Imagine being married by arrangement to a person who doesn’t speak your language, or practise your traditions. You are then dislodged from your homeland and find yourself far away from your family.
Imagine that you are also the richest First Nation woman in the world, and you are at the centre of a vortex of historical circumstances that turn your world upside down. This may help you to understand what happened to Kate Carmack, or Shaw Tlaa, as she was known to her own family.
Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, written by Alaskan author Deb Vanasse and Published by the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) Press, is the story of Shaw Tlaa.
This book is a portrayal of a woman torn between her traditional Tagish lifestyle and the European world in which she was immersed through her marriage to George Washington Carmack, co-discoverer of the Klondike.
Kate Carmack can be found in James Johnson’s biography of George Carmack, Carmack of the Klondike. Sadly, Johnson’s portrayal of Kate Carmack is a stereotypical cardboard cut-out, in which Kate appears as a romanticized but alluring “dusky maiden.” Johnson was unaware of Kate’s cultural ties, or of the fact that she was actually introduced to Carmack as a replacement for her sister, Carmack’s first wife, who died not long after they were married.
This stereotypical treatment is not unusual, and it masks her true character. Books often describe the frontier within the standard themes of national identity: the frontier spirit, rugged individualism, and conquering the wilderness. Many descriptions of untamed savages are included. What gets lost in these narratives is the perspective of the indigenous people who occupied the land before and after the arrival of Europeans.
Where Johnson’s portrayal of Kate Carmack is stereotypical and one-dimensional, Vanasse has used anthropological texts and first-person interviews - to present Shaw Tlaa as a product of her culture; a culture which has carefully defined rules and roles by which one must conduct oneself.
In traditional Tagish fashion, Shaw Tlaa married a Tlingit man from the coast, but after a period of time he had died. Kate’s sister (Vanasse identifies this woman, with an explanatory footnote, as his niece) died within a few months of marrying George Carmack, an American who had settled at Dyea on the Alaskan coast. Kate was provided as a replacement in order to cement an ongoing relationship between George and his Tagish in-law, Keish, who was known to European/Americans as Skookum Jim Mason.
After their marriage, Kate accompanied George on his peripatetic travels through the Yukon and Alaska for the next 10 years. Throughout the text, Vanasse has woven the stories and events that affected First Nations during the early period of cultural contact. Seldom have these details been included in the traditional pioneer texts, but they provide important details about those whose story has frequently been overlooked.
Then, on that fateful day in August of 1896, on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, gold was discovered that would spark the Klondike Gold Rush.
European/American culture has long paid particular attention to the act of discovery, assigning it almost mythical significance. In the universe of placer mining camps, the discovery of gold generally comprises the origin myth for that place. Much debate as swirled around who was the “discoverer” of the first Klondike gold.
Some give the label of “discoverer” to George Carmack, by virtue of him filing the original discovery claim. More patriotic Canadians prefer to assign the label to Robert Henderson, a prospector from Nova Scotia. Others attribute this act to Skookum Jim, Kate’s brother. Some attribute the discovery to Kate herself. I won’t reveal the conclusion that Vanasse came to regarding this event, although I think it is a thoughtful and accurate analysis of the events that transpired at the time, and I am inclined to accept her conclusion on the matter. This, and everything else in this biography, has been extensively researched.
In Wealth Woman, we follow Kate and her family through the years after gold was discovered, through her ultimate separation from George Carmack, the legal entanglements that resulted and her eventual return to her Tagish homeland and her traditional values.
Of additional interest may be the character of George Carmack, whose attitude about Kate is revealed through many of the letters he wrote to his sister. He is hesitant to tell her that he had a First Nation wife, first introducing the notion by suggesting that Kate was Irish. In his narrative of the discovery, formulated in the years following the gold rush, Kate was erased from his account.
Early on in her book, Vanasse captures the differences between Kate’s culture and that of her American spouse: “Her first language centres on verbs, her integrity tied to how well she protects, relates, negotiates and adapts. In the form of luck, destiny comes to her; she does not seek it out.”
By contrast, Vanasse states, “nineteenth-century Americans are a people of objects, their language driven by nouns… destiny requires pursuit… they travel in lines, from point to point, toward tangible goals. They explore, they assert, they acquire.”
Throughout her narrative, Vanasse continues to contrast the traditional values with which Kate Carmack was raised, with the European circumstances in which she was immersed by virtue of her marriage to George Carmack. While Carmack left a trail of documents and correspondence that details the events in his life, Kate comes from an oral tradition. What Kate did and how she felt as a result of the events around her is seldom revealed directly. Vanasse frequently draws these details out by contrasting the traditional values of the Tagish with those of the invading European-American culture.
Wealth Woman contains 325 pages, of which 48 are endnotes, 10 are bibliography and seven the index. Two maps and 8 photographs provide illustration for the narrative. Of particular note is the binding. This delightful and informative softcover volume has the appearance of standard perfect binding, but closer examination reveals that the individual sections have also been stitched, suggesting a more durable and lasting construction.
This is a well-written and informed treatment of the story of one of the pivotal characters from the Yukon’s past, and will be a useful reference to which I will frequently refer. I heartily recommend this to anyone interested in Yukon history.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at email@example.com