After spending more than a century in the shadow cast by the Klondike's precious metal heyday, First Nations heritage is stepping into the limelight in the Yukon
I’m hunched over a tea-coloured Klondike stream with a large metal dish in my hands, swirling grey river gravel around in a motion that, I’m told, settles gold at the bottom and washes away everything else. It turns out panning is backbreaking work and pretty soon I roll back on my haunches and watch Bonanza Creek sluice back and forth between the valley’s rounded slopes. I picture a swarthy prospector crouched by this birch-lined stream, dreaming of the mother lode and slowly filling a beaded moose-hide poke tied to his belt. I guess I can understand the allure, but it’s not sexy work. After an hour of staring at a muddy pan and several false alarms, my two five-year-old daughters and I eventually isolate a golden fleck and stash it in a glass vial. On the way back to the car, the girls charm a tour bus driver who pulls his own vial from his breast pocket and shakes some glittering gold flakes onto our meagre find. If only striking it rich were so easy.
We’re just upstream from Discovery Claim, a 15-minute drive south from Dawson City, Y.T., where a Tagish First Nation man named Keish, but better known as Skookum Jim, found gold lying between flaky slabs of rock, like “cheese in a sandwich,” in August 1896. News of his strike sparked the famous Klondike gold rush that lured thousands of fortune seekers and turned tiny Dawson into a northern metropolis surrounded by tent encampments. Writers such as Jack London, Pierre Berton and Charlotte Gray have explored the drama that unfolded during that era, but these “Gold fever!”-type stories of prospectors, law makers, law breakers and rowdy saloons have tended to overshadow the rich history and traditions of the Yukon’s First Nations.
But that’s changing. Since the territory celebrated a series of centennials in the late 1990s marking the big Klondike strike, the RCMP and the Yukon’s entry into confederation, First Nations people have been pulling their stories out from the shadow of the gold rush to present their heritage in a burst of pride. Five cultural centres have opened across the territory in the last decade, and the First Nations art and performance scene has exploded. My daughters are even learning Southern Tutchone at their Whitehorse school. All of which explains why we have just spent a week cruising the Klondike Highway from Carcross to Dawson in an RV: we want to witness the revival of these traditions ourselves, and unearth the stories we’re less familiar with; gold panning notwithstanding, we’re modern day prospectors seeking cultural, not monetary, riches.
Keith Wolfe-Smarch grins and points to a book lying open to an archival photo of Skookum Jim’s nephew, Patsy Henderson, who was with his uncle when he struck it rich, dressed in beaded and fringed moose hide regalia and standing tall for the camera. “That’s what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m welcoming visitors to Carcross and sharing my culture.”
Wolfe-Smarch is a renowned Tagish-Tlingit master carver who spends most of his days in the new riverfront Carcross/Tagish First Nation carving studio, which isn’t far from where Henderson, trading on his gold rush celebrity, used to greet visitors arriving on the White Pass and Yukon Route trains that chugged over the mountain pass until his death in 1966 at age 87. Here, Wolfe-Smarch mentors young carvers, creates works of art that are being integrated into local buildings and speaks passionately about his culture with anyone who happens to wander in. And while Carcross may have fresh tourist infrastructure — the grand post-and-beam pavilion next to the First Nation office on the waterfront, for instance, or the new visitor centre where tour buses line up to disgorge visitors keen on seeing a replica of Skookum Jim’s house — the carving studio is the crucible, the place where the community’s cultural revival is being forged.
We explore the work space as Wolfe-Smarch and fellow carver D.J. (Dwayne) Johnson tell us they’ve just returned from the Chilkoot Trail, where they mounted a carved facade on a Parks Canada building at Bennett, B.C., the abandoned settlement at the trail’s north end. Wolfe-Smarch shows us a scarlet headdress emblem he’s secretly carving for the new chief, Danny Cresswell. My daughter asks why it’s loosely wrapped in a handkerchief; it turns out the chief often wanders over to visit the carvers, so Wolfe-Smarch is always ready to hide the work-in-progress.
I ask Wolfe-Smarch about the vivid colours on the totems and carvings around the studio. “Red represents life, black stands for protection, white is peace and blue is decorative,” he explains, pointing outside where a muralist is painting a red, black, white and blue Wolfe-Smarch design onto the gable wall of the new café, Caribou Coffee, which is housed in the replica of Skookum Jim’s home.
Wolfe-Smarch also happens to be a descendant of Skookum Jim. They are both of the Daklaweidi clan — one of six matrilineal clans represented by beaver, raven, crow, frog, wolf and killer whale — and the clan’s giant orca crest taking shape on the coffee shop will also be framed by killer whale totems. It seems odd to celebrate this icon of the ocean from 200 kilometres inland, but Wolfe-Smarch reminds me of the Tagish connection to the Tlingit, who make their home largely on the western side of the Coast Mountains, in southeast Alaska. Indeed, Skookum Jim was a legendary packer and guide whose strength and familial connections on both sides of that range kept him employed on these trading trails until, in 1896, he journeyed down the Yukon River and became part of gold rush history. More...[opens PDF]
Read the rest of this travel feature in the March 2013 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel