First Nation Peoples of the Yukon

The July 17, 1897 headlines in a Seattle newspaper changed the course of the world which was in a depression with immigrants flooding into Canada, all scratching for a better life than the one they had left behind.

For the Indigenous Canadians of the Yukon, the Tlingits of Watson Lake and Carcross, and the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin of Dawson each felt the unrelenting push of white men into their territories. With this onslaught came whiskey, something that these people had never encountered before, and for which they had no resistance.

Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin headed the Moosehide summer camp, positioned in present day Dawson. Seeing no end to the arrival of stampeders, he decided it best to move all his people three miles further down the Yukon River to its present-day location. Being so close to the Porcupine caribou herd, the Tlingits and Tr’ondëk Hwëchin had little fear that the stampeders would decimate the numbers of caribou and moose available as a food source. The numbers of fish and variety of species continued to spawn in the tributaries of the many north rivers, filling up sled dog caches and providing food for all river dwellers.

For the Indigenous Canadians of the Rocky Mountains, an influx of white faces appeared where barely one or two eccentric hermits were previously seen.

Edmonton, Alberta, a no account, one horse village, grew overnight into a major wilderness outfitting town. Edmonton struggled to compete with Seattle, Washington whose wharfside stores enjoyed a bonanza of customers from around the world up until the 1920s. Passengers from each ship that docked flooded every merchant in Seattle, searching from A to Z in necessities, canned foods, cordage, wool clothing and gum boots. The gold rush sent shipbuilders around the globe to raise every scuttled, broken down tug that could be retrofitted into a sea-worthy vessel.

To reach Dyea, Skagway or Juneau, seaworthiness was tested as ships followed the protective cover of the Inside Passage. Cargo and passenger ships climbing up the Yukon River met different requirements. Wide, flat bottomed, stern wheelers were needed to navigate the three- to six-foot depths of the Yukon with its meandering sandbars.

Overnight, Seattle employed every ship repairman, sea captain, ocean ship outfitter, steel workers, welders, cabin crew, galley cooks and waitstaff to satisfy the endless line of people wanting to go north.

Edmonton and Seattle both benefited from the sensationalism that all newspapers practiced in those days, but Seattle continued to repeat exaggerations for years, willing to grab coin from anyone whispering Klondike.

Edmonton also duped customers with complete lies as it touted its ‘All Canadian Route’ which was not officially started until 1908, and finished in early 1910. Before those years, there was no trail, no road, no cart-wide passage that would accommodate packers on horseback. Of the many stampeders who left Edmonton before 1910, an overwhelming number were killed, frozen, poisoned, drowned, starved, or pulled under by quagmires and quick sands. In most cases, no bones, nor animals were recovered; so intensely were the limited resources of the Rocky Mountain indigenous peoples tested. These peoples guarded their secret passes and mountain ridge shortcuts in extreme secrecy.

With white faces came illness and death.

There was a real fear among isolated bands that white faces would tell others of hidden passes, bringing more whites and their pox into the Dane-zaa or Doig River or Blueberry River territories.

When crossing lower than the 60th Parallel, days and nights of equal length returned to normal. The Rockies held little game for all these peoples, so starvation prompted each band to view intruders as thieves and murderers. White faces brought diseases and death, therefore, were to be avoided at all costs.

By 1907, the Blackfoot around Edmonton had learned better how to live in a changing world that pushed them onto a major Reserve where they could keep their songs and customs safe.

In the Rockies, the Doig River, Blueberry River, Kaska-Dena and the Dane-zaa still threatened the authorities with promises of ‘killing all the white faces we see, killing their horses and burning their feed’ as a response to increased traffic within their territories with scant resources to cloth and feed themselves.

In my novel the long shot, I describe the Dane-zaa as a band whose struggle is so critical to survive, that they fulfill an agreement with another band to transport two white-faces, but not without sending a message to all white faces. The only way to send a message of ‘keep out’ was to mistreat Nazaire and Raoul.

One young orphaned boy was being raised to show contempt and hate for white faces. Because this band had so many elderly members, this boy was being raised with a life-long purpose; to gather wood for others, and hunt or fish for others. When the boy would be old enough, perhaps ten, he would set off alone within the circle of family groups and supply firewood and meat to young mothers with absent fathers, the elderly and the infirmed.

Although this is an extreme example of community roles, these roles did exist.  I wrote this scene to demonstrate the lengths that some Aboriginal communities lived under to ensure all members of their band had firewood and fresh meat.

Joyce

Joyce Derenas is a historical fiction author who writes stories based on the real lives of her French-Canadian ancestors of the Beauce Valley in Quebec.