when the elders speak you should listen

I met Charlie Ross in August of 1972 at Dalton Post, where he was renovating one of the cabins to live in.

I met Charlie Ross in August of 1972 at Dalton Post, where he was renovating one of the cabins to live in.

Nestled along the shore of the Tatshenshini River at the northernmost point on its journey to the sea, Dalton Post, and the nearby abandoned Southern Tutchone village of Neskataheen, consisted of a number of collapsed and collapsing log buildings.

I didn’t know much about the history then, but what I knew was that Jack Dalton built his trading post a short distance from the native settlement, which consisted of a cluster of Tlingit-style long houses. My limited knowledge of the region spanned ancient times to the gold rush era. Beyond that, it was sketchy at best.

Then I met Charlie Ross.

He had just retired from a job in Vancouver and returned to the area after an absence of nearly 40 years. As a young man, he had been drawn to the area from Outside to prospect for gold on Squaw Creek. Gold was discovered there around 1927 by Paddy Duncan, and a handful of people had stampeded to the creek to mine the yellow stuff.

His experiences on this isolated stream held some powerful allure for him, because he came back after all those years and remained in the area until he passed away.

One evening, while sitting around a fire with the Tatshenshini River quietly flowing behind us, Ross told stories of Squaw Creek from decades before. He later walked around Dalton Post, pointing out features and identifying who was living in which cabins. Ross opened my eyes to a little-known piece of Yukon history, and made it come alive.

Charlie Ross was my first direct encounter with an old-timer who was sharing his knowledge of place and time.

Some years later, I began work as curator of collections for Parks Canada at Dawson City. There I came to know John Gould, a colleague, a long-time Dawson resident, and a miner whose father had unearthed gold in the Klondike just after the gold rush. Gould was filled with knowledge and experience with traditional mining methods.

Over the years that we worked together, he patiently introduced me to mining technology. We made numerous trips into the gold fields. Each time, he showed me new places and old machinery and told me about the people and events from the past. By osmosis, and by observation, I came to understand that world more fully than I could have on my own.

More important though, he opened the door to the world of the placer miner. Today, at age ninety two, Gould still serves as an inspiration to me.

In the years since we worked together, I met many other people from the Klondike goldfields who shared their knowledge and experiences. Today, the numerous creeks radiating out from the “Dome” (King Solomon’s Dome, south of Dawson City) are no longer nameless to me.

I may have been able to piece together the broad story of the region through the artifacts and written records that have been left behind, but only the people could convey the feelings and experiences of the era. Rust, decay and time mute the past as the relics disappear from the landscape, but the voices of the old-timers put a human face on the places and events from those early days.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of learning from many elders in the community. I learned to listen to what they had to say.

On June 27, I attended the keynote lecture of the Athabascan language conference here in Whitehorse, and gained more insight from oral history.

Julie Cruikshank was the speaker. As an anthropologist, she has been working with Yukon First Nation elders for many years.

Cruikshank talked about how, as a student, she initially conducted oral history work in the conventional manner, attempting to gather life stories from the women elders with whom she was working. The conventional approach to oral history in that era had been to mine for historical facts to fit into the standard ethnohistory.

First Nation elders like Angela Sidney, Annie Ned, and Kitty Smith came from an oral tradition in which knowledge and wisdom were not written down. They were assembled from a lifetime of experience and passed along from one person to the next.

In a highly mobile society, accustomed to travelling widely over a broad landscape, material goods could be an impediment, whereas knowledge of the land was highly portable, and valuable.

Stories, songs and place names were all means of conveying knowledge that was essential to living in this land of extremes. They were the currency of survival. “My stories are my Wealth,” proclaims one book containing the stories of Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith and Rachel Dawson.

Cruikshank learned to listen carefully and figure out the right questions to ask. She said the elders dictated the terms of their relationship with her, and she struggled to keep up.

Knowing that the future would be different from their past, the elders Cruikshank worked with also had the foresight to insist that their stories be transcribed into written format so that the “paper could talk” to their grandchildren. In this way, it was possible for their wisdom to be incorporated into the school curriculum and passed along to future generations.

But their knowledge extended beyond a mastery of regional geography and physical skills essential to survival. It also contained their world view, and rules of conduct within that universe.

Cruikshank learned how these women drew upon this knowledge to deal with situations that confronted them. They referred to certain stories to explain why they made certain choices in their lives.

A few year ago I learned how the Carcross/Tagish First Nation had taken this a step farther. They analyzed the body of knowledge incorporated within the traditional stories gathered from their elders. The values embodied within the stories formed the foundation upon which their own community law has been built.

Despite the imposition of government and various institutions such as church, school, and formal law, all of which worked to erase the traditional knowledge from the memory from First Nations, it has survived. Much of the credit goes to these remarkable women.

Similarly, as happened to me, a fuller understanding of life in the goldfields came from the knowledge and memories shared by its elders.

Oral history serves as an important link between present and past, between memory, or the loss of it, and can serve as an important means to convey wisdom. Sometimes listening for the stories is more important than just listening to them.

Let’s honour our elders and respect the knowledge and wisdom they have shared.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book most recent book is History Hunting in the Yukon.

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