Frontier Spirit: The Brave Women of the Klondike

They were married in a Tagish ceremony. George would use this fact later to disown her, saying that they'd never been married, but at the time, he was well satisfied. To have this beauty by his side. To have her strength match his own. To have a wife who could be his equal partner on the river and in the bush, in the First Nations tradition. As elder Kitty Smith put it: "He's got wife. He's all right! She does EVERYTHING, that Indian woman, you know-hunts, just like nothing, sets snares for rabbits. That's what they eat."

Shaaw Tlaa joined George, Keish (who came to be known as Skookum Jim) and her cousin Kaa Goox (who came to be known as Dawson Charley), packing from Dyea in May 1887 for Dominion Lands Surveyor William Ogilvie. Many times she crossed the Chilkoot Pass, hiking alongside her menfolk, on the paths her ancestors had traversed for centuries. When the season ended, Keish and Kaa Goox helped George build a cabin in Dyea to winter in. George wanted his wife to himself. How strange it must have been for her to leave the communal hearth and live as only two, to shoulder alone the burdens of women's work without a sister-in-law or aunt to share stories with, to learn an intimacy so foreign to her.

Keish and Kaa Goox returned in the spring to sell their furs and go prospecting down the Yukon River with George. It was an unsuccessful trip. In September, George and Shaaw Tlaa settled back in the Tagish village, in a separate cabin this time. Shaaw Tlaa rechinked the log walls while George mended the sod roof.

The village was on the shores of the channel running between Lake Marsh and Lake Tagish, north of Lake Bennett. About 12 log cabins were scattered around two community houses. George and Shaaw Tlaa lived a traditional Tagish lifestyle. Shaaw Tlaa gathered kindling, bucked wood, and kept the fire going, hauling water or melting snow. She tanned hides and sewed mitts, moccasins and mukluks to sell. She picked salmonberries and blueberries, roots and herbs. She caught grayling and salmon, snared ptarmigans and rabbits, was known as a good hunter. She made bone butter and bannock. Her skills and knowledge enabled the pair to live off the land so that George did not need the supplies other prospectors had to buy and pack around.

When news of the Fortymile gold trickle came to the village in 1889, George was wild to go. Keish and Kaa Goox decided to stay closer to home. In June, George and Shaaw Tlaa went to Fortymile without them. This was a different kind of hunting. Together they dug down to bedrock, sluiced and panned at their claim. They didn't find any gold. It was too late in the year for travel back to the Tagish village so they went trapping on the Porcupine for the winter.

In 1890, after selling their furs in spring, they staked another claim near Fortymile. This time they found gold. They were forced to live in a tent all winter, as they'd been too busy mining to build a cabin. In 1891, they had a good yield but 1892 found the claim depleted. Because Shaaw Tlaa wanted to be closer to her family, they went back up the Yukon River and started a trading post near the Five Finger Rapids.

Shaaw Tlaa ran the post alone while pregnant. Her lessons in solitude served her well. George was away for the summer, constructing St. Andrew's Church in Fort Selkirk. They moved there for the winter. In this town, far from her family, Shaaw Tlaa gave birth to their daughter, whom George named Graphie Grace, on January 11, 1893. Graphie was baptized by the missionary at St. Andrew's, the first claim that George staked for the culture he came from.

They returned to the trading post until May of 1896, when George got itchy feet and took them back to Fortymile, where he could prospect again. In June, legend has it he had an unforgettable dream of an encounter in the river with two salmon: "In place of scales they were armoured in gold nuggets and their eyes were twenty-dollar gold pieces."' He decided they should go fishing. They travelled to the Tr'ondek Hwech'in fish camp at the mouth of the Klondike River and made nets and a weir together, the Han welcoming Shaaw Tlaa as one of their own.

