For millennia, our people passed on our knowledge through the oral tradition. From the mid-19th century, newcomers moved into our traditional territory and began recording their own impressions of our land and people through their photographs and writings. As they settled in our land, they also became part of our history.
The Outside Comes In
Our people have long known the importance of responding and adapting to changing circumstances. Years of poor game or harsh winters required different survival strategies such as breaking into smaller groups, travelling to different areas and seeking other food sources. During times of plenty, particularly the annual salmon runs, we gathered at fish camps along the Yukon River to trade, visit, exchange information and stories, and even intermarry.
In 1973, a delegation of Yukon Chiefs and leaders travelled to Ottawa to present Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau with a statement of claim, “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow”. Trudeau accepted this historic document as the basis for a Yukon land claim. It would be 25 years before the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in signed the final agreement that settled our claim and we gained formal recognition as a self-governing First Nation.
From the mid-19th century on, gold-hungry prospectors worked their way north and west seeking the next great strike. Moving from the American west to California to the British Columbia interior to the Alaskan panhandle, they eventually reached the Yukon interior. By the early 1880s, would-be miners were working seasonally in the Yukon River basin. Traders began catering to the miners as well as the fur trade. The miners could now overwinter and put in longer work seasons. Experienced miners could usually pan enough gold dust to keep them going for another year while seeking the big strike.
Photographer Veazie Wilson took the first photographs of our people during fish camp at Tr’ochëk in 1894.V. Wilson, Glimpses of Alaska, Klondike and Goldfields, Oct. 1897, p. 94.
Imagine that your homeland is suddenly overrun by newcomers. They occupy your fish camp sites and hunting areas then claim them for a faraway monarch and government. Many of your hunting grounds are ravaged by mining activity driving the game far away. Hordes of people — with no knowledge of wilderness living — burn large areas of forest with their untended campfires, and casually slaughter animals often wasting much of the meat.
You are told that you can no longer occupy your lands but must move to small plots of land on the outskirts of the new non-native communities. Your people suddenly begin dying of illnesses and epidemics due to diseases, conveyed by the newcomers, for which you have no resistance. Our ancestors experienced thousands of years of enduring and adapting to change but this was our greatest challenge yet.