Remembering Dave: A Collective Tribute to David Neufeld

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The Yukon historical community is grieving a tremendous loss with the sudden passing of David Neufeld earlier this month. Dave was easily identifiable by his handle-bar mustache and cheerful attitude. He had a true passion for Yukon history and his animated personality and openness to learn endeared him to everyone he met.

I met David in 2013 on my first visit to the Yukon. I accompanied Liza Piper to Dawson City for research, and David invited us (myself, a total stranger at the time) to stay with him and his lovely wife, Joy, at their home for the evening of our layover between flights from Whitehorse to Dawson. David immediately wanted to know everything I was working on and had so much to share. We kept in touch and a few months later, when I returned to Whitehorse with a fellow grad student, David was eager to take us out for a day on the Yukon River. We had a fantastic day with him, though we didn’t make it as far as he’d planned, due to a combination of wind and our inexperienced paddling – which David had lots of fun with. Sitting along the Yukon River on a July afternoon for lunch, chatting and laughing with David, remains a cherished memory.

A day on the Yukon River. July 2013. H. Green.

Each time I visited the Yukon after our initial meeting I’d make sure to let David know I was in town and he was always happy to get together. He and Joy generously invited me to stay with them on several occasions. I always loved their home: beautiful and cozy, filled with books and Indigenous art, and wonderful mountainous views. David introduced me to some of my favorite spots in Whitehorse, we went on several hikes, and he was generous with sharing both the resources and knowledge he collected and acquired during his career. He also made a fantastic lowbush cranberry martini.

As I got to know Dave over the past several years, I learned so much about life in the Yukon, past and present. I always enjoyed how enthused he became when an idea inspired him, and I could tell by his pause and a deep-thought expression on his face when I was off the mark. My last visit to Whitehorse, and last dinner with Dave at the Burnt Toast Cafe, was in October 2018, but since then he’s sent me articles and archival documents he thought would be of interest, and recently he sent me some useful comments on my dissertation after reading it. That was the kind of person David was: kind, passionate, and generous.

David was a significant part of what the Yukon means to me, and it will not be the same to visit without his hospitality, generosity, and wisdom. But my friendship with David was not unique: he acted as unofficial mentor to graduate students and junior scholars from around the world who worked on historical research in the Yukon, and he made an effort to connect many of us within a peer network.

In his work as Parks Historian of the Yukon and western Arctic beginning in 1986, David made significant contributions to presenting Yukon history in a more inclusive and nuanced way. Much of this was rooted in his strong belief in collaborative work with Yukon First Nations, especially Elders, and his advocacy for place-based heritage work. He was especially skilled at two-eyed seeing and worked to bring together western science and history with Indigenous knowledge. Throughout his life, Dave was an ally and advocate for First Nations culture, heritage, and representation and was at the forefront of reconciliation work within Parks Canada in the Yukon.

Along with his work with Parks, David was adjunct faculty at Yukon College, and he worked with academic groups, like NiCHE where he helped organize the Northern Environmental History workshop in 2009, and participated in CHESS over the years (see the second video below). More recently, after retirement, Dave worked with the Road Scholar Program leading the cultural programming on canoe trips on the Yukon River, and he was active with the transition of the Yukon College into Yukon University. David never stopped helping others and contributing to Northern scholarship: he enthusiastically offered to help with logistics for a workshop in Whitehorse I co-organized with Glenn Iceton and Jonathan Luedee, planned for this past August but postponed due to the pandemic. We looked forward to his participation in this workshop, and his absence will be felt. It feels particularly cruel the pandemic prevented a final visit with David.

A wonderful friend and supporter to us here at NiCHE, David touched so many people within the historical community and he will be greatly missed. We’ve asked some scholars who knew Dave to share some memories of him and reflections on his work. We hope this post will capture the breadth of Dave’s impact on the historical community and will help us celebrate his life and contributions to Northern and Environmental history. You can read David’s contributions to The Otter over the years here and his most recent post here.

