The Dawson City Museum project asks – How has the Dawson City Museum evolved in relation to government policy and community action?
We are taking two approaches to answering the question. First, we are considering the data chronologically to discuss the evolution of the Museum over time (Dawson City’s Community Attic, The Importance of People, Territorial Interest and Investment, A Community Hub, Working to Connect). Second, we have developed key themes related to policy and community (Inexpensive and Impressive but Challenging and Restrictive, Why a Museum?). To solicit feedback, I will post a series of working papers that consider the data in these two ways – that is, chronologically and thematically. These papers will inform the final report for the Dawson City Museum and podcast miniseries.
Providing a thematic consideration of the data, this working paper asks – How has the DCM’s relationship with Indigenous peoples over time? The paper is presented in two parts. Within part one, I (Robin) have outlined the DCM’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples as presented in the data. Importantly, the research is limited as it did not involve deliberative consultation with members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department or cultural center. The narrative reflects the perceptions of those with a direct relationship to the Dawson City Museum as museum staff or volunteers as well as the Museum’s corporate archives. The paper presents key terms, context, and an overview of the Museum’s efforts regarding relationship building with and the representation of Indigenous Peoples in the Museum space, focusing on exhibitions and collections management.
Part two is a response written by a Research Assistant (Madison Francoeur) who researched museum best practices over time as they relate to Indigenous Peoples within what we now call Canada. In particular, she reflects on Part one in relation to Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in: “are a Yukon First Nation based in Dawson City. The citizenship of roughly 1,100 includes descendants of the Hän-speaking people, who have lived along the Yukon River for millennia, and a diverse mix of families descended from Gwich’in, Northern Tutchone and other language groups” (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in 2015).
Hän-speaking people: A linguistic group that belongs the Athapaskan language group (McFadyen Clark 2015).
Athapaskan (Also known as Dene, Athabascan, Athabaskan, or Athapascan peoples): “ a far-reaching cultural and linguistic family, stretching from the Canadian North and Alaska to the American southwest. In Canada, the Dene, which means “the people” in their language, comprise a variety of First Nations, some of which include the Denesoline (Chipewyan), Tlicho (Dogrib) and Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in)” (Asch 2021).
Context: The Tr’ondek Hwech’in
In the late 1800s, an increased number of people associated with the Klondike Gold Rush began settling the Tr’ochëk (a traditional fishing camp at the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers), displacing Hän speaking peoples. In response, Chief Isaac moved his people to Moosehide and sent the gänhäk (dancing stick) to relatives in Alaska. These relatives kept sacred songs and dances safe during this period of uncertainty (Council of Yukon First Nations 2023; Tr’ondëk Heritage n.d.). In the 1950s, the population at Moosehide had declined and so the Hän people returned to the area now incorporated as Dawson City, becoming part of the community (Council of Yukon First Nations 2023).
As explored elsewhere (Dawson City’s Community Attic), the 1950s was a period of change for Dawson City more broadly as community members began to deliberately develop and encourage a tourism industry. They formed the Klondike Tourism Bureau, which established the Dawson City Museum as a tourist site. In the 1970s, Parks Canada became more active in the region, developing the Klondike National Historic Sites as a significant attraction. Both the Museum and Parks Canada centered stories about the Klondike Gold Rush in their interpretations. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in – that is, people of the Klondike – were largely absent and/or not centered in these interpretations.
The lack of representation was a concern for the Dawson Band (now the self-governing Tr’ondek Hwech’in). As articulated in the 1986 Lord Report (Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc 1986), their concerns related to heritage and commemoration in the region included:
- the loss of the Hän language
- city regulations about the facade of buildings, which did not consider Indigenous architecture and contributions
- the lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous contributions to the Gold Rush period in Parks Canada interpretations
- Moosehide’s lack of preservation
Considering the Museum more specifically, the Lord Report states:
Although the Dawson City Museum gives the Band copies of photographs of Moosehide, there has been relatively little contact recently. It is striking to observe the valiant efforts of a small population of Band members (about 200 in all) to preserve a culture that is anthropologically of considerable significance, without assistance from the large number of heritage professionals in Dawson, where scrupulous care is taken to preserve non-native history since 1896. The implicit question of priorities is one to which a museum policy might give some attention.Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc 1986, 58
More broadly, the Council of Yukon Indians argued throughout the 1980s that there was a lack of Indigenous involvement in museum management and Indigenous cultures should be “interpreted by Indian people – for Indian people” (Porter 1982, 25).
