It is difficult to comprehend the devastating impacts of all the diseases that have ravaged the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and other Yukon First Nations since well before the Klondike Gold Rush. Aboriginal people lacked any resistance to the various diseases introduced by the newcomers. Missionary Robert McDonald wrote about “horrifying epidemics” of smallpox, whooping cough, tuberculosis and polio, diseases that came into the country with fur traders in the 1870s and 1880s. Deacon Richard Martin, a Gwich’in man from the Peel River area who later settled in Moosehide, spoke of burying scores of people when an influenza epidemic swept the Blackstone Uplands. More recently, many Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in children and adults were sent to the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, often for years at a time, to be treated for tuberculosis. One of our elders was sent to the hospital as a two-year-old then moved directly to a residential school at age four.
Imagine that your small community has to deal with suddenly losing entire families, elders and other leaders, and many of the children who are the hope of the future. You are not only losing relatives and friends but the knowledge and skills that those people contributed to the group.
Grave fences at Moosehide, ca. 1898. Tappan Adney photographer.
Yukon Archives, Tappan Adney fonds, Dept of Rare Books and Special Collections of McGill University Libraries, 81/9 #31.
Gwich'in grave near Black City, August 1975.
Robert Frisch photo