A champion for all Yukon First Nations heritage, David was especially committed to working with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. Jody Beaumont, Traditional Knowledge Specialist with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, commented on David’s long relationship with the First Nation recently on the CBC. David supported the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in community since the earliest days of their journey to self-government. Jody stated that “David was one of the first non-Indigenous people […] who was an advocate, unquestionably in support, of all of the work the First Nations had been doing” in Dawson, throughout the Yukon, and all across Canada. He had a real desire to see the world in different way and his relationship with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in helped him push the boundaries with Parks Canada as an ally committed to helping tell Indigenous stories about the Yukon and to rethink institutional understandings of heritage and what it means to be a Canadian or to be a Yukoner. As Jody told Dave White on the CBC, David Neufeld was a storyteller and a true knowledge keeper.

Below are some photos of David participating in the cultural celebration, Myth and Medium, in 2004 from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.

David participating at the Myth and Medium Feast and Dance at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Community Hall in Dawson City, 2004. Courtesy of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.
David with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elder John Semple at the Danoja Zho Cultural Center during Myth and Medium, 2004. Courtesy of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.
Learning babiche bag making at Myth and Medium 2004. Courtesy of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.
David with filmmaker Zacharias Kanuk and Royal Ontario Museum curator Ken Lister showing off their thank you gifts from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Courtesy of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.

In Memory of My Friend”, from Charlene Porsild Helena, Montana:

I can’t really remember when I first met David Neufeld. It must have been about 1988, shortly after he came to Whitehorse as the staff historian for Parks Canada. I remember the mustache, though. It was so impressive! And I remember him apologizing for being from Saskatchewan, though it seemed to me that he was already a Yukoner, he was already so smitten.

Whenever that first meeting was, Dave was ever-after the anchor on my calendar for every trip to Whitehorse.  Always generous, we would meet for coffee or a beer and Dave would introduce me to people he thought would be helpful to me, and I would try to do the same for him, though of course my contributions were always pitifully smaller and less impressive than his.  I loved to listen to Dave’s stories of remote communities and elders he visited. I mined him for sources when I was coming up empty.  We would discuss ideas and books and all the great northern history there was to study; lamenting that no one else was writing it, save a few of us.. We shared research and commented on each other’s writing, but I really feel like I came away with a lot more than Dave ever did. I envied that he had found good paying work as an historian in my native Yukon, but he was SO GOOD at that job, I loved that it was his. 

In that true northern way, we spent a lot of time sharing stories with each other over the years, and I treasure those memories.  Dave would ask after my family, especially my Granny and my Aunty Ellen (Davignon), whose stories he really loved. I heard all about his and Joy’s many travels, and about Erin and Andrew’s adventures growing up. He sent me notes when he heard that my grandmother had passed and then again when my father died. I brought him Ellen’s famous cinnamon buns. 

In the mid 1990s, when I was teaching at Simon Fraser University, I invited Dave to come and talk to my Northern History seminar whenever he was in Vancouver.  One of those visits resulted in a connection with my student Karen Routledge. Karen went on to develop a passion for the Yukon and the Arctic (oh! How we love it when we instill our passions in others!!) and an excellent historian in her own right.  She reconnected with Dave and became close friends with him and his wife Joy.  A few years after Dave retired, Karen took over as Yukon and Western Arctic Historian at Parks Canada in Whitehorse. It makes my heart so glad to know that Karen walks Dave’s well-worn paths and he was very proud and thrilled that our mentee  now takes the work to new levels. 

When I think of Dave, I think of the smile beneath the mustache and the twinkling eyes of one of the kindest, funniest, and most curious people I have known. He was so full of life that it is very, very hard to imagine that he is gone.  

Safe journey from here, Dave! I bet the skiing is beautiful wherever you are.

Karen Routledge:

David Neufeld, Mira Routledge, and Karen Routledge on the Yukon River, 1 July 2020. Photo courtesy K. Routledge.

This photo was taken the last time I was on the Yukon River with David. We paddled from downtown Whitehorse to the Takhini River bridge. Many other readers have probably taken this same trip with David or spent time by the river with him. He has taken dozens—if not hundreds—of people out over the years: sharing his stories, his favourite places, and his love of the river with all of us.