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in became better positioned to address the issues identified and engage in their own interpretations as a self-governing nation in the 1990s. In 1993, the Umbrella Final Agreement Between the Government of Canada, the Council for Yukon Indians, and the Government of Yukon was signed. During the 1990s, the Dawson Band started to be a more active participant in heritage preservation and interpretation in the region. For example, in 1996 they held a cultural day to honor the regaining of their identities. In 1998, the The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement was signed. The Final Agreement includes the directive that government would support the First Nations in catching up then keeping up to other heritage organizations. As a result, First Nation Cultural Centers became included in Yukon’s museum support program. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in now has an active heritage department and Cultural Center – that is, the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
In short, colonialism threatened the culture of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. Chief Isaac ensured the preservation of their sacred songs and dances through relationships with other Indigenous Peoples. Colonial heritage institutions, including the Dawson City Museum and Parks Canada, neglected and marginalized the Tr’ondek Hwech’in in their interpretations of the Klondike. In the 1990s, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in became a self-governing First Nation with capacity that established a Cultural Center with the capacity to engage in its own interpretations.
The Dawson City Museum and Indigenous Peoples
As discussed in “Dawson City’s Community Attic,” the Dawson City Museum’s early collecting practices focused on the Gold Rush and exhibitions were not well organized. However, when the Museum hired its first year-round staff in the 1970s, they began to organize the collection and develop thematic displays (Snowalter 1975). The reorganized displays included content about Indigenous Peoples in the area, using works commissioned by the Museum as part of a research project. Additionally, a pre Gold Rush display was planned in the late 1990s for the new Lind Gallery. In both the 1970s and 1990s, the content shared the same primary limitation – that is, Indigenous Peoples were relegated to a section of the Museum and, in some ways, were depicted as part of the past.
The establishment of a self-governing First Nation with a cultural center and a heritage branch influenced the relationship between the Museum and Indigenous Peoples, positioning Indigenous peoples in the region as active community members in the present and future. In addition to the existing personal relationships between staff and individuals, the Museum can now have relationships and partnerships with institutions. As a former Executive Director from the 1990s stated:
The Chief Isaac Centre was really important, then, and ultimately burned down, but the Cultural Center which was being planned and was built when I was there, became a particularly important aspect of what I would call community relations within the entire place.Interview 8
The changed dynamic is most evident when looking at the Museum’s exhibition and collection programs. In the 1970s, the Museum had engaged with individuals to learn about and document the production of specific items for a display. The Museum now consults with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department and Cultural Center, which shaped the design and language of their new exhibitions that opened in 2021. Importantly, the influence of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in is felt throughout the exhibitions and not isolated to one display. Moreover, there have been changes to the collecting practices where the Museum can recommend people donate to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in rather than the Museum. Both the collecting and exhibition practices are discussed in more detail below.
In short, the Museum’s relationship to Indigenous Peoples has evolved. In its early history, the focus on the Gold Rush meant Indigenous Peoples were not well representated. The Museum made an effort to address the limitation in the 1970s and 1990s. However, displays continued to be isolated and Indigenous Peoples were not centered in interpretations that conceptualized history in terms of pre and post Gold Rush. Since the establishment of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as a self-governing First Nation in the 1990s, the Museum’s interpretation, collection, and relationship with Indigenous Peoples has evolved.
After the Dawson City Museum burned down in 1960, they actively sought “relics of the Gold Rush era” (see “Dawson City’s Community Attic”). The objects primarily focused on settler history with some baskets and other works labeled as Indigenous on loan to the Museum. Work to catalogue materials in partnership with Indigenous people in the 1970s revealed most of the artifacts in the Museum relating to Indigenous Peoples did not come from the area (Robinson 1978a). The DCM, therefore, engaged in a project to pay for and document tanning as well as the creation of moccasins and a drum (Robinson 1978b). These objects became part of the collection and as discussed below, an exhibition.
The project is notable as a collaboration with community members and a rare instance where the Museum more actively engaged in a collecting program, commissioning works. After rebuilding the collection in the 1960s, the Museum’s approach to collecting had been passive, relying on donations from community members. As an Interview Participant described:
We essentially had a passive collections approach. We weren’t actively going out and searching for artifacts for the collection, but we would get regular offerings. Primarily, we would just get stuff sent in the mail to us by long-lost relatives of somebody who had been in the gold rush.Interview 10
Importantly, the quote describes donors as “long-lost relatives of somebody who had been in the gold rush,” which suggest an ongoing focus on settler histories and narratives. However, at times, these donations are of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in artifacts. That being said, a significant limitation of the interviews conducted for the research project is that we did not directly and explicitly ask questions about the collection of Indigenous materials.
