Historical Mining and Contemporary Conflict: Lessons from the Klondike

Dawson City and the Yukon River from Midnight Dome. July 2015. Photo by Heather Green.

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Editor’s NoteThis is the eighth post in the Seeds 2: New Research in Environmental History” series co-sponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, publicising the work of early-career environmental historians. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues.

By Heather Green

Dredge Tailings, Bonanza Creek, June 2015. Photo by author.

On my first visit to Dawson City in May of 2013 I remember feeling in awe of the massive tailings piles that have created a moon-like landscape surrounding Dawson and the goldfields. It was difficult to imagine what the Klondike Valley looked like before 1906 when massive dredging operations tore apart and reorganized this landscape began. Each time I have visited the goldfields since that initial trip, I remember an occasion when a local miner drove us out to Dredge 4, Discovery Claim, and then to his own claim along Hunker Creek. Enthusiastic and eager to tell us about mining today, one comment he has rung through my mind on numerous occasions. He stated that as dredging consumed the earth and spit it out, blocking off creeks and creating new ponds, miners in the Klondike were “creating habitat” for animals. His comment was striking, especially when on the following day I met with members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department to discuss my project and sign a research agreement. Their narrative of mining in the Klondike Valley over the past century was markedly different than the idea that mining “creates habitat.” In fact, the historical narrative from Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in peoples was that mining between 1896 and 1940 destroyed habitat and drove away game, requiring hunters to travel further away than previously.

Satellite image of contemporary mining operations along Quartz Creek in the Klondike Goldfield. Mapbox, 2018.

This story is not the only example of conflicting narratives pertaining to mining in the Yukon. Throughout my doctoral research it has become clear that the development of gold mining in the Yukon has been colonial in nature, brining miners and southern institutions into the Klondike with little benefit to the local Indigenous population who were most affected by the environmental change resulting from mining. Mining in the Klondike, as mining elsewhere around the world, was inextricably linked with colonial land use ideologies. The Klondike Gold Rush marked the beginning of major transition in the lives of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. This long legacy of colonial resource extraction and relocation does not belong to the 19th and 20th Centuries; two recent conflicts centered around mining development and land use in the Klondike region serve as a reminder that historical mining activity and contemporary struggles converge in mined landscapes. Just as in the 20th century, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and other Yukon First Nations challenged contemporary attempts to remove them from homeland and overlook their concerns in mining development and planning.

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Relocation during the Klondike Gold Rush

Traditional Territories of the Yukon First Nations. Yukon Territorial Government. August 2013

Land in the Klondike Valley was both homeland and resource. The Klondike falls within the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation who had lived, hunted, travelled, and gathered across this landscape for generations before, during, and after southerners came into the region. As miners came into the Klondike during the Gold Rush (1896-1900) they carried with them land use ideologies associated with colonialism – specifically the belief that nature was meant to be assessed, controlled, used, and valued in commercial terms.[1] Mining was inextricably linked to ideas of private property and ownership of land. These ideologies of land use were further complicated by the perception of the Yukon as a mining frontier. At the turn of the 20th century, nowhere was promoted as resource frontiers in the public imagination more so than the Klondike and Nome, Alaska. Identifying the Yukon as a frontier overlooks the long and established presence of multiple Indigenous groups who conceived of the Yukon as a homeland.

Though most outsiders coming to the Yukon at this time did not intend to settle, these ideologies had similar consequences of Indigenous dispossession and relocation to that which occurred in settlement colonies. Where in southern Canada the creation of reserves acted to remove Indigenous peoples from land desired for settlement and agriculture, colonizers in the Yukon displaced indigenous peoples from traditional territory to claim the land for mining. As non-indigenous people occupied and used local land, they prevented Indigenous peoples from carrying out subsistence activities there.[2] These colonial conceptions of land and land-use shaped the interaction between miners and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as early as the first year of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers meet. May 2013. Photo by author.

Shortly after the discovery of coarse gold on Rabbit Creek, trader and businessman Joe Ladue staked the flat of land at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, naming his town site Dawson and selling lots of land for up to $300 each to incoming stampeders. This price was a little too steep for many southerners, so they moved across the Klondike River near Tr’ochëk, a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in fish settlement where at least 20 or more families had annually gathered in the spring and summer to fish and dry their catch, dry meat, and pick berries. The miners staked all empty lots of land, even those between Hwëch’in dwellings, appropriating Tr’ochëk and renaming the settlement Klondike City. Rather than a fish settlement, Tr’ochëk became a collection of white-owned cabins. Photos 5 and 6 below compares Tr’ochëk in 1895, with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in fish shacks along the Klondike River to Tr’ochëk in 1898 after miners took over the area.