I first met David in 1997 through Charlene Porsild and continued to run into him at events and conferences. Especially when I was younger, I was shy about talking to senior scholars, but David always made me feel at ease. His mentorship and advice eventually helped me get my dream job as a Parks Canada historian and move to Whitehorse. David taught me a lot about Yukon history. But since I found out he was ill, I’ve been thinking more about the other things he taught me.

David and his wife Joy Waters helped so many people. And they always seemed to have houseguests. Once David and I were interviewing a potential summer student in Ontario. As I remember it, David ended the phone interview with, “If you get this job, you’ll need a bathroom break in Whitehorse on your way to Dawson. You should stop at my house. Stay for a couple of days and I’ll take you out on the river.”

David talked to everyone, wanted to know everyone. It was almost impossible to be out with him and not run into someone he knew. I once told David that I love being a historian because I get to hear people’s stories. He responded that it’s important to share our own stories too, that this is how we connect with people. Then he scheduled me to give a slideshow about my honeymoon to a roomful of staff I had never met.

It’s hard for me to sum up in a few words what David taught me. But I’ll try: Be welcoming and helpful and generous. Follow the path you think is right. Be brave and bold enough to make mistakes. Listen to others with openness and curiosity; let them teach you and change your mind. Take the time to build relationships. Be a great storyteller. None of these skills are part of our job description as historians, but in the end, I think they are what matter most.

It’s fall in Whitehorse now. I’m glad David got to see the leaves start to turn before he passed away, but when I am out by the river that he loved, with all the bright leaves rattling on the banks, I still can’t believe he’s not here. When it is safe for us to travel again, I would welcome anyone who wants to come paddle with me to the Takhini River bridge in David’s honour.

Claire Campbell:

Even though we lived at opposite ends of the country, I was lucky enough to work with David regularly over the past fifteen years. (Thanks, NiCHE.) He was the consummate public historian: someone who took scholarship – his and others – seriously and expansively, but always with the knowledge that it could, should matter to someone else. For a book about Parks Canada, David wrote about the creation of Kluane National Park, but he contributed much more than an essay; he brought institutional memory, knowledge of the north, and (what I’m most grateful for) a sense of humour and a calm surety that kept the whole thing on even keel. 

But I’ll mostly remember him in person, at the CHESS summer schools, at places like Wanuskewin and St. Andrews. He listened far more than he spoke, but when he did, it was to share the wisdom of experience inflected with patience, kindness, and deep generosity. He took his friends and colleagues and our profession seriously and with care, but could twinkle above that marvelous mustache like no one else.

And I’ll return to his writing, especially the posts he wrote for NiCHE in his retirement, when being an historian wasn’t so much his job as just what he did: listening, watching, and telling stories to others. Hesitant and awkward as a settler Canadian, I marvelled at his commitment to learning from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and his ability to communicate this to, well, people like me. Not just what he learned, but how he lived to do so. Every year I teach his essay “Learning to drive the Yukon River” and every year it works.

And he sent the most awe-inspiring photographs of the north. 

When I moved to the United States our emails were as much about grand/kids and his visits to family in New Zealand as about environmental history. The news of his passing rubbed older grief raw; my father died of the same cancer seven years ago. This loss evoked the same tangle of feelings: almost panic that there was no more time, anger at someone taken too soon. I remembered, then, something David sent a few years ago, and I went to find it.

In November 2018, he wrote me this:

Today I headed off to the river with my son and we wandered around in the snowy woods listening to the gentle tishhhh of the ice pans spinning into each other, the sounds of the wind soughing through the pines and the wing flaps and calls of a pair of ravens.

He attached a video, from an earlier trip to the river, to show the tishhh of the ice pans. I thought I’d share it. I picture him there now.

Mahsi, David. Peace be with you.