Notably, the establishment of a self-governing First Nation in the 1990s led to some deliberate changes in the Museum’s collecting practices. As a former and current Director explained:
Our relationship with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in affects our collections program. Today, when the Museum is approached by donors who have material donations to make – cultural material to donate – that are of significance to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, we recommend or suggest (I think suggest is better than recommend) that the donor consider offering their donation to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in who have a collection program but are somewhat more difficult for people who are unfamiliar with the content to discover.Interview 1
We also shifted our accessioning policy [so] that, now, whenever we are offered anything First Nations we automatically suggest that, instead, it’s sent to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department.Interview 6
In addition to this change in practice, there have been oppurtunities for partnerships that enriched access to the collections of relevance to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. For example, the Museum worked with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in to create a First Nations photo finding aid of all the collections held at the Museum (DCM DA Report October 14 2004). The Dawson City Museum has also lent artifacts to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. Examples include lending the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre artifacts for “Myth and Medium: Explore Athapaskan Artifacts in Their Homeland” and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in artifacts for a display in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government building (DCM 2018 Annual Report).
In short, interviews and archival data articulate limited information about the Museum’s collecting and collection management practices related to Indigenous Peoples. However, two important factors were highlighted. First, the Museum engaged in a research project and commissioned works of relevance in the 1970s. Second, the Museum’s current relationship with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as a self-governing first nation influences their collecting and collection management practices.
In addition to influencing their collection practice, the Museum’s relation to Indigenous Peoples broadly and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in specifically also influences and is demonstrated through their exhibitions. The development of exhibitions related to Indigenous Peoples can be discussed in three periods – pre-renovations, the Lind Gallery, and the renewal project
In the late 1970s, the Museum wanted to develop an exhibition on Indigenous Peoples. As a first step, they used a Canada Works grant to hire someone to do research on Hän speaking peoples (DCM Minutes March 28, 1978). As she described:
They wanted research done on the First Nation and the community. I understood it to be a paper and background for an exhibit. Then after being there for a while, a couple of weeks or something, they said “oh, you know that part of the job is actually – create the exhibit.” And so that was lots of fun.
That was a great project and it’s the first time that the Museum had actually been in contact with the First Nation, with the Dawson Band at that time. So, with no history at all, I just went down there, introduced myself and sat around in the office until the chief got sick of me and told me to go and talk to some elders. So, it was a fabulous experience.Interview 7
The research involved taking photos and recording conversations while hides, which were donated from Old Crow for the exhibition, were tanned and artifacts created. As another Participant noted:
[They] documented both the knowledge of and the process of creating those and purchased those things for the gallery. So, at the time, it was pretty forward-thinking.Interview 10
Importantly, the exhibition was created based on this research and through consultation with Indigenous Peoples. As articulated in the research report:
The Dawson Indian community was consulted on the theme and the actual plans before the exhibit was built, and it is to be hoped that future changes for the better will be done with their co-operation.Robinson 1978b
In short, the Museum developed an exhibition on Northern Athapaskan culture in 1978, using research and consultation. It depicted the movement and activities of Northern Athapaskans through the four seasons. The exhibition attempted to make connections to the Han speaking people of the Tr’ochëk more specifically, but this was difficult due to a lack of artifacts specific to the area in the Museum’s collection. Moreover, the people from the local Indigenous community consulted were not Hän. As such, they focused on the tools needed to live in the climate while also depicting Athapaskan styles of clothing and housing. The research enabled them to depict some basic techniques for hunting, fishing, tanning skins, and sewing.
Lind Gallery Period
In the late 1990s, the Lind family made a significant donation, commemorating John G. Lind, to the Museum for two projects – that is, a new storage facility and a new gallery space focused on the pre Gold Rush era.
The new exhibition depicted Hän peoples’ camps. For example, the winter camp included a dog pack received from an elder and the summer camp focused on the mouth of the Klondike River as an important fishing location. There were also:
- trade goods that were part of a pre-contact exchange system between Athapaskans and Tinglit groups from the Northwest Pacific coast.
- a diahorama depicting an event of significance to the creation of the Kohklux map, which allowed settlers to more effectively use transportation routes (see documents available in Dcm Archives; box 29b; news release 2002).
The exhibition moved the Museum toward a better representation of Indigenous People. Importantly, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in contributed $5,000 to support the work done for the Lind Gallery (DCM Newsletter vol. 18 no. 2). However, the exhibit continued to share a significant limitation with past depictions. It relegated Indigenous Peoples to the past – that is, a gallery on the pre Gold Rush period. As a result, Indigenous peoples were historicized and not well integrated into the Museum as a whole (interviews).
