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New video series highlights Indigenous history of the iconic Chilkoot Trail

It spawned legends, helped define an era, and gave rise to some of the most iconic photography of the 19th century.

But the popular myth of the Chilkoot Trail, its history and meaning, has often kept people from looking and exploring beyond the well-worn path of settler history. A new art exhibit in Whitehorse, including a new video series, aims to change that.

“We’re always so heavy with promoting the settlers and the Klondike Gold Rush. We wanted to have the stories from our perspective, our viewpoints — from the First Nations, Indigenous perspective,” said Gary Sidney Johnson of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon.

He composed music for the video series called “Precious Places,” which was produced by his First Nation in partnership with Parks Canada. The idea of the project is to explore the Indigenous significance of the trail and the area.

A man in a hat sits in a room with people visible behind him.
‘We wanted to have the stories from our perspective, our viewpoints,’ said Gary Sidney Johnson, who composed music for the video series. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

To compose his music, Johnson spent time hiking the traditional trail that existed in the area long before the stampeders arrived in the 1890s to blaze their own path en route to the Klondike.

“In the past I’ve composed music where I knew what I wanted to compose, I had like a melody and then I added words. This, the words in the language came to me. It wasn’t in English. That’s what threw me off,” he recalled.

“That was the first time that’s ever happened to me, and I just felt like I was in the right place at the right time. It was meant to happen.”

The famous Chilkoot Trail used by the thousands of gold-hungry stampeders is now a National Historic Site in Canada, and a National Historic Trail in the U.S. It leads from Dyea, Alaska, up over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett, B.C.

Every year, thousands of tourists hike the route, although that stream of people was slowed in recent years by the pandemic. Numbers are just starting to pick up again this year.

Hikers are seen walking beside a mountain creek.
Thousands of tourists hike the Chilkoot Trail in a typical summer. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Hiking the trail is both a physical challenge and a history lesson — discarded remnants of the Gold Rush can still be seen strewn along the way.

Edna Helm is a Carcross/Tagish elder whose family has lived in the Bennett area for generations. She’s featured in one of the videos, talking about the significance of the trail.

“To me, it holds a lot of history for my First Nations people that were here before the ‘golden age,’ as they call it, when they found the gold,” she said.

“You sit and you look and you feel the presence, more or less, of people that were here before, what they saw, and what they protected.”

Helm also reflected on whether the stampeders, in their mad rush to reach the goldfields, ever truly noticed where they were.

Black and white photo of a line of people climbing a steep snowy mountain.
Klondike gold rush hopefuls lined the Chilkoot Trail pass on their journey to the Yukon’s goldfields in the late 1890s. (E.A.Hegg/National Archives of Canada/)

“I wonder if many of them took the time to look and see the beauty and feel the peace that’s here when you stop and you look around,” she said.

Natalie Haltrich of Parks Canada said being able to hear and share Helm’s stories and reminiscences is what makes the new video series so meaningful.

“We try to share the Gold Rush [story], and then there’s everything pre-Gold Rush. And that story is — I can never learn enough — it’s fascinating,” Haltrich said.

“Here now we have an opportunity to dig a little deeper, through these videos, and hear a little bit more, and it’s really not just touching, but it’s stunning.”

For Johnson, it’s “amazing” to be part of changing the narrative of the Chilkoot Trail and see the Indigenous experience more widely recognized and appreciated. 

“Now, even tourists, when they come into our territory, they’re more aware,” he said.

“And that’s the best part… before it was like, ‘oh, we didn’t know you guys existed.'”

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