Liza Piper:

I am grateful for many wonderful memories of time spent with Dave Neufeld and will always value what he brought to my continuing education on the Yukon as a treasured place (in his words) with an ancient history. Dave exemplified openness and generosity. I think everyone should read his 2011 essay “Learning to Drive the Yukon River.” It is a thoughtful exposition, rooted in his work as a public historian, that explores how relationship- and knowledge-making along the Yukon River can help us to better navigate our contested present and futures.

My favourite memories, though, are from the summer of 2016 when Dave and his wife Joy hosted our family on a visit to the Yukon. We camped in their backyard (in their Fort McPherson wall tent) and on walks and boat rides Dave shared his own deep knowledge and love of the Yukon River and its history. 

David and Michael on the Yukon River in 2016. L. Piper.

Wisdom Sits in Places, Tina Loo:

When I think about Dave, I think about moose and ice – and a grey and golden day on the Yukon River six years ago. Jonathan Luedee and I were in Whitehorse to talk barren ground caribou, outliers among a bunch of wildlife scientists and managers from across North America. When I found out I’d be going to this conference, I suggested we should all have dinner. We did. But in Dave fashion.

For Dave, “dinner” meant an all-day excursion on the Yukon in his boat, one built, we were told, to hold two moose. A craft for the perpetually optimistic. Our destination was “the marge of Lake Laberge,” and our quarry weren’t ungulates but bits of ice. Being spring, the idea was to see how the breakup had progressed. That’s what we did – but it’s not all that happened.

On the Marge of Lake Laberge with Jonathan and Dave, 14 May 2014. That line of white below the mountains is ice. Photo credit: Jonathan Luedee.

Many knew Dave as a storyteller, and that day he was true to form. The Yukon has long drawn peoples together, challenged their knowledge and resilience, and taught them things in the process. I count myself lucky to have had Dave mediate between the river and me, and to learn a bit of Yukon history. Ravens and eagles arrived to punctuate his stories, providing curious clauses and sharp twists in a narrative driven by the water and Dave’s buoyant enthusiasm.

The remains of cribbing put in place to try to redirect the river’s flow during the gold rush, 14 May 2014. Photo credit: Tina Loo.

By the time we had dinner on Egg Island, the skies had cleared. And I could just begin to see how “wisdom sits in places.” For that gift, and for Dave’s boundless energy and generosity, I’m forever grateful.

Dave’s Two-Moose Boat, Egg Island, Yukon River. 14 May 2014. Photo credit: Tina Loo.

Jonathan Luedee:

I first met David in the spring of 2013 while conducting research at the Yukon Archives in Whitehorse. Over coffees at a downtown cafe, David and I chatted about our shared interest in the history of caribou science. I had recently started preparing a dissertation proposal on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and I was excited to have met a northernist who shared my enthusiasm for the environmental history of migratory caribou. However, reflecting on that conversation now, I admit that I was initially hesitant to share too many details about my research plans. I knew that David had worked previously on a caribou project, and, as a recent arrival from the south, I was worried about inadvertently intruding into an area of research that he considered to be his own. I realised quickly that my fears were completely unfounded. By the end of that conversation, David had not only invited me to join him on a river trip to Lake Schwatka, but also opened up his home to me. Writing a dissertation on a northern caribou herd was going to be a costly endeavour, he said, and there was no use spending the bulk of my funding on hostel fees in Whitehorse.

David navigating Miles Canyon in May 2013. Courtesy J. Luedee.

Over the next three years, I spent quite a bit of time talking with David about the history of caribou science. I have a particularly vivid memory of sitting in David’s home office as he pulled copies of archival documents, articles, and books about caribou from his personal collection, which he implored me to take back south to Vancouver. I also had the good fortune of joining David on Yukon River trips whenever I was in town for research. As we motored along the river, I was continually astonished and inspired by David’s ability to narrate the cultural landscapes of the Yukon River Basin. I will always cherish memories of David maneuvering his boat through the often unpredictable river channel, typically surrounded by a small group of friends and colleagues, describing how human activity had modified the riverine landscape over time.

Yukon River. May 2013. Courtesy J. Luedee.

