The four Nantuck brothers are shackled in leg irons with a North West Mounted Police officer at Tagish, Yukon, in 1898, after they were arrested for shooting two prospectors, killing one of them. Dawson and Jim Nantuck were hanged in Dawson City in August 1899.

Distant relatives of the Nantuck brothers, two First Nations men who were hanged during the Klondike Gold Rush, say bones that might belong to their ancestors should have a proper burial.

Talk about the Nantuck brothers resurfaced last week after two sets of human bones uncovered at a Dawson City construction site — widely believed to be a secret burial ground for executed Gold Rush convicts — were identified as being those of First Nations men.

According to historical accounts, the only First Nations men who were executed in Dawson City during that time were Jim and Dawson Nantuck, who were hanged in August 1899 for shooting two prospectors on the McClintock River in southern Yukon, killing one of them.

Two other Nantuck brothers were also convicted in the shooting, but they died of tuberculosis in jail before they could be executed.

Richard Craft, a distant relative of the Nantucks, told CBC News that he has spoken to family members who believe the uncovered human remains should be brought back to them if they are confirmed as being those of the brothers.

"If they were family, they should have a proper burial, you know, and I totally agree with that," Craft, who is now almost 70 years old, said Friday.

But not everyone agrees that a proper burial is needed. Elder Ida Calmagen of the Carcross Tagish First Nation said ceremonies for the four Nantuck brothers would likely have been done around the time of their deaths.

"I don't know if it would be proper to do it," Calmagen said.

Avenging other deaths

Looking at an 1898 photograph of the Nantuck brothers, shackled in leg irons at the North West Mounted Police station in Tagish, Craft said they look similar to more recent members of his family.


Richard Craft, a distant relative, said Friday that the Nantuck brothers' stories and other aspects of First Nation history should be shared with Yukoners today. ((Leonard Linklater/CBC))

"These faces here, they all look kind of familiar to me," Craft said. "This fellow here, he almost looks like an uncle of mine that just passed away here in the last couple of years."

Craft said at the time of the shooting, the Nantuck brothers were avenging the deaths of two of their own people from an apparent poisoning incident that was blamed on Klondike prospectors.

The brothers' arrest, trial and conviction resulted in Jim and Dawson Nantuck being the first men to be executed in Yukon.

Up to 11 men were hanged in Dawson City during the Gold Rush, all for murder, but where they were buried was never mapped or marked, according to archeologists.

A third set of human remains recovered at the Dawson City construction site has been identified as belonging to an older Caucasian man. No other details about that man's identity have been determined yet.

A fourth set of remains has since been uncovered. Archeologists have been observing work at the construction site in case more human remains turn up.

Craft said students and newcomers to Yukon should be taught First Nation history, including the story of the Nantuck brothers.

"I consider these people here, these boys here, like warriors you know — First Nation warriors, Yukon warriors … just protecting their own, you know? So yeah, it should be told," he said.