When I first traveled to the Yukon Territory to conduct research for my master’s thesis, I realized that its physical and cultural landscapes are indelibly marked by the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899). As I drove through active placer mines, historic goldfields, and century-old tailings piles – worm-like mountains of waste rock left behind by the dredges that consumed entire riverbeds in search of gold – an environmental history of Klondike mining unfolded before my eyes. By the time I reached Dawson City, a National Historic Complex preserving the gold rush’s ‘frontier’ architecture and atmosphere, I was transported back to the stampede of ’98. Indeed, mining is ubiquitous in Dawson; dredge buckets are used as planters, images of mining equipment adorn restaurant walls, and the only hardware store in town sells travel-sized gold pans.
And yet, it is equally undeniable that Dawson City lies at the heart of the traditional territories of the Hän-speaking Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who have occupied the land at the confluence of the Tr’ondëk (Klondike River) and Yukon Rivers since time immemorial. Defying municipal requirements that buildings conform to Dawson’s 1898 architectural style, the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre’s facade instead evokes the fish drying racks of a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in salmon fishing camp and traditional winter brush houses, purposefully disrupting the town’s gold rush streetscape and reminding visitors of continued Indigenous presence. Although the tailings piles never fail to capture tourists’ attention, neither does Ëdhä dädhëcha (Moosehide Slide), an enormous rockslide overlooking Dawson City which has been used by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in for millennia to navigate home and still figures prominently in discussions of sovereignty and ancestral connections to land. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s hard-won cultural influence in Dawson testifies to the dominance of settler colonial narratives since the discovery of gold in 1896 and twenty-first century attempts to re-imagine this landscape.
Efforts to narrate these multiple, overlapping histories have been just as complex as the stories themselves. The recent addition of Tr’ondëk-Klondike, which includes eight distinct cultural heritage sites with proven “outstanding universal value,” to the UNESCO (United nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List is the latest of these storying attempts. However, it is also an example of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s long-term efforts to reclaim their traditional territory from the encroachment of settler colonialism by presenting their own culturally pluralistic narrative to newcomers. In the face of ongoing debates over mining legislation, this reclamation of land is both physical and discursive, and is anchored in more than a century of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in refusal to be silenced.
Although the Tr’ondëk-Klondike World Heritage Advisory Committee, a non-regulatory body composed of community, mining, and government representatives, states “the idea for a Klondike World Heritage site has been around since the 1970s,” the urge to remember and re-enact settler colonial narratives of belonging in the Yukon stretches back to at least the 1911 Discovery Day Parade.1 Decades later, in 1958, the newly re-elected Diefenbaker government revealed a new vision for northern development which mobilized the Yukon’s national historic significance and frontier imagery to encourage support for northern mineral exploitation, industrial development, and non-Indigenous settlement.2 To this end, throughout the 1960s the Canadian federal government commemorated several new national historic sites in the Yukon, including the Chilkoot Trail, two paddlewheel steamboats, and several gold rush-era buildings in Dawson City, aiming to establish it as a tourist destination and a permanent living re-creation of a 1890s mining town.3 By restoring iconic symbols of the gold rush, the government celebrated both the achievements of the ‘original’ settlers and their descendants’ development of northern natural resources. This frontier narrative of inevitable settler nation-building in a hostile wilderness effectively “made any [Indigenous] presence not only invisible, but also effectively unthinkable.”4 It is within this nationalistic, colonial context that Yukon residents discussed a potential UNESCO nomination between the 1970s and the early 2000s.
In May 2004, the Government of Canada released its second Tentative List for World Heritage Sites, which included the Klondike, a site that supposedly represented both the “exceptional adaptation and innovation of First Nations people” and “an outstanding example of a mining landscape.”5 In Dawson, the World Heritage Site project was prioritized in July 2013 during a forum on economic development, and a community-driven initiative led by Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in resulted in Canada’s first formal nomination to UNESCO in 2017.6 However, Canada withdrew the nomination from consideration in May 2018 when an evaluation determined its narrative, which made mining a cornerstone of the site, needed additional work.7
Following this setback, the local team hired an independent expert to evaluate their project, who recommended that a new nomination required centering Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in perspectives of the gold rush.8 The new nomination, which was submitted to UNESCO in February 2021, encompasses “the many layers of settlement and interaction” at eight distinct cultural heritage sites; Fort Reliance, Ch’ëdähdëk (Forty Mile), Ch’ëdähdëk Tth’än K’et (Dënezhu Graveyard), Fort Cudahy and Fort Constantine, Tr’ochëk, Dawson City, Jëjik Dhä Dënezhu Kek’it (Moosehide Village), and the Tthe Zra,y Kek’it (Black City). Together, these sites establish continuous Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in presence in their homeland thousands of years before the arrival of colonial presence, illustrate Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in experiences and adaptations from 1874-1907 to large-scale colonial incursions in search of gold and minerals, and testify “to the continuity of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in life on the land and their cultural traditions, knowledge, and practices maintained” in spite of rapid settler colonial expansion and consolidation.9 This shift in timeframe is important; as environmental historian William Cronon says, “where one chooses to begin and end a story profoundly alters its shape and meaning.”10 By beginning Tr’ondëk-Klondike’s narrative long before the gold rush, focusing on the upheaval of colonial expansion from 1874-1907, and emphasizing enduring Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in connections to land, this approach de-centers the gold rush as the Yukon’s epitomizing event and encourages outsiders to reimagine the North not as a barren, empty, and isolated mining frontier, but as a homeland.