Tr’ochëk, 1985. Yukon Archives, Robert Coutts fonds, 82/358, #2.
Hundreds of stampeders’ tents on the Tr’ochëk site and the west bank of the Klondike River, summer 1898. YA 2160, Vancouver Public Library Coll.

This encroachment was muddled by a confusing transaction between the white miners and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. In an interview conducted in 1993 for the Lousetown Oral History Project, Chlora Mason of the Hwëch’in First Nation recalled her grandmother telling her that the miners cheated the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in with gold-painted rocks in exchange for land and buildings.[3] However, a series of correspondence between Anglican Bishop William Carpenter Bompas, NWMP Constable Charles Constantine, and the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa documents that in September of 1896 as a rush of miners were coming into the area, they expressed interest in buying the houses in Tr’ochëk. The Hwëch’in sold fifteen of their cabins for between $100 and $200 each. In a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs, Bishop Bompas explained that the Hwëch’in thought they were only selling the buildings to the miners who would then move them across the river to Dawson.[4] This action did happen in a few cases, but the majority of miners, who assumed they had purchased both the cabins and the land beneath them, took permanent occupancy of the dwellings with the intention of creating a new town. More devastating to the Hwëch’in than having the land on the settlement privatized was losing access to resources in the area, especially because Tr’ochëk was their harvesting spot for their main summer salmon run.

Chief Isaac, 1924. Yukon Archives #7283 Claude and Mary Tidd fonds

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in felt that the white population of miners were forcing them out of Tro’chëk and their chief, Chief Isaac, requested that Bompas help them relocate somewhere more suitable for them. First they moved to the south end of Dawson, which was relatively close to their traditional fishing area. Unfortunately, this new site they selected was the same site the North-West Mounted Police had chosen for themselves. Bompas requested if the NWMP would not allow the Hwëch’in to share the site, would they instead approve an adjoining lot for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Constable Charles Constantine denied Bompas’ request, as he regarded the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as undesirable neighbours. In fact, Constantine objected to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in remaining in Dawson altogether. He suggested the Hwëch’in relocate to, “either of the well wooded islands in the Klondike or on its banks a little above the mouth or on a large island in The Yukon directly opposite their old winter quarters.”[5] The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in remained at the south end of Dawson for the winter of 1896-1897 while Bishop Bompas continued his campaign to find them a suitable area to begin a new settlement.

Chief Isaac requested that his band relocate to Moosehide Village (Jëjik Ddhä̀ Dë̀nezhu Kek´i), a traditional camp located five kilometers downstream of Dawson on the Yukon River. Though the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had cordial relations with outsiders, Chief Isaac was displeased with the large numbers of white newcomers; the influx of 40,000 Klondike prospectors, and other outsiders, had already overwhelmed the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in population and overtook Tr’ochëk. He was fearful of the impacts that close and prolonged contact would have on his people. He particularly worried about the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in drinking alcohol provided by the white population. In the spring of 1897, Chief Isaac and his band moved to Moosehide.

Moosehide Village. July 2016. Photo by author.

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had seasonally occupied Moosehide for at least 8,000 years. It had a high bank to protect from flooding, fresh water from Moosehide Creek, and had access to winter hunting grounds in the Ogilvie Mountains – overall, it was a logical choice. Moosehide became a critical cultural space for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in into the 1950s. Here they continued living off the land as much as possible, passing down cultural practises and oral tradition, and meeting with other northern indigenous groups for cultural gatherings. Though all but a few residents of Moosehide moved back into Dawson in the 1950s when the government reduced services to the village, Moosehide has remained an important cultural space where the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in meet for youth culture camps like First Fish and host to the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering.

Moosehide Gathering. July 2016. Photo by author.

Contemporary Mining Conflicts

The example of the relocation to Moosehide is a solid example of Indigenous dispossession from traditionally used areas and resources from the late 19th century. But the colonial nature of gold mining is not relegated to the past. Mining conflicts in the Klondike region still continue today. For example, on September 8th of 2016, two Dawson area miners holding subsurface rights to the land under the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in subdivision ordered the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in to move from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in subdivision into Dawson City so they could mine the area. This eviction applied to approximately a dozen homes. This specific dispute was nearly fifteen years old. In 2002 one of the men demanded $80,000 in compensation ($10,000 per each of his claims) from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in for his claims. The Hwëch’in offered $10,000 total. In 2016, the men applied to the Yukon Surface Rights Board to evict the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in from this land.[6]

However, this subdivision is located on settlement land under the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement finalized in 1998. The eight claims were staked between 1975 and 1989, more than a decade before the First Nation signed its final agreement, and, as Chief Roberta Joseph and other Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in peoples have stated, the Yukon government had a responsibility to deal with any outstanding claims or land conflicts before signing the agreement.[7] In this case, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in gained a victory when the Yukon Surface Rights Board rejected the miners’ application in November of 2016

A map of TH land, and the miner’s claims as provided by the proponents to the Yukon Surface Rights Board. Courtesy CBC News.

