North·Canada 150

I am Ta'an Kwä​ch'än: How a Yukon First Nation came back from the brink

The CBC's James Miller looks back at how his First Nation was almost lost to history.

The CBC's James Miller looks back at how his First Nation was almost lost to history

CBC reporter James Miller's father, James Sr., and aunt Mary spent their first few years at Lake Laberge before the family was uprooted and moved to Whitehorse. 'I would put it this way: I didn't make time to reconnect with my First Nation,' James Sr. recalled. (Submitted by James Miller Sr.)

This story is part of a series from CBC North looking at Canada 150 through the eyes of northern families.

Growing up, the history of my community was more than a bit murky. Bits and pieces trickled out over time.

As a member and citizen of Yukon's Ta'an Kwä​ch'än First Nation, and on the occasion of Canada 150, I wanted to look back into my own family and cultural history to learn more about my place moving forward as an Indigenous person, a Yukoner, and a Canadian.

What always compelled me was that our First Nation was almost lost to history. The fact that it wasn't is testament to the vision of a handful of individuals — including my father. 

I decided to go back to Lake Laberge, the heart of our traditional territory, and talk with some of the people who helped define my culture, and therefore my identity as a Ta'an citizen.

The Ta'an Kwäch'än take their name from Tàa'an Män — Lake Laberge. (Ta'an Kwach'an Council)

'We want something for our Indians'

The Ta'an Kwäch'än take their name from Tàa'an Män — Lake Laberge.

In 1900, at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, Chief Jim Boss (Kishxóot) recognized that a growing non-Indigenous population moving into the area threatened his people's land and hunting grounds. He petitioned the Commissioner of the Yukon, William Ogilvie, for a 1,600 acre reserve.

Chief Jim Boss (left) with Chief John Fraser of Champagne, in 1948. (Ta'an Kwach'an Council)

He was granted a fraction of that — just 320 acres. That wasn't good enough for Boss. 

"Tell the King very hard we want something for our Indians, because they take our land and our game," he famously wrote to Ottawa.

It was the first real attempt at land claims negotiations in the Yukon, and the only response was from police, saying they would protect Boss's people and their land.

A half century later, Chief Jim Boss died, and the Ta'an Kwä​ch'än was soon no longer recognized as an independent nation. Ottawa had decided there were too many Indian bands in the Yukon Territory and, for administrative purposes, joined six bands into three.

The old village sites

Glenn Grady, who would later be named hereditary chief of Ta'an Kwä​ch'än, was witness to it all.

He was born at a now-abandoned Ta'an village site on the southeastern shore of Laberge, and we recently took a tour of that site and others scattered along the lakeshore. Grady told me about the tumultuous changes that hit the community.

Glenn Grady, hereditary chief of the Ta'an Kwä​ch'än, at Lake Laberge. (James Miller/CBC)

"Ta'an was gone as soon as Mr. Chief Boss died in 1950 — that's when they brought in all the kids from all over and made the mission school [in Whitehorse] and things like that." 

The move away from Lake Laberge was something my father, James Miller Sr., and his family lived through as well. He, his three sisters, mother and father, along with an unknown number of others, were uprooted from the only homes they had ever known.

"I remember leaving when I was six years old and Mary, my sister, was eight. We were moving into Whitehorse to go to school," my father recalled, more than 70 years later.

"We were fortunate we didn't have to go to residential school because of my dad being white, and you know, we had the privilege of going to the public school here at the old Lambert street school." 

Remains of a Ta'an Kwä​ch'än village on the east side of Lake Laberge. (James Miller/CBC)

Ta'an elder Frances Woolsey tells a similar story — going to a church-run mission school was also out of the question for her and her siblings.

"We never went to residential school because my dad had legally married my mom and that was it — we lost our status. But we didn't know that then. 

"We were forever 'status white' — that's what they said, those days."

Ta'an Kwäch'än members were made part of the Whitehorse Indian Band, later to become the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Land granted to the First Nation as reserve territory was largely left unoccupied, including the former Ta'an village site at Lake Laberge.

"Yeah, they pretty well disbanded the community," said Grady.