In September 2023, Tr’ondëk-Klondike was officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Tr’ondëk-Klondike joins two other Canadian UNESCO World Historical Sites that address Indigenous history, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (1981) and SGang Gwaay (1981). Whereas these nominations were based in Western archaeology, romanticized the disappearance of Indigenous peoples, and excluded First Nations from the consultation process, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s leadership sets the Tr’ondëk-Klondike World Heritage project apart and ensures that a more balanced and nuanced version of the past is told.
On the other hand, despite the new nomination’s focus on Indigenous perspectives, it nevertheless speaks to the centrality of mining in the Yukon and ongoing debates about mining’s privileged access to land. The World Heritage Site project has faced vocal resistance from the mining community since the early 2010s, as miners worried that Heritage Status could complicate environmental assessments, interfere with their operations, and prevent future mining.11 For years, the Committee addressed these fears in town meetings, community barbeques, and letters of assurance, promising that “the history and active continuation of mining in the region are very much part of the ‘statement of outstanding universal value’ which is at the core of the nomination.”12 The final 2021 nomination further specifies that the lands and waters between sites are not included in the heritage designation and that all component sites have already had mineral staking rights withdrawn or are on Category A Settlement Land. This conflict sheds light on the ongoing controversy around Yukon’s free entry mining legislation, which, under the Quartz Mining Act and Placer Mining Act, allows individuals over eighteen to “enter for mining purposes, locate, prospect, and mine for gold and other precious minerals and stones on any lands in the Yukon” (including Category B Settlement Land and private property) as long as they are not subject to another mining claim or are expressly withdrawn.13 Inspired by California Gold Rush customary law (1848-1855) and the British Columbia Goldfields Act (1859), the Yukon’s free entry regime has been critiqued by scholars, First Nations, Yukon residents, and several Canadian courts, who argue that it perpetuates settler colonial expansion, causes environmental destruction, and contradicts Aboriginal title and modern land claim settlements.14 As of February 2023, the Yukon Territorial Government has begun re-writing its mineral management regime with help from Yukon First Nations and mining industry representatives – however, many of the new recommendations retain free entry’s intent and spirit.15 Ultimately, the Tr’ondëk-Klondike UNESCO site inscription may force us to consider more deeply how to balance the preservation of cultural heritage and the development of natural resources, two endeavours that seem diametrically opposed to one another but that were brought together in this successful nomination.
When discussing the benefits of World Heritage Status, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Director of Heritage Debbie Nagano argued that the UNESCO brand would bolster the Yukon’s tourism industry, which accounts for about five percent of the territory’s GDP and fourteen percent of jobs.16 However, I also hope that this narrative will add nuance to existing commemorations in Dawson City and force new visitors to excavate the region’s unique strata of stories for themselves. And while the inscription doesn’t necessarily confer any new protections – five sites already have management plans, and the other three will be governed according to existing legislation – it does bring attention to the danger that climate change poses to current and future World Heritage Sites, particularly those located in the Circumpolar North. In May 2023, one of Tr’ondëk-Klondike’s component sites, Ch’ëdähdëk (Fortymile), was significantly damaged by ice jams and extreme flooding.17 While flooding is common at Ch’ëdähdëk, this incident was far more severe than usual; and it’s just the beginning. As northern Canada continues to warm at four times the rate of the rest of world, cultural heritage is at risk alongside the devastating effects on Northern communities, environments, and animals.18 Thus, as climate change wreaks havoc across the Yukon and tourism returns to pre-COVID levels, the new Tr’ondëk-Klondike UNESCO World Heritage Site has the potential to highlight the fragility of Arctic landscapes, treat Dawson City’s century-long gold rush hangover, and amplify Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in narratives of resistance.