This was where brother Keish, cousin Kaa Goox and Kaa Goox’s youngest brother, Koolseen (whom George dubbed Patsy Henderson) met up with the couple. The family had lost one brother and three sisters, and two of the remaining sisters had been gone for two years with white prospectors. Keish was responsible for looking after his sisters' welfare and he was worried they might be lost. Communally, the clan decided that Keish, Kaa Goox and Koolseen should ensure that the sisters were safe. Family concern for Shaaw Tlaa, not greed for gold, is what brought the party to the Han fishing village. where the Klondike met the Yukon River, and thus to the bonanza.

All the First Nations elders emphasize that gold meant nothing to their people at the time. That they had always known it was there but hadn't bothered about it. Maybe it had come to mean something to Shaaw Tlaa and her family, because of George's interest in it. Or maybe it was George who meant something to them, as kin, and so they humoured him on his quests. They had no need of a shiny metal too soft to be any good or of money and what it could buy, but they had great need of a husband, a brother-in-law, a cousin-so many were gone.

Because it had been a bad summer for fish, they cut down trees and sold logs to Ladue's sawmill to earn their grubstake, the financing that would allow them to store provisions and take care of expenses while prospecting or mining. They ran into fellow prospector Bob Henderson, who was staking Gold Bottom and told them outright, in no uncertain terms, that people of the First Nations were not welcome there as far as he was concerned. George was incensed and didn't want to be anywhere near a man of such low opinions. Instead, the party explored the territory further up the Klondike River, especially all the surrounding creeks. And on one of these creeks, they made the discovery that was to galvanize the greed of people all over the world.

There are so many different accounts of this epic moment that we can never know what really happened. At first, George said Kate found the gold, then he said he found it. Skookum Jim later said he'd found the gold himself. Dominion Lands Surveyor William Ogilvie, who had interviewed all of the party shortly after they registered their claims, also gave Skookum Jim credit for the find.

The account of Emilie Tremblay has the menfolk gathering wood to make a cookfire for the bull moose they'd just shot and Shaaw Tlaa going to the creek to get water. She carries her cedar bark basket down through the woods and kneels on the bank, as she's probably done already several times that day. But this time there is a flash of sun in the shadows. Gold nuggets gleam at her in the shallow water. She scoops them up, feels their rough shapes, their ominous weight. She takes them back to camp. She tells George to open his hand and, to his wondering eyes, deposits the gold in his palm. He asks her over and over how she found the nuggets and has her lead him to the spot on the creek. They find more and more gold and he shouts, resplendent with triumph, that they are all rich now.

But what does "rich" mean when you have everything you know to need in the land at your feet? When trinkets are burdens slowing canoe or sled? Camping in this gold-rich area, it is likely that Shaaw Tlaa found the ore while washing dishes, that Skookum Jim and Dawson Charley found nuggets while getting a drink from the stream, but maybe none would have made a big fuss about the discovery. I can imagine Shaaw Tlaa saying: Let my husband claim to be the one to find what he searches so hard for, this yellow stuff he thinks so special; let him find his specialness like that. But she was savvy, too. She'd run the trading post, she'd mined at Fortymile, she'd sat with the white prospectors and heard their talk. Maybe the gold was something she sought as well, not knowing where the find would lead her.

Kate, Graphie, George, Skookum Jim, Dawson Charley and Patsy, the names the world would soon know them by, set up camp at Bonanza and started sluicing. By fall, they had 88 ounces of gold worth $1,400. Because none of the men could work their claim alone, they agreed to work them together and share all the gold equally. They went to register their claims with the commissioner. George registered the Discovery Claim and No. I Below as his. Skookum Jim signed with an X for No. 1 Above, as did Dawson Charley for No. 2 Below. It is possible that George got two claims because one represented Kate's share. That would seem only fair to her brother and cousins, experienced bargainers in the Tagish-Tlingit tradition. Once the registration was secure, George went to Fortymile with a bullet casing full of gold and boasted to every soul he could find. The news tore through the territory like a herd of caribou and the stampede was on.

Source: Jennifer Duncan, "Frontier Spirit: The Brave Women of the Klondike" (Ottawa: Doubleday Canada, 2003), 71-4

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