Their Own Yukon: a new and improved edition

The Klondike Gold Rush should be remembered not only for the abundance of the yellow metal it produced, but for the wealth of images captured in silver.

The Klondike Gold Rush should be remembered not only for the abundance of the yellow metal it produced, but for the wealth of images captured in silver. The camera had just come into its own and during the gold rush, many stampeders brought their pocket cameras with them.

Others brought more professional outfits and produced the iconic images that have defined the gold rush for all time: The long chain of men laboring up the Chilkoot Pass, the fleet of handmade scows, boats and rafts that floated down the lakes and rivers to reach Dawson City; the crowded streets of Dawson City and the mining of the nearby goldfields.

I quickly compiled a list of two dozen photographers who produced significant collections of photos of the era of the gold rush.

Photographers like E. A. Hegg and Frank LaRoche produced commercial photo books that capitalized on the insatiable demand for anything Klondike. Later photo books produced by Goetzman or Zaccarelli portray the stable community that Dawson became after the stampede had subsided.

More recent books like One Man’s Gold Rush (photographs by Hegg), Klondike Lost (two goldfield photographers, the Kinsey brothers), The Last Grand Adventure (William Bronson) and Klondike Quest (compiled by Pierre Berton) place a more historical perspective upon the drama of the great stampede of a century before. These books are at once stirring, stimulating, fascinating and informative.

But First Nation people make either a scattered appearance, or do not appear at all in this colourful pictorial narrative of the Yukon in transition between the 19th and 20th centuries. Fortunately, First Nation people took their own photographs.

One ground-breaking book stands out. Originally published in 1975 by the Yukon Indian Cultural Education Society and the Yukon Native Brotherhood, Their Own Yukon, by Jim Robb and Julie Cruikshank, has just been reprinted by the Council of Yukon First Nations. Minor changes improved the new edition.

The original concept for this book was born in the fertile mind of renowned Yukon artist Jim Robb, who began discussing the idea of a picture book of First Nations life with many of his native acquaintances. They loaned him the photos and he compiled them into a history of their lives.

The project gained traction with the financial support of Whitehorse businessman Jack Needham, who had become acquainted with many First Nation families as a purser on the Yukon River steamboats in the old days.

Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank became involved through her own study in the late 1960’s. One of her concerns was that while often studied, the result of this research was seldom shared with the communities. The photos Jim Robb assembled created a framework within which some of that knowledge could be presented. In 1973, Robb asked Cruikshank to talk to the families concerned and help him to record the details surrounding the scenes depicted in the photographs.

According to the original preface to the book, the photos in this volume “present an alternate history, recorded by Indian people who experienced it.… In their photographs they isolated and recorded events in their daily lives which could never have been described as vividly in writing. Like their oral tradition, their pictures conveyed emotions through posture, gesture and facial expression as well as through the human story they tell.”

The photographs are a rich portrayal of events of daily life and a wide variety of social occasions captured from a personal standpoint, rather than the detached view of an outside scholar.

The book, which contains 241 photos within its 180 pages, is broken into 11 chapters, with the first setting the context, and the second addressing the gold rush and its aftermath. The following 8 chapters group the photos into several categories (hunting, trapping, trade and trading posts, family life and death, women, social life riverboats and wood camps). The final chapter is an assemblage of contemporary photographs taken by Robb himself.

This book was a groundbreaking document testifying to First Nation life in the territory that had long been neglected in the conventional narratives. It exposed First Nation culture to the wider public, and brought the story back to the communities in a highly readable fashion. The original is one of the most evocative photo books in my library, and the new reprinted version takes its place beside the original edition on the bookshelf.

The book quickly went out of print and in recent years, copies were selling for several hundred dollars each. This year, the Council for Yukon First Nations decided to reprint this work more or less in its original form. As such, it retains the language and views of the time, and reflects the generosity of the individuals who shared their memories with Cruikshank and Robb.

There are some minor changes though, that make this edition an improvement over the original publication. Most noticeable is that the quality of the photographs has been greatly improved. They are sharper and the range of contrast enhanced. Murky images from the original volume, where much of the detail was hidden by heavy contrast, are now easy to discern.

Names have been added to the images contained in the last chapter; something that was not done in the original edition. Where details of the faces were cropped on the original cover, on this one, they are framed to reveal the entire faces of the individuals, a subtle change that makes it more appealing without changing dramatically the form from the original edition.

There are three maps in the first chapter of the book. All quotations are footnoted, and there is a short bibliography on the last page.

This book reveals native life from an intimate, personal perspective. The introductory text for each chapter sets the stage for what follows within, and the captions supply details about the content of each photograph as provided by the numerous contributors to Cruikshank and Robb. “Their Own Yukon” put an intimate human face on First Nations people and started to fill in the long-overlooked chapter of Yukon history that continues to this day.

For anybody interested in Yukon First Nation history, this is an essential addition to your library. It was an excellent book when it first came out forty years ago, and is even better in the reprint edition.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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