To the North’s Native peoples, miners were chasing the wrong thing. The gold rush changed local lives anyway
By Ed Readicker-Henderson
Right about the time the great Klondike gold rush was fading into myth and legend, the once hopeful miners sitting back with their feet up in front of fireplaces down south and telling lies to their kids about the glory days searching for color, someone thought to ask Chief Isaac what he’d thought about it all.
Isaac was the leader of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the First Nations people who had lived and hunted and fished around the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers for thousands of years. He was a man who had followed the land’s seasons until he knew every valley, every rill, like his mother’s face.
“It all right white man come dig deep, catchem my gold on my creeks—that all right,” Chief Isaac told a reporter who couldn’t spell from the Dawson Daily News in 1915. “Letem white man have gold. Injun no eatem gold. But Injun wantem caribou…whiteman he go shootem caribou which belong Injun. Caribou my meat. I no shootem horse. I no shootem whiteman cattle.”
And there’s the part of the gold rush legends that usually gets left out: what did the locals do when the stampede started? What happened to the people who had no interest in gold?
Back in 1898, Chief Isaac looked at the mud, the violence, the drunkenness of Dawson, and got his people out of there, relocating them upriver to the village of Moosehide—where there’s still a regular celebration of the Chief’s life and legacy.
But that wasn’t far enough. As game grew more and more scarce in the rush years, many of Isaac’s own people had no choice but to join the cash economy. And so the riverboats that plied the Yukon came to be crewed mostly by First Nations men, men who had spent their lives on the river in canoes. And in the forests, men who had once fed entire villages with their hunting skills, became woodcutters for a few cents a day, feeding ship engines that could burn through a cord an hour.
Of course, not all Native groups had it so bad. Further south, the Tlingit and Chilkoot actually had it pretty good. Although the main gold-rush trail—from Skagway or Dyea to Bennett Lake—passed right through their territory, it was through a chunk that they didn’t use much. In fact, local legend says the word “Skagway” originates in a Native term for “only white people are stupid enough to live where the wind blows that hard.” A more correct reading of the Tlingit “Skagua” or “Shgagwei” would be “a windy place with white caps on the water.” But just because the Natives didn’t use the land much didn’t mean they couldn’t control it. They controlled freight hauling on the passes, charging unheard-of sums: $1 per pound, at a time when two bucks was a really good day’s wage. Most Chilkoot porters could easily carry 100 pounds (45 kilograms) on a trail that went straight up a snowy mountain; one man became a legend for getting a 350-pound (159-kilogram) barrel up to the peak. And, unlike the Tr’ondëk, who were essentially evicted from their homes, pushed out by the stampeders, here the territory in question was really only useful as a path to somewhere else. The miners left with hardly a trace, except that the Natives now had a lot more guns, which made hunting the still-plentiful game a whole lot easier.
Right when the streams and rivers of the Yukon had all been claimed and the flood of gold was starting to dry up, a far richer strike came to light: gold on the beaches of Nome. Everybody who hadn’t made their fortune in the Klondike packed up and headed west, to the continent’s edge, for the North’s last great gold rush.
But those beaches were never an important spot for the Natives. Nome sits on a rolling plain, in tundra the color of musk-ox underfur. Beautiful, but not useful for hunters. About 15 miles (24 kilometres) south of town, though, is a wetland in the middle of a stopover, the migratory flyway for hundreds of thousands of birds. Traces of Native settlement there date back centuries. Why move? Why pay any attention to all these newcomers standing in freezing-cold water and sifting dirt?
Of course, since the rush petered out, Nome has changed. The town is now predominantly Native, a hub for dozens of villages scattered around the Bush. Nome still has people working the beaches, though, searching for that glint of gold, even as Native hunters return, caribou strapped to the ATV they bought in the local grocery store, just an aisle or two over from packaged meat they don’t really count as food.
More than a hundred years since the world’s attention first turned to the riches of the North, miners and locals continue working out the best ways to live in the same landscape.