Crossing the Yukon border
They say that once you’ve lived in the Yukon, you never get the Yukon out of you.
I believe that this is true.
I lived in the Yukon about 20 years ago, and although I only lived there one season, I have missed it ever since. I never felt that I got a ‘proper summer’ without the continuous midnight sun that only comes with a far north summer. It felt like a homecoming.
But my, how things had changed! The roads were paved – all the way to Whitehorse. The axle-destroying sized potholes were conveniently filled in — not marked with orange flagging and florescent paint so that you could spot them in time to careen around them. There were street lights. The prices in the stores were the normal prices that I would pay down south in Vancouver. And most surprising of all – even the gas was a normal price. Something that we really weren’t expecting – especially at the outpost gas stations where the next fuel station would be a whole fuel tank down the road.
Just over the border is the Village of Teslin. Teslin is a native village of about 450 people. The local language, Tlingit is considered one of the most endangered languages in Canada. You can hear a small sample of it here.
We nearly whipped through the tiny village without a backward glance, but decided to stop and take a break from the road by looking at the little local museum. Am I glad that I did – for that tiny museum made a huge impression on me.
The George Johnston Museum chronicles the life of a Tlingit native. What was unique about him was that he had a camera in an age when few natives did, and he was a master photographer, taking innumerable candid shots of the vanishing native life between the years 1910 and 1940 as a native when no one else was doing it.
The museum forbids photography and the images are copy-righed, but you can see a small sample here.
George Johnston was the first local to buy a car. It was a 1928 Chevrolet. He shipped it in by barge to Teslin where you can see the admiring locals thronging around the new device. It landed in a town where there were no roads in existence to drive it on. George Johnston hired his fellow locals to chop a 3 mile road through the virgin woods, and thus George Johnston’s taxi service was born.
In the winter when the Teslin Lake was frozen, his highway increased to 75 miles as he drove it around on the frozen lake. George Johnston was a fantastic trapper and hunter and he used his ’28 Chevrolet to hunt for game from the lake. He soon discovered that the black car was easily visible to the animals, so each winter he would camouflage it by covering it with white paint. And each spring after the lake melted, he would repaint it black again for the taxi season. When George Johnston eventually traded in his ’28 Chevrolet for a truck many years later, the Chevrolet company bought it and then donated it back to the museum. It had many, many layers of paint on it – but not a single scratch or dent!
What really impressed me was the video interview in one of the museum displays of a native woman giving a first-hand account of the construction of the Alaska Highway from her memory as it went through their village.
Pearl Harbour had just been bombed and the Japanese had actually landed troops on US soil in 1942 for a brief battle. There was no highway between the continental US and Alaska. The US army decided to go ahead and build a supply route. And so they did. Without the permission of the Canadian government.
The Tlingit natives were definitely too insignificant to notify.
History is always written by the dominating culture. It is very interesting to hear the story of the Alaska Highway described by the other side.
The first sign that something was afoot were the unusual planes flying overhead, when usually the only thing that came by was the mail delivery plane which had already arrived that month. It turned out that these were US army planes surveying for the Alaska Highway.
The US Army arrived in Teslin with thousands of troops, trucks & tractors. They set up camp and began bulldozing down trees and moving earth in a wide swath through the forest for the road. If your home happened to be in the way – too bad.
The Canadian Government was torn. It liked the road idea but didn’t want to pay for it. The Americans had made a good start at building it without Canada’s permission and Canada’s sovereignty was in jeopardy. Canada eventually, in a face-saving maneuver, posthumously granted permission for the Americans to build the road, with the stipulation that the road and facilities be turned over to the Canadians after the war was over.
But nothing is free. The Americans demanded and received sovereignty over the roadway and the Alaska Highway and surrounding environment became American soil .
The American Army then decided that since the native Tlingit looked Japanese to them, they ordered all Tlingit to carry Army issued passport papers and show them wherever they went. Failure to do so would put them in jail. The Tlingit were now foreigners in their own town.
The American Army next decided to grant special recreation privileges to their thousands of recruits living on base to make up for the fact that they were living in the miserable far North of Canada. They permitted and encouraged them to shoot live animals for target practice and recreational hunting. Immediately, thousands of men took up rifles in a small area with a predictable outcome.
They shot out all the animals and collapsed the indigenous food supply.
Since racial discrimination was a standard feature of the day, the local natives were unable to procure work in the road construction or the army base as an alternative living.
Then common European diseases introduced via the army swept through the natives. They lost a significant portion of their numbers.
What I found particularly interesting is that this took place in the 1940’s, when both governments and the army admittedly knew that the natives would have no resistance and that this was a predictable outcome.
Apparently the Canadian Government at the time was well aware that the natives would have no resistance to the newly introduced common European diseases. And although vaccines were available and in fact mandatory for army recruits, NONE were made available to the local inhabitants. In fact the army actually passed an edict stating that no medical professional was to aid or to have contact with a native on threat of court marshal.
When fall came, and the geese were migrating overhead, only a couple of men were able to rise from their sickbeds to try and shoot some geese down for the entire community. A significant number of the community were so sick that they actually died. (I can’t remember actual numbers from the video.)
Winter came. The natives starved.
The army which had gratuitously depleted their natural larder, now refused to allow them to join the road working teams to earn money or access to medication.
It was at this time Canadian government initiated mandatory schooling in centralized boarding schools that enforced an English immersion curriculum, culture & religion for all the native children, even the very young ones.
Every person in the entire town had lost family members to the onslaught of disease. Now every child had been legally confiscated. The parents were devastated.
Parents now only got to see their children a couple times a year – and when they returned to the village for holidays, their children were strangers who no longer spoke the Tlingit and had been trained to believe their customs inferior. The video states that the peoples’ spirit was broken and depression was rampant. The very next year, the government rescinded a prohibition against selling alcohol to natives, and they were allowed into the pubs. Alcohol addiction went wild.
George Johnston pretty well stopped taking photography. It is said that he was he didn’t want to record the degradation of his people.
I found it very interesting to try and do fact checking and produce Google links out for this particular blog. It is basically impossible to get links that corroborate the native view of this tale. Even the detail that the US Army essentially bullied the Canadian Government into permitting them to create the Alaska highway is recorded in carefully crafted, non-inflammatory language that makes it difficult to even discern that Canada’s sovereignty was trampled on. You have to read between the lines to figure it out.
As to the Tlingit view- there isn’t even a hint of this story on the web. It is all contained in that little museum, in a single copy-written book, and a single copy-written video. Since the only information is a closely-held and copy-written, this means that it isn’t publicized on the web. If you want to hear the Tlingit view of events you must buy the information.
People certainly won’t pay for this type of information, so the Tlingit version of events will never be widely distributed. Although I respect copyright and the right of the author to attempt to profit from it; in this case their copyright is only succeeding in obscuring a very important part of history. Since the author’s record of this part of history is the only source and would be very difficult to replicate. As a result this information will never be well distributed into the diaspora of history. The Tlingit story isn’t mentioned anywhere that I could find. And I have spent about 2 hours trying to Google up references for you.
I find this very sad.
I don’t have any photos of the museum or contents to add to this blog because of course, it’s copyrighted.