The results of a currently developing open-pit mining operation 130 km south of Dawson still remain to be seen. Goldcorp Inc., a Vancouver-based mining company and one of the world’s largest gold producers, is developing the Coffee Mine with expected operation in 2021. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, along with other First Nations groups such as the Selkirk First Nation, the Na Cho Nyak Dun, and the White River First Nations, argued that the company has ignored their concerns and failed to sufficiently consult with them regarding the new mine project. Though Goldcorp submitted an Environmental Socioeconomic Assessment application in early 2017, the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Board (YESAB) discontinued reviewing the application in July, stating that Goldcorp needed to consult with local First Nations before resubmitting. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in argued that Goldcorp did not respond to more than 130 questions submitted by the First Nation and other questions were not answered adequately.[8]

Map indicating the location of the Coffee Mine. (Goldcorp)

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are not opposed to the mine, but they want to ensure it is carried out with consultation and reducing environmental impacts on the land and water. Typical to past northern mining project, the biggest questions locals have about the mine are about job opportunities and what environmental impacts the mine will have on the local landscape. Concerns focus primarily on mining by-product and waste, a cyanide heap launch pad, and water use, as well as what impacts an open-pit mine and related infrastructure may have on local caribou herds, moose habitats, and fish. As of February 2018, YESAB had rejected Goldcorp’s second application – this time due to environmental concerns – and ordered more planning before further resubmission.[9]

While the outcome of the Coffee Mine is still a few years away, knowing the history of mining in the Yukon is crucial in understanding and evaluating the costs and benefits of present day developments. The history of gold mining in the Yukon provides a foundation for understanding the direct and indirect environmental and cultural impacts that mining developments have had, and could have, on local indigenous populations and acts as a warning to ensure that those populations most impacted by contemporary mine developments in the Yukon are consulted and included in all stages of a mine’s lifecycle. What happened in the Klondike region between 1896 and 1940 foregrounded a long history of struggle and conflict over resource use and access to resources that indigenous Yukoners continue to fight for control and authority over their cultural, physical, and spiritual lives.

*This post is based on the second chapter of my doctoral dissertation, “Mining, Colonialism, and Environmental Change in the Klondike, 1890-1940,” I would like to extend a warm thank you to the folks at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department, the elders who taught me about the Klondike, and the Dawson locals who displayed that infamous Yukon hospitality during my many research trips. Mahsi Cho!

Notes:

[1] YA, Bompas, W.C., 1/19 GOV 1629 f.4682. 40 Acre Land, Junction of Yukon and Klondike Rivers, afterword surveyed as Klondike City, 1897.

[2] Chlora Mason, “Lousetown Oral History Project,” April 19, 1993..

[3] YA, Bompas W.C., S.1 V. 19 GOV 1629 f.4682. 40 Acre Land, Junction of Yukon and Klondike Rivers, afterword surveyed as Klondike City. An extract of a letter from Bishop Bompas copied for NWMP Constable Constantine March 5th, 1897.

[4] David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) 121, 131.

[5] Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997) 184.

[6] Ashley Joannou, “Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in chief vows to fight placer claims on settlement land,” Yukon News (September 9, 2016). http://yukon-news.com/news/trondek-hwechin-chief-vows-to-fight-placer-claims-on-settlement-land/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lori Garrison, “YESAB says Goldcorp failed to consult First Nations, halts Coffee mine assessment,” Yukon News (July 14 2017). https://www.yukon-news.com/news/yesab-says-goldcorp-failed-to-consult-first-nations-halts-coffee-mine-assessment/

[9] Ashley Joannou, “Goldcorp’s Coffee proposal deemed ‘inadequate’,” CBC News (February 8, 2018). https://www.yukon-news.com/news/goldcorps-coffee-proposal-deemed-inadequate/

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Heather Green

Heather Green is a PhD Candidate in environmental and indigenous history at the University of Alberta. Her dissertation, "Mining, Colonialism, and Environmental Change in the Klondike, 1890-1940," examines environmental and socioeconomic consequences of gold mining in the Klondike region of the Yukon from 1890-1940. She has published work on mining in the Arctic, coal in Alberta, and scientific motherhood in Western Canada. She is also currently working on projects focused on environmental regulation of coal in Alberta from 1947, and tourism and sport-hunting in the Yukon from 1920-1950. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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