"When I was growing up, everything was stolen and gone from there — it was basically abandoned, and it stayed that way for a long time, 'til we got together and my mom and my sisters and my aunt started the band over again."

A game-changing moment

As we toured the old village, a light drizzle began to pick up and Grady stopped a moment to think and recall the specifics of what happened next. 

'When I was growing up, everything was stolen and gone from there — it was basically abandoned, and it stayed that way for a long time,' said Glenn Grady. (James Miller/CBC)

He says he was making a good living working in the forestry industry in the 1970s when his family decided it was time to do something to protect the history of their people and realize the aspirations of Chief Boss, who wanted nothing more than a safe homeland for his people and his culture.

"What happened was the Kwanlin Dün had made some kind of a deal... they were planning to cut lines down and do some kind of mineral exploration on this area.

"And our people started getting upset that they were going to come too close to our graveyards and stuff like that," Grady said.

Grady said he then went to a meeting and tried to raise his concerns. Instead, he says, he was kicked out.

It was a game-changing moment, one that would alter the course of history for both Kwanlin Dün and Ta'an Kwä​ch'än.

"The people from Lake Laberge saw that they kicked me out of a meeting — and they started Ta'an."

Official recognition

For Frances Woolsey, it was an opportunity to reconnect with her own past.

Ta'an Kwä​ch'än elder Frances Woolsey (right), with former Ta'an Kwä​ch'än Council chief Ruth Massie. (Submitted by Frances Woolsey)

"Jim Miller and my brother and myself were always there to help whatever they had to do. And there was an assembly at Teslin and Irene Adamson went down there and she asked to join the [Council of Yukon First Nations] and be part of the organization and it was granted.

"She came home saying we could form our own Indian band. That was Glenn's auntie."

Official recognition of the Ta'an Kwä​ch'än Council (TKC) didn't come until the 1980s.

"We were ecstatic — we planned all sorts of celebrations and things like that, but we had to get money," Woolsey said.

Grady says money was tight for the first couple of years. The first $500 the TKC ever had was borrowed from an Anglican minister.

"I'll never forget that, because he told me, 'You're from a native band?' I said, 'Yeah'. He says, 'Man, it's the first time I've seen a native person with a briefcase'.

"And I said, 'Yeah, that's me.' He just looked at me and gave me $500."

Within a few years, a land claim and self government deal would be signed — an exclamation point of sorts, acknowledging a complete rebirth for the First Nation.

The traditional territory of the Ta'an Kwä​ch'än encompasses a vast area around Lake Laberge, including parts of Whitehorse. (CBC)

'We were here a long time'

But decades of disconnection left wounds that don't heal easily. For my father and myself, it began a long road of rediscovery.

"I would put it this way: I didn't make time to reconnect with my First Nation," my father recalled.

For people like James Miller Sr., once disconnected from his culture, community and land, it's a major achievement to be able to say, 'I am Ta'an Kwä​ch'än'. (James Miller/CBC)

"But when Glenn asked, I got to thinking that this was a way that I could probably contribute something to try and make our First Nation grow with the rest of the country, within the Yukon here.

"It hasn't been easy... every time you turn around, there's been another roadblock. It's been a constant struggle."

One way to face those political, financial and cultural struggles is by talking about history, and sharing it with younger generations, Grady says.

"You know, I think I'm about one of the last elders around that know about the village," he said.

The Ta'an Kwä​ch'än Council office in Whitehorse. (James Miller/CBC)

"It's very important for us to try and get the message across that, you know, we were here a long time — we just didn't come here, and we're going to be here a lot longer."

For people like my father, once disconnected from his culture, community and land, it's a major achievement to be able to say, "I am Ta'an Kwä​ch'än."

That legacy is then handed down to people like me, who have been trying to find our place as First Nations people in an ever-changing Yukon. Understanding and sharing our history gives hope, and identity, to people whose history was almost erased.

"We have to grow with the times and keep our history alive," my father said.

"Nobody loses history. Wherever you are, there is history. And I think it's a way of growing together."

About the Author

James Miller

Producer

James Miller is a CBC producer based in Yukon. He was born and raised in Whitehorse and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. You can find him on Twitter @CBCJSMiller