The news of David’s passing hit hard. David was a thoughtful and passionate scholar, and, over the course of his career, he made important contributions to the social, cultural, and environmental histories of the Yukon. Yet, as I reflect on David’s legacy, I continue to think about the important role he played as a mentor to myself and so many other northern researchers. Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of people who have similar stories of David’s kindness, his sensitive approach to community-based historical research, and his deeply held belief that it is important for historians to get out of the archives and onto the river.

David, Mahsi Cho for everything.

Gertrude Saxinger, Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI:

I am extremely sad. I’ve known Joy and David since 2014. Back then, they welcomed me and my colleague Susa Gartler in their home. In 2017 my partner Robert had the pleasure come to see them in Whitehorse too. They regularly gave us shelter when we worked as anthropologists in the Yukon, we had great breakfasts, dinners and tea time together. Laughter and research: this was David’s world he shared with me and especially young scholars he always supported. I cannot express my sincere gratefulness for his teaching about First Nations of the Yukon, the Indigenous and settler histories – and what is even more important he taught me how to make use of research for knowledge creation in the region and what is at stake when working as researchers together with First Nation communities. A couple of years ago Joy and David came for a visit to Austria where they went on a small cruise down the Danube River and were cycling in the vineyards. It was so lovely to host them and to continue our friendship. David took part in an Austrian video project by author Lisa Spalt and visual artist Otto Saxinger about invention of the future and how we can shape a better world. We are all missing the two, especially their wisdom and sense for humanism. Condolences to Erin and Andrew. I am extremely sad.

David and Joy in Vienna, 2017. Courtesy G. Saxinger.

Glenn Iceton:

David extended his kindness and generosity to many new scholars studying the North. I was fortunate to be one of the many recipients of his kindness and generosity. When I traveled home to the Yukon for research and to visit family, David was always happy to get together and discuss history. His passion for history couldn’t be missed, with a smile that seemingly never left his face (underneath a handlebar moustache that only David could pull off). He would extend an invitation to his home near the Takhini River, with its spectacular view across the river valley. Here, we would chat about history and life and general. In our conversations, and in the stories he told, David always had a subtle way of bringing me to see the world in a different way.

Not only do I feel blessed for having had the opportunity to learn from David, I’m grateful for his generosity to other new scholars. Thanks to David, the Yukon’s history is in good hands. While David may no longer be with us to share his stories and share his wisdom, I have a feeling that I still have much to learn from him. As I re-read his words and watch the many videos that have been posted on social media since his passing, David will continue to reveal new lessons.

Clea Roberts, Dawson City:

David Neufeld was a remarkable human who left us too soon. I will miss him with all my heart. He was a historian and an environmentalist who was incredibly attuned to the relationship of the land and its people. He had a passion for seeing things differently and any teachings he offered were made with enthusiasm and an open heart. His perceptions of the world were ageless and always tempered with deep compassion. David was at ease in both wonder and wisdom–always quick to smile under his exquisitely waxed handlebar mustache, a twinkle in his eyes. David’s thinking and writing challenged my assumptions and bias in really subtle but profound ways. He taught me to pay attention to how stories are told because they can “light a path to reconciliation”. He taught me to question the myth of the empty land. To question acts of discovery. To think of the land not as wilderness but as someone’s home first – a source of both sustenance and spirituality. David was always patient with my ignorance, as well as my impatience for change. He was generous in sharing his knowledge and connecting me with people who could take me further into what I needed to know. David was a guide on the river of “trans-cultural relations” and helped so many see the “cultivated pasts” through his writing and talks. Through his work, through being present in his gentle and supportive way, he taught me that sharing these narratives might make it possible for “different peoples to live in the world in different ways” while still being part of a healthy, respectful community. For that, I am a better person and forever grateful. So here’s to David Neufeld – who travelled many rivers (both real and metaphorical), shared his powerful story medicine for the benefit of all, and loved the world and its people. My thoughts are with David’s children and grandchildren.

David on a day trip in his much loved wooden boat at the confluence of the Yukon and Takhini rivers, 2016. Courtesy C. Roberts.

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.


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