Renewal project period
When the Dawson City Museum began the exhibition renewal process in 2014, it was with the realization that the existing exhibitions marginalized Indigenous Peoples. As Participants observed:
At the time, [the way] we thought of interpretation and exhibits in Museums was to separate out those stories as a First Nations narrative as opposed to a more comprehensive story of the existing narratives.Interview 10
One of the matters of the old exhibition was that at the beginning, there was an exhibit on Athapascan lifestyles and that was sort of this marginalization. This was a marginalization of Indigenous Peoples history because it occurred in one place and then nowhere.Interview 1
Despite the limitation, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had not been consulted on the new exhibitions when the Director was hired in 2015. With new leadership, addressing the marginalization became a key goal for the curator and director. As the executive director described:
We knew that in the new exhibits, we wanted the exhibit to better reflect the continuity… also the primacy, the priority, and the centrality of the Indigenous Peoples of the Klondike – the Gwich’in and Hän. That was a distinctly important piece of a new inclusive exhibit that we wanted to create.Interview 1
Consultation with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in became key to their exhibition renewal. As the former Executive Director stated:
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and when I say that I really mostly mean the Heritage Department which includes the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, affects our exhibitions program. Their feedback and insights and help and permission have been instrumental in creating the exhibits that we’re working on debuting now.Interview 1
Key changes to the exhibition, addressing the lack of inclusion and feedback from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, include:
|Incorporating stories about the Hän throughout the exhibitions.||“The Hän have places in the exhibit that you might not expect them to. For example, on the second floor, there’s a panel about local government and that panel isn’t about Yukon Council or the City of Dawson Corporation. It is actually about the imposition of the Band Council system at Moosehide, which is the Hän village downriver a little from Dawson City. And I think it also traces from the Band Council system to the final agreement that Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in signed in 1998. So, a topic that might be an obviously white settler kind of topic has a more – it isn’t. It’s about a little bit about colonial trauma and also about Indigenous sovereignty and recognition.” (Interview 1)|
|Involving the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in the design process and listening to their suggestions.|| “When the designers made their first site visit to Dawson early in 2016 at the beginning of the process, we invited staff from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department to meet them as well. In that meeting, the designers wanted us to consider a non-linear exhibit design. The curator and I who had spent years thinking of it as a linear experience were resistant to that until Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department staff got behind the a linear exhibit design and that was, you know, that was great. Okay, cool. Absolutely.” (Interview 1) |
“The designer said – consider topical. And then when Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in staff came in and they said – topical. Topical is less threatening. It is more welcoming. Topical organization is less like school. It’s like – okay, I hear you. Great. That’s what we’ll go with. Excellent. And it was a really excellent decision.” (Interview 1)
|Using the Hän language throughout the exhibition.||For example, they could not fit in Hän, French and English in the headings for each section. So, they decided to use Hän for these elements.|
|A thematic rather than chronological orientation, which moved the Museum away from a pre/post gold rush conceptualization.||Here are some images and a description from the designer. |
|A focus on people and place in the main thesis.||Thesis: The people of the Klondike persevere and prosper through adaptation and change.|
|The use of the first person in text as suggested when working with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.||Sorry, I cannot find a good photo of this!|
|Considering Indigenous Peoples as part of the past, present and future.||“The last sentence says, “Although society is changed, our connection to the land remains, our stewardship of this place continues.” That is very important. It is not placing this collection, this idea, this people in the past, but making sure it is current.” (Curator tour)|
In short, the Museum made a very deliberate attempt to address past limitations when designing their new exhibitions. Collaboration with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in was key to this change and denotes a different relationship between the Nation and Museum than seen in previous exhibition renewal attempts.
Over time, the Dawson City Museum has engaged in formal collaborations with the Dawson First Nation (primarily in the 1990s) then the self-governing Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. These collaborations have been short term and related to mutual goals at the initiative of either group. Examples of projects in the 1990s not discussed above include:
- The Museum collaborated with Dawson First Nation and the Yukon Historical and Museums Association on a conference about life on the River (Neufield 1995).
- The Dawson First Nation collaborated with the Museum in 1994/95 on a job training project, which gave the Museum staff that they trained to care for the Dawson First Nation papers (DCM Newsletter vol. 12 no. 1).
These collaborations signal the emergence of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Heritage Department and Cultural Center as an institutional actor within the Dawson City heritage community, starting in the 1990s and then becoming more established with the establishment of the self governing First Nation with its own heritage department in the 2000s.
