My name is Peter Mather and I’m a professional photographer based in Whitehorse, Yukon. I make my living taking adventures and capturing images, but this was something else; this was the dream trip. I got to spend three incredible days photographing and exploring Yukon First Nations culture and history.
The Yukon is famous, across the world, for its’ historical gold rush. Gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896 and the population went from a few hundred non-Indigenous people to 30,000 new residents in a matter of months. But for me, the most interesting part of the history of the Yukon are the stories of the people who have lived there for thousands of years. The people who have hunted fished and explored these lands for hundreds of generations.
Long Ago Peoples Place
My first stop was a re-creation of a traditional First Nations village called Long Ago Peoples Place. I have driven past it many times, but this was the first time I had stopped for a visit. The feeling reminded me of when I was a kid living in British Columbia. On a hot summer day, my parents would be driving past a waterpark and I would stare out the window at all the adventure and excitement and wish I could go in. Well, this time, I finally got to join in the fun.
The village is an extension of the natural landscape. All the traditional housings and objects are made from the land so nothing seems out of place. My guide, Harold, also seemed like an extension of the land in the way that he just belonged. He walked me through the area while he told stories of his Elders and how he learned to create traditional shelters, animal traps, snares, and clothing.
The highlight was the intricate explanation and design of traditional gopher (or ground squirrel) snares. The gopher snares made out of sinew and eagle feathers were so light that they could carry 60 snares on their belts as they travelled.
Shakat Tun Adventures
My next stop was with James Allen at Shakat Tun Adventures, which translates from Southern Tutchone to mean “Summer Trails.” The camp is located in one of the most stunning locations in the Yukon on Kluane Lake with one of the most scenic backdrops – Sheep Mountain.
James set up his box of culturally significant items at a picnic table overlooking the lake and began to share stories of the contents including beaded moccasins, animal furs, snares, traps, knives and obsidian.
As an Elder and born storyteller, listening to James speak was the highlight of this experience. He told a captivating story about how when his mother was a child, her family would spend a few months in the summer hunting moose. They would move up and down these now-famous valleys tracking the massive animals. When they would make a kill, they would spend days drying the meat and hanging it in caches elevated above the land to keep it safe from scavengers like wolverines and grizzly bears. When winter arrived, the young men would head out with their dog teams to retrace the trails and pick up the dried meat which would feed them through the winter.
Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre
Whenever I stop in a new town or city, I always like to visit the local cultural centre and learn about the local Indigenous communities. In Dawson City, this meant a visit to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. I took a tour with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in member and interpreter, Kylie Van Every, who walked me through their history.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in have such a unique history. The story of one of their most famous leaders, Chief Isaac, saving many of the First Nations traditional songs is particularly intriguing. The Klondike Gold Rush struck in 1897/98, bringing thirty thousand non-Indigenous people into the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk overnight; this was a grave threat to the local culture. Chief Isaac brought many of his People’s songs to their relatives in Alaska and asked them to remember these songs and keep them alive because one day his People would be back to reclaim them. He is now remembered for his leadership and foresight. This is one of the many incredible stories you will hear at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
In the afternoon, I met up with Dawn Kisoun and Tommy Taylor of Fishwheel Charters to take a relaxing river tour and visit their cabins. There is no better way to spend your day than floating down the Yukon River listening to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen, Tommy, tell stories of their culture and the significance of salmon while floating past Dawson City. We followed this up with a visit to their salmon camp and cabins along the river. The highlight was definitely Tommy’s great sense of humour.
Haa Shagóon Hídi (Our Ancestors House)
The last stop of the tour was the scenic mountain town of Carcross, Yukon. I stopped in at the Haa Shagóon Hídi (Our Ancestors House), which is also their cultural centre. The Carcross/Tagish First Nation are inland Tlingit People and famous for their traditional art and walking through their Learning centre was like visiting a gallery.
Part of the tour is the intricate story of the clan systems used by the Carcross/Tagish People. The front of the building has six totem poles representing each clan. Each totem pole, like ancient books, tells a unique story.
This cultural history of the Tlingit People is alive today, which was apparent when our tour was happily interrupted by a young local hunter, Kashies James. He arrived at the Visitor Centre with a massive lake trout on his back which was easily the biggest fish I have ever seen and must have weighed well over 50 lbs. This experience is what the cultural centre is all about when it comes to showcasing living history.
After our tour of the centre, Dakhká Khwáan Dancers gave a stunning performance. It was the first one of the year, because of the COVID restrictions in the area. If you have never seen Tlingit dancers before then you are missing something incredibly special. The emotional power and entertainment they bring are unparalleled. Their drumming captures the heartbeat of the land and the dancer’s regalia is so intricately designed they become living, breathing pieces of art. It was the perfect ending to three days of adventure and history.
To get help with your planning your escape, you can also contact our travel agency partner, Indigeno Travel: