favel used a simple stage setting that incorporated an ingenious shadow screen, upon which various actions and events were suggested by the movement of silhouettes.

The portrayal of the six characters, each burdened by his own issues and values, was deftly handled by actors Philip Nugent, Chris McGregor, Rob Hunter and Corey Payette (the latter two as the Nantuck brothers), and their dialogue was the main vehicle to carry the action forward through the two acts.

Knowing the historical events from which this play was derived is essential for the audience to understand the story. Once that is established, however, the audience can relax and enjoy the performance.

Blending it with a theatrical performance can bring history to a newer, wider audience. It can open the minds of the viewers to provocative new insights into the human condition, historical events and how they interact. I think that the Gwaandak Theatre production of Justice did a good job of achieving this goal.

It is proof that there is plenty of room for more theatrical ventures into the realm of history.

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