By Dorota Kupis
The Klondike Gold Rush altered the lives of several Yukon First Nations. The most affected were the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, living near Dawson City. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in came in contact with white people years before the gold rush. The first traders (Jack McQuesten, Frank Bonfield) arrived in their territories as early as 1874. Other than traders, early newcomers were missionaries and miners.
After gold was discovered on Rabbit Creek in 1896, enormous waves of white newcomers came to the Yukon. By 1898, about 40,000 people settled in Dawson City, the center of the Klondike Gold Rush, and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in living in this area became a minority in their traditional territories.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who relocated to the little community of Moosehide, three kilometers downriver from the new town, had to adapt their lives to interact with the residents of Dawson City and miners working on the adjacent creeks. It was a challenging task, and although the First Nation possessed brilliant and charismatic leaders, this period was full of various frustrations, in part because their way of life and worldview were completely different than those of settlers. This transition would have been even more painful without Chief Isaac.
Chief Isaac led his people for more than 30 years through the changes that altered their lives.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in saw Dawson City growing quickly from a tent camp to a big town with churches, banks, hospitals, dance halls and saloons. Three newspapers, the Klondike Nugget, the Dawson Daily News, and the Yukon Sun were printed in Dawson City as early as 1897.
Moosehide residents not only got their share of attention from the local press, but also used this form of media frequently and efficiently to communicate with the non-Native population living in Dawson City. Moosehide chiefs quickly realized that the best approach to address their words to the white population was to get them printed in the newspapers. The person who mastered this skill the most effectively, despite cultural and linguistic challenges, was Chief Isaac.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s capacity to handle the press was one of their incredible strengths. Several examples demonstrate that at the beginning of the 20th century Moosehide chiefs used newspapers to convey important messages to the white population of Dawson City and even to the rest of the North America.
Regrettably, the reporters cited speeches using exact transcripts, without making any correction to the grammar. Often, English words were printed as pronounced by Indigenous people (e.g. “injun” not “indian”). At the end of the 19th Century, Moosehide chiefs were rarely proficient in English, and their chances to be understood by readers were severely diminished by this reporting approach. Decades later, environmental activists understood how important these messages were and how ignorant the western culture that failed to consider Indigenous wisdom was.
One of Chief Isaac’s public speeches covered by the local media took place by the Northern Commercial Store in Dawson City, and was related to frustration with the local court system. A couple of days earlier, several Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people were accused of drinking alcohol and selling whisky to each other and were sentenced to several days of hard labour.
Almost all Moosehide residents accompanied their leaders to Dawson City and stayed to listen to them speak. Chief Isaac gave the opening speech. He said the sentence was too harsh for people who admitted their guilt and fully co-operated with the justice system. The court put chiefs in a bad position, since they had convinced the accused to tell the whole truth, hoping this would earn the court’s sympathy and a lighter sentence. Instead, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in felt, their confidence in the Canadian justice system had been betrayed.
Chief Isaac’s mass media adventure took a more enjoyable turn in the summer of 1902. He was invited by three Yukon trading companies to take a trip Outside to Seattle and San Francisco. On this trip, he gave several interviews to Seattle and San Francisco newspapers. He said repeatedly that changes the newcomers brought to the Yukon Territory would destroy the balance in nature that his ancestors had kept over thousands of years. Unfortunately, his message did not get enough attention. At the beginning of the 20th century, white settlers were proud of their capacity to colonize new territories.
Newspapers did not always show Isaac from the best angle. Some of them, like the Yukon World edition of Aug. 1, 1906, played jokes on him by writing that he would be hired by the Yukon commissioner as a rainmaker to ensure good conditions for navigation on the Yukon River. Other newspapers made fun of his English and emphasized his inability to understand white people’s inventions, like X-rays and wireless telegraph. Yet, the reporters had to admit that many people were fascinated by chief’s personality.
Isaac’s speeches, given during the festivities organized in Dawson City for Victoria Day and Discovery Day were often covered by the press. On such occasions, Chief Isaac always reminded white people that they could be in charge of mining, but that they should leave the land, fish and game management to First Nations people. On Dec. 15, 1911, the Dawson Daily News published one of his most memorable speeches (the quote is presented as it appeared in the newspaper):
“All Yukon belong to my papas. All Klondike belong my people. Country now all mine. Long time all mine. Hills all mine; moose all mine; rabbits all mine; gold all mine. White man come and take all my gold. Take millions, take hundreds fifty millions, and blow’em in Seattle. Now Moosehide Injun want Christmas. Game is gone. White man kills all moose and caribou near Dawson, which is owned by Moosehide. Injun everywhere have own hunting grounds. Moosehides hunt up Klondike, up Sixtymile, up Twentymile, but game is all gone. White man kill all.”
The Klondike Gold Rush brought an end to the Jack McQuesten era when First Nations were at least somewhat respected by the limited number of the white newcomers. Once the white population outnumbered the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, they decided that First Nations should adapt to their society and not vice versa.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were aware of the importance of their traditional knowledge. It was clear to them that white people’s way of using the land and its natural resources was doing great damage. They tried to communicate with the settler population by all possible means, one of them being the newspapers.
Unfortunately, white people saw Indigenous cultures as inferior to their own. Only recently, as our planet approaches an environmental catastrophe, have some environmentalists reminded us about the warning the First Nations gave us years ago. Chief Isaac still inspires us today. The messages he conveyed to the settlers of the Yukon a century ago should still be taken seriously.
Dorota Kupis is a researcher, historian and former Whitehorse resident who now lives in Montreal.