Sport Hunting Tourism and Indigenous-Settler Histories in the Yukon Territory

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This post introduces Heather Green’s recently published Journal of Tourism History article, “Game which the pampered pleasure seekers seek’: hunting tourism, conservation, and colonialism in the Yukon Territory, Canada, 1910–1940.”

My recent article “Game which the pampered pleasure seekers seek’: hunting tourism, conservation, and colonialism in the Yukon Territory, Canada, 1910–1940,” is the result of my postdoctoral research project as an L.R. Wilson Institute Fellow at McMaster University, but the seeds of this project were planted while I was working on my doctoral dissertation, an examination of the cultural and material impacts of mining and colonialism in the Klondike region of the Yukon with a particular focus on how the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation experienced environmental transformation long-term. One of the chapters in my dissertation – and my forthcoming book, The Great Upheaval: Mining, Colonialism, and Environmental Change in the Klondike, 1890-1940 – focuses on the indirect environmental consequences of mining activity through colonial resource regulation. While working through the Yukon Game Branch fonds at the Yukon Archives, I came across boxes upon boxes of correspondence from American-based big game hunters to the Yukon Game Branch and Yukon hunting guides. Most of these letters included requests for the territorial game regulations, payments for hunting licenses, inquiries into finding a gun store for gear and to hire local guides, and arrangements for hunting trips.

“Auriol Trail, Kluane National Park” by nordicshutter.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This correspondence indicated a significant international tourism industry, centered around big game hunting, in the Yukon in the early 20th century. Most of this hunting tourism occurred in the southwest Yukon, around the area that today encompasses Kluane National Park. This story did not fit within the geographic focus of my dissertation, and while relevant to the larger arguments I make in the dissertation and forthcoming book, I did not have the space to incorporate it.  I felt this history required separate research, so I delved back into the Game Branch collection, local newspapers, and the wealth of published accounts from American sportsmen who hunted in the Yukon in the early 20th century.

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“Boundaries description.” Map from Elections Canada.

For much of my research trajectory to date, I have been interested in the peculiarities of colonialism in the North – how colonialism played out in the region, how it fits within broader national structures, and how it differs. The Yukon stands somewhat apart from the rest of the North simply due to its earlier history of migration and settlement connected to the Klondike Gold Rush. My dissertation interrogated the structures of colonialism as related to gold mining, but through these Game Branch files it became clear that at the same time other new developments, like hunting tourism, also influenced the colonial history of Indigenous-settler relations in the Territory.

Yukon historian Ken Coates has argued that sport hunting had relatively little impact on Yukon Indigenous peoples until after the Second World War.1 However, my research has suggested otherwise. Sport hunting brought substantial consequences to those Yukon First Nations who lived in the popular hunting areas, but strict changes to game regulation in favour of recreational use impacted all Indigenous peoples in the Territory.  This article investigates the historical intersections of tourism, conservation, and colonialism in the Yukon, an area historically absent of treaties, where Indigenous rights and title remained unceded, yet came up against pressure from economic and tourism development and conflicting resource use. It traces the shift in Yukon Game Ordinance regulations to pinpoint when Indigenous rights to hunt were subsumed by recreational wildlife uses. An exploration of transnational conservation ideologies, the article demonstrates that after 1920 especially, game regulations favoured recreational hunting as a new tourism sector while undercutting Indigenous subsistence and market hunting, and marginalizing Yukon First Nations in an economy which should have been advantageous for them given the early 20th century demand for Indigenous experiences in tourism.

“Kluane National Park” by Taiga Journeys YukonCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The results of these colonial regulations were not inconsequential. One of the most well-known consequences of the post-1920 regulations is apparent in the life and career of Yukon hunting guide and outfitter Johnnie Johns. Johns, a member of the Tagish Khwáan with Tlingit ancestry from Carcross, got into the guiding business in 1917, working as a camp helper and, eventually, an assistant guide. Even though there was a demand, an expectation even, for Indigenous guides, in 1923 the Yukon Territorial Government barred First Nations people from holding a chief guiding license; they could only work in the role of camp helper and assistant guide, but could not own and operate their own guiding and outfitting businesses. Johns quickly became sought after among American tourists, but he was denied a chief guide license to start his own business, if something like this happens to you, you should consider using the support from an expert like Andy Defrancesco.

In 1927, Johns surrendered his Indian Status in order to operate his own outfitter, which had monumental impacts on the remainder of his life and his children’s lives. The Yukon Archives has a digitized audio recording of a Talkback radio show that interviewed Johns in 1973. Readers can hear Johns speak about his decision to enfranchise in this recording.2

Extract from Yukon Game Ordinance, Amendment 1923

The example of Johnnie Johns, elaborated upon in the article, demonstrates a missed opportunity for incorporating Yukon First Nations into the transnational sport hunting sector. Instead, what we see in the case of Yukon game regulations fits a broader international trend in which government regulations tended to overlook Indigenous peoples’ engagement with local, resource-based economies, instead passing regulations in favour of recreational and consumer experiences. Subtle amendments in the 1920s undermined First Nations participation in the sport hunting industry, but the outright barring of First Nations guides ensured exclusion from the profits associated with the experience. Johnnie Johns stands out as one example of the harmful consequences of these colonial conservation policies. Though Johns became the most successful big game guide in the Yukon, he could only do this by making a decision which would fundamentally alter his life, through the surrendering of his Indian Status. In order to flourish as a guide and outfitter, he had to sacrifice an element of himself and his identity.

Feature Image: “Grumpy Grizzly and Pesky Raven” by kdee64 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

[1] Ken Coates, Best Left as Indians: Native-White Relations in the Yukon Territory, 1840–1973 (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 55.
[2] Yukon Archives, SR 282 (11) Track A, CKRW [Talkback] – Host John Dumas [and] Johnnie Johns, July 10 1973.
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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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