I can’t believe I’m getting PAID FOR THIS. My name is Peter Mather and I’m a professional photographer based in Whitehorse, Yukon. I make my living going on adventures and capturing images, but this is something else. This is the dream assignment. I get four days of exploring Yukon First Nations history…and I get to photograph it….and I’m getting paid. I’m a history buff. I love history. The Yukon is famous, across the world, for its’ gold rush history and why not, the story of how gold was discovered in 1896 in the Yukon and went from a population of a few hundred non-indigenous people to 30,000 new people in a matter of months, is an incredible story and great history. But for me, the most interesting history of the Yukon is the people who have lived her for a thousand years. The people who have hunted, fished and explored for hundreds of generations and are still at it today, and it is a living history. The history of Canadian First Nations people.

Day 1 Champagne Aishihik First Nation Haines Junction Tour Operator - Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp Tour Operator - Long Ago People’s Place First up for me is a camp called “Long Ago People’s Place.” I’ve driven past it a million times, but this will be my first visit and I’m more than excited. The feeling reminds 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 was going in. Well, I’m finally going in. The camp is an extension of the natural landscape. All the traditional housings and objects are made from the land and so nothing seems out of place. It feels like a small community or home. My guide, Harold, also feels like an extension of the land and fits in perfectly. He walked me through the area and talks about learning from his elders and the story behind shelters, animal traps, snares, and clothing that he has brought back to life. The highlight is the intricate explanation and design of traditional gopher or ground squirrel snares. The people were ingenious in their methods and their gopher snares, made out of sinew and eagle feathers, were so light that they could carry 60 snares on their belts as they travelled. My next stop is with James Allen at the Shakat Tun Wilderness Camp, 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 a backdrop of the Yukon’s second most scenic mountain – Sheep Mountain. The Yukon’s most scenic mountain is arguably Tombstone Mountains, but that is a story for another blog. At the lake, James’ pulled out his show and tell box. He set it up on a picnic table overlooking the lake and shared cultural items including beaded moccasins, animals’ furs, snares, traps, knives and obsidian. The highlight with James was listening in to his stories. He is an elder and a born storyteller. He told a great 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 hunting moose. When they would kill a moose, they would take a few days to dry all the meat and then hang them in caches elevated above the land to keep them safe from scavengers like wolverines and grizzly bears. Then when winter arrived, the young men would hook up their dog teams and head out to retrace the trails and to pick up all the dried meat to help feed them in the winter. I hiked one of these trails earlier in this summer, a 14 day hike in Kluane National Park called the Donjek Glacier Hike also known as Dän Zhùr Route and I wondered while walking if this was an old First Nation trail. It really connected with me and James confirmed it was an old First Nations trail before it turned into a hunting outfitters horse trail and is now part of the Dän Zhùr route.

Day 2 Trondek Hwechin First Nation Dawson City Tour operator – Dänajà Zho Cultural Centre Tour operator – Fishwheel Charters Whenever I stop in a new town or city, I always like to visit the cultural centre and learn about the present and past history of the local First Nation. In Dawson City, it means a visit to the Dänajà Zho Cultural Centre. I got a great tour with interpreter Kylie Van Every, who walked me though the history of the people. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in have such an unique history. The story of how one of their most famous leaders, Chief Isaac, saved many of the First Nations traditional songs is worth the visit. When the Klondike Gold Rush suddenly struck in 1897/98, bringing thirty thousand non First Nations 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, because one day his people would be back to reclaim them. This type of leadership and foresight are what he is remembered for and one of many stories you will hear at Dänajà Zho Cultural Centre. In the afternoon, I meet up with Dawn Kisoun and Tommy Taylor of Fishwheel Charters to do a river tour and visit their cabins. You cannot find a better way to spend your day than floating down the Yukon River listening to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in member, Tommy Tell stories of salmon and salmon culture while floating past Dawson City. We followed this up with a visit to their salmon camp and cabins along the river. The highlight is Tommy’s sense of humour.

Day 3 Carcross Tagish First Nation Carcross Tour operator - Dakhka Khwáan Dancers Tour operator - Carcross Learning Centre Last stop of the tour is the scenic mountain town of Carcross, Yukon. I stopped in at the Carcross Learning Centre, which is also their cultural centre. The Carcross Tagish people are inland Tlingit people and are famous the world over for their art. Walking through their Learning centre is like visiting an art 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 6 totem poles representing each clan. Each totem pole is its’ own story, like ancient books they each tell a unique story. This cultural history is alive today was encapsulated on our tour when it was happily interrupted by a local young hunters, Kashies James, who helps feed the community, when he arrived at the Visitor Centre with an absolute monster lake trout on his back. This is easily the biggest fish I’ve ever seen and must have weighed well over 50 lbs. This little experience, is what the cultural centre is all about in terms of telling the living history story of the people. After, our tour of the centre, Dakhka Khwáan Dancers gave a performance. The first one of the year, because of COVID restrictions. If you have never seen Tlingit dancers before, than you are missing out on something special. The emotional power and entertainment they bring is unparalleled. Their drumming captures the heartbeat of the land and the dancers are so intricately designed they are living, breathing pieces of art. It was the perfect ending to three days of adventure and history.

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