Updated: Apr 6, 2020
The Induction of Shaaw Tlaa.
Reprinted from Our Home magazine, Spring/Summer 1999In January 1999.
By Eileen Duchesne.
Archival photographs property of Yukon Tourism and Culture Government of Yukon.
Photographs and video by Agnieszka Pajor.
Four men — Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie, Robert Henderson and George Carmack — were inducted into the Canadian mining Hall of Fame. Their 1896 discovery of gold, at Robert Creek, set off the Klondike Gold Rush. Yukoners glowed with pride at this long-overdue event but some Yukon First Nation Elders felt the occasion was marred by the absence of the name “Kate Carmack”.History, as recorded by the non-native settlers of the Yukon, always recognizes the men in the discovery. There are those who say they know otherwise. The stories passed around by Yukon First Nations tell a tale that suggests it was Kate and not the man who made that fateful discovery.“I don’t want to take away from the men, they were there and history shows it. But Kate was there too and she worked right along with them,” says Olive Patrick, an elder and direct descendant of the Tagish Kwáan people.
We were always told us stories when we were kids and the stories about Skookum Jim, Patsy (Henderson), Tagish (Dawson) Charlie and Kate were stories that got shared often,” says Patrick.“I remember being told, more than once by the Elders, that Kate went down to the creek to get tea water and found the gold. The Elders said it was the size of a Silver-dollar”.The men deserve the prestigious honour given to them by the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. However, there are those who feel Kate deserves her spot as well.
Kate was born to a Tagish Dakl’aweidi (Wolf and Killer Whale) woman named Kaachgaawaa and a Tagish Deisheetaan (Crow) man named Gus’duteen. They gave her the name Shaaw Tláa. Kate had seven other siblings including her famous brother Keish (Skookum Jim). As a young girl, Shaaw Tláa and her family watched a steady stream of gold prospectors cross-over the Chilkoot Passand float down the lakes and rivers, that ran through their [traditional] territory. At the time, the Tlingit people, who lived on the coast, controlled much of the trade over the Chilkoot Pass. They strengthened their ties with other First Nations, including the Tagish, through arranged marriages to formalized trading partnerships. Shaaw Tláa’s first marriage to a Tlingit man was one such marriage.Kate was born to a Tagish Dakl’aweidi (Wolf and Killer Whale) woman named Kaachgaawaa and a Tagish Deisheetaan (Crow) man named Gus’duteen. They gave her the name Shaaw Tláa. Kate had seven other siblings including her famous brother Keish (Skookum Jim).
The couple had a daughter but the sanctity of family life was short-lived when they [their child and her then-husband] both died. According to Tagish custom Shaaw Tláa’s mother then insisted she married George Carmack, a Californian prospector who had been living with the Tagish people, packing goods on the Chilkoot Trail, with Shaaw Tláa’s brother Skookum Jim and nephew Dawson Charlie.George and Shaaw Tláa were married in a traditional ceremony, according to native custom and contract. It was not until this time that Shaaw Tláa became known as Kate.
In the summer of 1887, George and Kate both packed for William Ogilvie‘s Expedition and in the following year they said out on their own to prospect along the Yukon River. For the next five years they would prospect, trap and trade in the 40 Mile and Stewart River areas. With Kate’s traditional knowledge and bush skills, they were able to live off the land. Kate’s ability to sew and market her mukluks and mittens, to the miners, was a means to support George’s prospecting ventures and acquire their personal supplies.In January 1893, Kate gave birth to a daughter at a Trading Post near the mouth of the Big Salmon River. The couple named her Graphie Gracie. In the spring of 1896, George, Kate and Graphie set out down river.
By this time, Kate’s family became very concerned that they had not heard from her for a long time, so they sent Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie to make sure they were alright. Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie found them at a fishing site along the Klondike River. The group made their way to Rabbit Creek. It was here that Kate’s life changed dramatically.
There’s no evidence who found the gold on that summer day, in 1896. Kate’s attempt was unsuccessful. Completely unfamiliar with the American court system and lack of a legally recognized marriage, by non-native society, was her downfall. Saddened by the turn of events, Kate return to her homeland of Carcross.As if Kate had not suffered enough hardship, George enticed Graphie into making the move to Seattle, where he now was living with Marguerite. The absence of Graphie caused more sorrow for Kate. Heartbroken and destitute, Kate died in 1920 as a result of an influenza epidemic.
In many cases when one passes on, their story usually ends but in the case of Kate Carmack her mission was not complete and her legacy lived on.In or about 1923, George passed away, in Vancouver British Columbia, leaving an estate worth an estimated $180,000. Originally the estate was awarded to George’s second wife Margerete, who at the time lived in Olympia, Washington.Although Kate had passed on a relative wanted their record set straight talk. Graphie made application to the Washington state court to somehow have her mother and herself recognized in the estate. The Dawson News recorded her attempt: “Mrs. Saftig claimed the property (George Carmack’s estate) on the grounds that her mother had been married to Carmack by Indian Tribal Law, after she had saved him by nursing him through a severe illness in the wilderness.”The Washington state court ruled Carmacks’ first marriage is declared binding and the second marriage therefor illegal. As the sole surviving heir, Graphie was awarded the estate and the courts formally recognized her and her mother’s traditional marriage to George.In Carcross and throughout the Yukon, the women named Shaaw Tláa still lives on, through the memories of her people [and so many others].