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For the ultimate immersion into First Nations culture, time your visit to coincide with the Adäka Cultural Festival. Photo / YG/Cathie Archbould
Visitors once flocked to Canada’s Yukon Territory for Klondike Gold Rush history. Now, they’re learning there’s 24,000 years of history that came before that, writes Jessica Wynne Lockhart
For decades, the Klondike Gold Rush has been the Yukon’s biggest tourism drawcard. A trip to Dawson City is a trip back to 1896, where you can try your hand at panning for gold, watch dance-hall girls perform, explore frontier-era buildings, or down a Sourtoe Cocktail, which comes with a mummified toe as its garnish.
In 2023, the Canadian territory will commemorate the gold rush’s 125th anniversary. But the celebration will look a little different, thanks to a growing awareness of the event’s impact on the Yukon’s indigenous people, who archaeologists believe arrived in the region during the last ice age. (Recent carbon dating of the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves found that the region is home to the first traces of people in North America.)
“The gold rush and the building of the Alaska Highway changed our people forever. They brought disease and infrastructure that did damage to the wildlife, the environment and our language,” explains Teena Dickson, owner of Who What Where Tours. She’s just one of the dozens of indigenous-led tour operators who are now recontextualising tired tourism narratives and putting colonial history into perspective.
If you’re heading to the Yukon to get your history fix — all 24,000 years of it — here’s where to go and what to do.
Rewrite history on a walking tour of Dawson City
“The way this gold rush event was popularised to the outside world is the narrative we’ve been telling for a long time,” say Janice Cliff, Visitor Experience Manager for Parks Canada in Dawson City. “It was the stories of predominantly white male miners that we told, and not those of, say, women, or queer stories, or the indigenous perspective.”
Cliff and her team are now changing that with Parks Canada’s “Red Serge, Red Tape” interpretative programme. Running from June to September, the hour-long walking tour takes a critical look at the impact of a colonial government on the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in — who were displaced because of the gold rush — and encourages visitors to consider their role in reconciliation.
Meet a master carver at work
Drive an hour south of the territory’s capital, Whitehorse, and you’ll find the historic village of Carcross, which is the traditional territory of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Today, it’s a worthy road-trip photo stop; its colourful retail and dining precinct has been decorated with Tlingit-inspired murals and totem poles by artist Keith Wolfe Smarch. A tour with Who What Where will give you backstage access to his studio, where you can watch the master carver at work.
Carcross is also where you’ll also find Montana Mountain. Based on historic trading routes, the mountain biking park was developed by youth of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and now boasts 40km of challenging backcountry singletrack trails.
Participate in an Indigenous-led sewing or painting workshop
For the ultimate immersion into First Nations culture, time your visit to coincide with the Adäka Cultural Festival. Typically held over the Canada Day (July 1) holiday, the week-long event shines light on the work of more than 200 visual and performing artists from the circumpolar region, including Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Visitors can listen to traditional throat singers, learn to carve soapstone in one of the dozens of workshops, attend an indigenous fashion show, or purchase crafts being made on-site, such as intricately hand-beaded moccasins.
“People are healing through creating their work,” says Sharon Vittrekwa, manager of the Yukon First Nations Arts Store, which is also open year-round by appointment. “That healing energy carries on to healing whoever purchases the art.”
Take a trip down the Yukon River to a remote historic First Nation community
Located on the banks of the Yukon River, Fort Selkirk was once a gathering place for the Huchá Hudän indigenous people for thousands of years. It was a key stopping point for Klondike stampeders on their journey further north, and at one point, nearly became the capital of the Yukon. Today though, it’s a ghost town of more than 40 historic buildings, some with the belongings of their former inhabitants still within.
The fascinating site is a living time capsule of First Nations and colonial history, but the historic interpretative panels are out-of-date and there are no roads leading to the site. That’s why two years ago, Teri-lee Isaac, a member of the Selkirk First Nation, started Tutchone Tours. Offering guided boat tours to Fort Selkirk, Isaac’s hope is to bring more indigenous history to a site that could be mistaken as just a fur trading post, and to provide opportunity for youth in her community. “I’m just hoping we can be an inspiration to younger people,” says Isaac.
GETTING THEREAir Canada’s direct Auckland to Vancouver flights resume on November 12. Whitehorse is a 2.5-hour connecting flight from Vancouver.
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