Story and photos by Dan Davidson
It’s taken nine years since Tr’ochëk was officially declared a National Heritage Site by the then Minister of Heritage, Sheila Copps, in 2002 but the bronze plaque commemorating that designation was finally unveiled at a ceremony on July 23.
About 90 people were gathered at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre for the event, which took place on one of the sunniest days the Klondike has seen this summer. The Junior Rangers must have been sweltering in their dark green outfits while they served as an honour guard to the platform party which included Member of Parliament Ryan Leef, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Deputy Chief Roberta Joseph, elders Edward Roberts, Ronald Johnson and Percy Henry, Deputy Premier Elaine Taylor, Doug Olynyk and Anne Morin, Yukon Superintendent for Parks Canada.
Loree Stewart, Yukon Member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada emceed the open-air ceremony, which began with several songs from the full cohort of the Han Singers, concluding with the Han version of “O Canada”.
In an opening prayer Ronald Johnson thanked the Creator for the blessings of the earth, and requested continuing blessings for friends, families and workplaces.
Stewart briefly explained the role of the HSMBC, which was created in 1919 to advise the government of Canada on the identification and commemoration of nationally significant sites. Recommendations come to the board from the general public and are passed on the federal minister if the board is sufficiently impressed with the nomination. There are more than 950 such sites in Canada, and 23 in the Yukon, of which Dawson has more than a dozen.
“Plaque unveiling ceremonies, such as we are gong to do today,” Stewart said, “are a way in which all Canadians can connect, understand, and share in our national commemorations.
Deputy Chief Roberta Joseph spoke of the connection between Tr’ochëk and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people.
“It served as a gathering place during the salmon harvest season. It was a focal point during our land claims effort and is still enjoyed as a place for refuge, rest and fishing, still today.
“This recognition is most special because of what Tr’ochëk has endured. After the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were displaced, Lousetown, the community that sprang up there, and an active mine on the site, nearly buried the area’s significance. Many passionate people like our elders and our chief negotiators of the day and individuals like David Neufeld … refused to lose sight of Tr’ochëk’s meaning. More people that we can name helped rescue Tr’ochëk’s legacy.
“On behalf of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in council and citizens I would like to say thanks to everyone who made this honour possible. Mussi Cho.”
“Today is a day of celebration,” said Elaine Taylor, Yukon’s Minister of Tourism and Culture. “It’s a day of recognition and it certainly is a day in which we collectively recognize a special place know for its significant cultural and environmental attributes. What began, years ago, as a concerted effort to protect the ancestral home of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, resulted in the designation of Tr’ochëk as a First Nation Heritage Site under the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement back in 1998.”
Taylor reflected that 100 years before that date the lives of the Han people had been irrevocably altered by the arrival of the Stampeders from all over the world after the discovery of gold on Bonanza Creek.
“Tr’ochëk speaks to the resiliency and the fortitude of a people determined to not lose their customs, their culture and their traditions, so important and so vital to their identity and certainly to their beliefs. Today we can be very proud of Tr’ochëk and we recognize and celebrate its legacy for the people of this region.”
Doug Olynyk, the next speaker, recently retired as Manager of Historic Sites for the Yukon government, and was involved in the history which led to this day’s event, having worked for 15 years for Parks Canada before spending 21 years with YTG.
Olynyk noted that the Han people would have finished their last traditional harvest of King salmon at Tr’ochëk around the same time that gold was being discovered on Rabbit Creek.
“By the next spring thousands of prospectors from Fortymile, Circle and other locations along the Yukon River had swarmed the Klondike River Valley. And, starting that July of 1897, after the first shipments of gold hit the docks of Seattle and San Francisco, tens of thousands more rushed madly to the Klondike from North America and all over the world.
“It wouldn’t be long before the spawning grounds of the Klondike were devastated, and one of the major salon fisheries in Yukon ended. This would be a rude turn of fate for the 30,00 newcomers, who were soon faced with starvation, Gold is useless when there is no food to be bought.
“Chief Isaac and his people relocated to Moosehide, abandoning their traditional fish camp at Tr’ochëk. The newcomers quickly made great improvements to the sire, establishing a colony of prostitutes, a brewery and called the place Lousetown. Go figure.
“Lousetown, or Klondike City, became Dawson’s industrial suburb on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Olynyk skipped ahead to his own experience with Tr’ochëk, working first with the Dawson City Museum and then with TH in the late 1980s and early 1990s to preserve whatever heritage resources had not already been lost. An inventory in 1991 confirmed that there was much left at the site.
As a result of land claims and the buyout of mining claims on the site by the federal government, the area of Tr’ochëk, then known as the Tr’o-ju-wech’in Heritage Site, became once more the property of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.
“I want to close with just a few thoughts, and these are centered on the Klondike, which is on Canada’s tentative list for nomination as a World Heritage Site. The very word Klondike derived from the Hän name for “hammerstone”. It is the Klondike that is the story of more than the world’s last great gold rush. It is a story about the geomorphic processes that shape the land and brought us rivers filled with salmon and with gold.
‘This story is about the giant ice age beasts that roamed these unglaciated hills and the wildlife than continues to roam them. It is a story about the stories told around campfires for millennia, and written down by the likes of Service, London and Berton. It is a story also about 11,000 years of life of a people that almost ended when one American and four Tagish Tlingit yelled “eureka”. It is a story of survival, and of revival.
“Tr’ochëk is an integral part of this amazing cultural landscape that needs to be honoured and respected and can teach the world more than a few things about the people who live and have lived here and of riches more valuable than gold.”
Yukon’s Member of Parliament Ryan Leef, speaking on behalf of federal Minister Responsible for Parks Canada, Peter Kent, talked about growing up as a young boy in a Dawson City where the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had not yet taken on that name or begun to revive interest in their culture and language. It was a time when it was possible to grow up without knowing about Tr’ochëk, when it seemed to him that Moosehide had always been the traditional home of the local Indians, as they would still have been called in the 1980s.
“Today’s significance really is that the story is being told. We’re not hiding from it. We’re not moving away from it. We’re allowing that past to be recaptured.
“When I started thinking about becoming a Member of Parliament … the one thing that was going to be very important to me … was learning from our past, guarding it from neglect and felt in doing that it would insure that we would be able to improve our present day and perfect our future. Without a doubt I’m confident now that through the efforts of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, parks Canada, and all the people involved in this that we have taken a major step in guarding our past from neglect, which will invariably improve our present day and perfect our future for years to come.”
The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of the plaque by Ryan Leef and Percy Henry and readings of the trilingual text by Loree Stewart (English), Anne Morin (French) and Erika Scheffen, a Heritage interpreter at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
The afternoon continued with a reception on the cultural centre grounds.