As the Tr’ondek Hwech’in established its heritage branch and cultural center, it benefited from the presence of museum professionals in Dawson City due to the existence of the DCM just as the Museum had benefited from the presence of Parks Canada staff while professionalizing. For example, the Museum faced financial difficulties in 2002 and the Director laid himself off. He began working for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in doing background and policy work (e.g., drafting a collections policy, mission) for the new cultural center. He also worked on a successful funding application to the Federal Museums Assistance Program for exhibition development (personal communication).
Over time, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s heritage department has become an established institutional actor with staff and other resources of its own. As a result, the Museum now benefits from the presence of a (relatively) well-resourced heritage department and cultural center in Dawson. They continue to engage in formal collaborations, such as the partnerships with Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Parks Canada on a school program titled “Secret Life of Artifacts” that aimed to help students develop a better understanding of the role of heritage organizations (DCM Newsletter vol. 20 no. 1). Museum staff also have personal and professional relationships with Tr’ondek Hwech’in staff as part of a broader heritage community in Dawson City, which can enrich both institutions (interviews).
Since 2015, museum staff have engaged in a more deliberate effort to build relationships with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. Reflecting these efforts, the director of the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre spoke at the Dawson City Museum Annual General Meeting to congratulate the Museum staff on their work on building a better partnership with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre (DCM Minutes ADM July 4, 2017).
However, the limited direct involvement of individual Indigenous People in museum operations as staff or volunteers was noted in multiple interview. For example, there is a lack of representation on the Museum board. One participant recalled:
Typically, it was hard. I think there was an effort to get the local First Nation members to join the Museum board. Typically, it wasn’t very successful. People would join and then not attend. I think, maybe, it just didn’t seem relevant.Interview 9
Although the archival evidence shows instances of specific collaborations for staff training with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in at specific points of time, those working in the Museum are largely people who move to Dawson City from elsewhere. There is thus a lack of representation within the Museum staff as well.
Importantly, the relationships with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in or Indigenous Peoples broadly was not a deliberate focus of the Dawson City Museum Project research. It emerged as an issue of importance to those interviewed as they discussed the Museum’s relationships with both the community and government policy. In relationships with community, two institutional, government actors located in Dawson City emerged as most significant to the Museum’s development – that is, Parks Canada (from the 1970s to the early 2010s) and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (from the late 1990s to today). A significant research gap, which suggests the need for a separate research project, is on the effect of self governing First Nations with relatively well resourced cultural centers on community museums in Yukon broadly. These institutions have a strong advocacy position due to the mandate provided in the Yukon Final Agreement. As a result, they have shaped policy decisions, such as the decision to remove a standards requirement from funding in the 2010s, and seems to have strengthened the argument for increased funding to museums. Moreover, the Dawson City Museum case indicates that the presence of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in heritage department and cultural center within the local community has helped to (re)shape museum practices. There are interesting questions about what Yukon community museums have learnt and how they have changed since the 1990s with the development of these centers that model their own practices for heritage resource management. Funding for First Nations cultural centers to catch up and keep up to settler institutions has changed the museum landscape in Yukon.
Asch, Michael I. 2021. “Dene.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/dene
Council of Yukon First Nations. 2023. “Tr’ondek Hwech’in.” Accessed: https://cyfn.ca/nations/trondek-hwechin/
Lord Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc. with Lori Patterson Jackson and Linda R. Johnson. 1986. Yukon Museums Policy and System Plan. Volume One.
Neufield, David. 1995. “Life on the River: A Conference in Dawson City.” YHMA Newsletter.
McFadyen Clark, Annette. 2015. “Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (Han).” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/han
Porter, Dave. 1982. CYI Discussion Presentation. Yukon Historical and Museums Association Newsletter. 11: 22- 27.
Robinson, Sally. c. 1978a. Letter to Jeff Huston. 3b.3.143 Han exhibit correspondence 1978. Box 1. Dawson City Museum.
Robinson, Sally. 1978b. Report to the Dawson City Museum and Historical Society on the Athapaskan Exhibit for the Dawson Museum. Unpublished manuscript.
Snowalter, Mirian. 1975, October 31. “Dawson Museum Society Finds Escape from Hole.” Whitehorse Daily Star. p. 21.
Tr’ondëk Heritage. “Chief Isaac.” Accessed: http://trondekheritage.com/images/pdfs/chief_isaac_310303.pdf
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. 2015. About. Accessed: https://www.trondek.ca/about