History Hunter: Kwanlin Dün — a book of history, hardship and hope

Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words is published by the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and has set a new standard in Yukon documentary excellence.

Over the past decades, I have seen a gradual transition from traditional ethnographic studies, to collaborative works between anthropologists and elders. The work of Julie Cruikshank with several elders is a good example of the latter. A quick scan of my bookshelf reveals more recent works published by various First Nations, notably the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, which tell about their history and culture in their own voice.

This book elevates storytelling to a new level. The Kwanlin Dün council makes it clear at the beginning of the book that it is intended for future generations: “Many of our people today never had the opportunity to hear our history first-hand from elders. Our children and grandchildren and many generations coming after us will be able to learn from this record of our stories.” And it is through the long tradition of storytelling that this book is presented to the reader.

The book was published by the same Figure 1 Publishing, Inc. in Vancouver, who also produced Whitehorse: An Illustrated History in 2013, and within its 312 pages this book has packed in 14 maps and 161 photos, both black and white and in colour. The colours are crisp and the images sharp. If I have any complaint about these images, it is that some of the photos are too small for my fading vision and I had to resort to a magnifying glass to enjoy the details. At the back, there are a couple hundred end notes, acknowledgments, an appendix (Chiefs and councils), a selected bibliography, photo credits and an index.

The book is the product of archival research, extensive community consultation, and the efforts of more than a hundred individuals, numerous community groups and organizations. It is an account of the history of Whitehorse and vicinity with a Kwanlin Dün voice. The narrative is chronological and the first four chapters reflect the content: spring (long ago), summer (10,000 years ago to the 1870s), fall (1880s to 1939), and winter (1940 to 1973). The first of these consists of stories by elders regarding how the world began, and how the Kwanlin Dün should conduct themselves in it. Each story is rendered in the teller’s first language, with English translations.

The second chapter covers the archaeological record. Oral traditions, once dismissed as fanciful stories, have been reevaluated. Many of them hold the seeds of ancient history that are supported by the archaeological record. Major events have been perpetuated in these stories, which have been passed on through countless generations. Such stories tell about a time when glaciers and ancient lakes covered the landscape, about giant animals (Pleistocene megafauna) and their extinction.

The archaeological history of the region is described not as a straight-forward account, but interspersed with stories that feature people and important archaeological events: obsidian and trade, ancient tools (Swan Woman and Atlatl Man), geological events (Ashfall Woman, Lucky Hunting Man), and the coming of the “Cloud People” (the first Europeans).

The third chapter details social change initiated primarily by the Klondike stampede, and all the consequent impacts: early encounters, misunderstandings (the Nantuck brothers), steamboats and wood camps, fox farming, trapping and trading with Taylor and Drury, and displacement to the margins of the fledgling community of Whitehorse.

Chapter four addresses the period of rapid change and consequent impacts that began with the construction of the Alaska Highway. First Nation members remember these events in first-hand accounts: residential schools, continual displacement and marginalization, and loss of self-determination. The chapter ends on an up-beat note with the drafting in 1973 of the landmark document, Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, which was presented to, and supported by, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The one thing that I missed in this chapter was a recognition of Kwanlin Dün citizens who may have served their country during World War II. Were there any who saw action overseas during the war, and if so, what was the motivation?

The fifth chapter, Adàką (Light dawning over the mountain), provides an account of the development of land claims over the following thirty years, marking important milestones along the way: Agreement in Principle, signing of the Umbrella Final Agreement, and culminating in the signing of the Kwanlin Dün Final Agreement in 2005.

The final chapter describes a time of healing and regaining control of their own heritage and significant parcels of land and resources, self-government and economic benefits. The construction of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in the old shipyard area affirms a traditional re-connection with the waterfront and the Yukon River. The cultural centre also provides a platform to celebrate cultural traditions and display cultural works of art and craft.

A key to cultural re-emergence is the healing of the wounds from the residential school system. The old residential hall in Riverdale was demolished in 2009, and land-based healing camps were set up at Jackson Lake. Then came the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the public hearings of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

What moved me most about this book were the voices of numerous First Nation citizens telling their stories. I could imagine sitting with them, listening to them talking. The connection with these narratives is enhanced by sidebars that profile the background of several of the storytellers. In addition to that, there were a dozen family profiles, each a couple of pages in length, positioned at the end of several of the chapters.

I was not part of the target audience for this book. But having read it once, I will be returning to it again and again as there is so much to learn from it. It will find a place on the shelf in my office along with several other books that I refer to on a regular basis. This is one book that I recommend with enthusiasm to my readers.

Michael Gates is the author of six books of Yukon history. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. Michael is the Yukon’s Story Laureate.

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