A Party of Chilkats from Klukwan sacked the trading post at Fort Selkirk in 1852. When George Dawson visited the site 25 years later, nothing remained but these chimneys. (Library and Archives Canada file)

History Hunter: Conference to celebrate historical Yukon maps

The Yukon Historical and Museums Association (YHMA) has taken on an ambitious project – to celebrate three very important historical maps of the Yukon. Starting this weekend, a conference will take place in three different venues – Haines Junction, Klukwan, Alaska, and Whitehorse.

The origins of the conference date back to August, 1852. The Chilkat people of Klukwan on the Alaskan coast controlled access to, and thus trade with, the first nation people of the interior of the Yukon. As trade intermediaries, they became wealthy and powerful. In 1848, Robert Campbell of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a trading post called Fort Selkirk where the Pelly River meets the Yukon.

Fort Selkirk is now a territorial park, managed jointly by the Government of Yukon and the Selkirk First Nation. The remains of the original trading post have long since vanished, however, because it was abandoned four years after it was established. The Chilkat were aware of the HBC post and concerned about the competition, so they decided to act.

In July of 1852, Kohklux, in a party of 27 warriors led by his father, departed Klukwan and arrived at Fort Selkirk on rafts August 20.

To get there, they had ascended the Chilkat River, crossed the summit over a glacier, and navigated Kusawa Lake to the mouth of the Takhini River. From this point on, they apparently travelled by water down the Takhini to the Yukon River, then across Lake LaBarge , to the Thirtymile section of the Yukon River. From there, they rafted to Fort Selkirk.

The Chilkats outnumbered and outgunned Campbell’s party. They sacked the trading post and forced Campbell to abandon Fort Selkirk. It was more than 80 years later before the HBC reestablished another post there. The raiding party then returned up the Yukon to the mouth of the Nordenskjold River, along which they traversed to Klukwan. Kohklux later provided details of lakes and rivers in this region, and the trail, which follows part of today’s Klondike Highway (as far as Braeburn), and the Haines Road (from Klukshu to Klukwan)

By 1869, Kohklux had become a leader of formidable reputation. He was held to be the greatest warrior and diplomat of all the tribes of the Pacific North-West.

Kohklux agreed in 1869 to provide safe passage and accommodation for American geographer George Davidson and his scientific party, to the Chilkat village of Klukwan, to make observations of a solar eclipse. Former American secretary of the interior William Seward, the man responsible for the purchase of Alaska from Russia, joined the party as the day of the eclipse approached.

On the 7th of August, the weather was cloudy but the sky cleared when the eclipse occurred. Having impressed Kohklux as a powerful ‘medicine man’ by making the sun grow dark, Davidson shared the secret of the eclipse, illustrating some details of it on a board covered by black and red designs. Kohklux valued this gesture highly. To reciprocate, the great chief shared with Davidson certain knowledge of the overland route that he and the other Chilkats had taken to get to and from Fort Selkirk seventeen years before.

Kohklux drew two maps. The second, larger one, drawn in pencil on the back of a large navigational chart measuring 109 centimetres by 68 centimetres, took Kohklux and his two wives two or three days to create. This was the first time he had ever used pencil and paper. Upon this map, Davidson, at their direction, wrote down on the map over 100 place names in his crude phonic rendering of the Tlingit terms.

Davidson published an article about this map, along with a modified version of the map in a journal in 1901, but the original map was lost amid Davidson’s papers for many years. It wasn’t until 1984, when Yukon archivist Linda Johnson visited the Bancroft Library, in Berkeley, California, that the two maps drawn by Kohklux, were rediscovered. The map was brought to Whitehorse in 1987, on loan from the Bancroft Library, to be displayed at the conference sponsored by YHMA that year.

A third map, known as the Kandik map, was created by a native American named Paul Kandik in 1880. This map depicts an area farther into the Yukon basin, with the most detailed information covering the region between the White and Kandik rivers. This suggests that the creator of the map was most familiar with the area occupied by the Hӓn people, and was probably a Hӓn member himself.

These maps are unique and important because of their Indigenous origins. For this year’s YHMA conference, the smaller of the two Kohklux maps, and the Kandik map are returning to the Yukon as part of a traveling exhibit which will be launched at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on October 24th. The exhibit will explore “the Kohklux and Kandik Maps in their historical and contemporary contexts, including their origins and ongoing significance.”

The conference, which is organized by the YHMA in partnership with the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center (Alaska), Champagne and Aishihik First Nations/Da Kų Cultural Centre (Haines Junction), and Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, commences with a potlatch celebration. The event starts Friday evening (October 18) at 5:30 pm with a feast, followed by films at the Da Kü Cultural Centre in Haines Junction. The festivities continue on Saturday with workshops, activities, sharing stories and displays. Everybody is invited. More information is available on the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations’ website.

The celebrations move to Whitehorse Oct. 24 at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, with a public reception and exhibit launch. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be filled with speakers on various topics, including an introduction to the maps and their makers, trade and social life, indigenous languages and naming places, and travel and journey experiences. There will also be sessions on archival and museum practice, as well as poster sessions on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday evening, there will be a gala with a buffet and performances by Daghaalhaan K’e (Kwanlin Dun First Nation), Dakwäkäda Dancers (Champagne and Aishihik First Nation), Hän Singers (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in), and Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Dancers (Klukwan).

The tickets for the gala can be purchased separate from the conference and are $60 each or $50 for conference delegates. It will be interesting and entertaining to attend the gala, even if you do not wish to attend the daily conference sessions. For more information about the Whitehorse portion of the conference, and the gala, go to https://www.heritageyukon.ca/kohklux150

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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