A look at life on the edge--of Canada.
Such is life in the town of Beaver Creek, Yukon, located at kilometre 1,934 (historical mile 1202) of the Alaska Highway. It's Canada's westernmost community, the last stop before the Alaska border. If you're just passing through, it's likely you'll write the place off as just a couple of motels, restaurants and gas stations. But hang around a while and you'll get an idea of what Yukon poet Robert W. Service meant when he wrote, "There are strange things done in the midnight sun."
It's a truly beautiful place, with an incredible cast of characters, but it gets a little cool in the wintertime in these parts. Actually, it's the kind of cold that makes mere survival a genuine challenge. The airstrip at Snag, 25 km to the east, is where the lowest ever temperature measured in North America was recorded on Feb. 3, 1947. That day, it got down to minus 66 C (minus 86.8 F).
But the people are warm enough to balance things out.
"You could hear people splitting wood for miles that day," Dora Eikland, a member of the Up North Aboriginal Women's Group. The group invited Windspeaker to attend its quilting session at the band office.
"Spit would just freeze," added band councillor and Up North member Angela Demit.
It's all part of life in this part of the world. Fifty-eight of the 85 hearty souls who live in the town of Beaver Creek belong to the White River First Nation (WRFN) and are either Upper Tanana or Northern Tutchone peoples. The others are territorial government workers, Canada Customs officers and others whose livelihoods bring them to this border town some six hours northwest of Whitehorse, the territorial capital.
There are no reserves in the Yukon, but the territory's 14 First Nations have land set aside (LSA) for them, although the 11 communities that signed the Yukon umbrella final self-government agreement gave up their LSA. Without the racial separation required by the Indian Act, the Beaver Creek community has naturally settled into a mostly peaceful co-existence of Native and non-Native people, with a White River side and a non-Native side, although WRFN people do note that none of their members work in territorial government jobs in the region.
The only thing close to a municipal government in the area is the band council, Chief David Johnny and his four councillors. They preside over a neat, peaceful community with a covered outdoor seasonal swimming pool and a two-sheet curling rink.
WRFN is only 16 years old. For almost 30 years, after a local Indian agent presented some signatures on a document in 1965 that are still considered suspect by many of the First Nation citizens, the people who now live at Beaver Creek were amalgamated with the people of the Kluane First Nation, located near Destruction Bay, a couple of hours of very bumpy driving to the southeast.
Many of the people who built Beaver Creek with their own hands are still living in the region. Charles Eikland, Sr. remembers the construction of the Alaska Highway, which was completed in 1943. He remembers that the Japanese had attacked the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska and the U.S. army built the highway to link a string of airports in the north.
The U.S. government wanted the highway to serve as a service road for its Lend-Lease program. During Lend-Lease, millions of dollars worth of military equipment and supplies were flown over the polar ice cap to the Soviet Union to aid in the fight against Nazi Germany and its allies.
Eikland was chief of the Kluane Tribal Council shortly before White River separated in 1991 and he served as acting chief of the new WRFN during its early days in the mid-1990s. He runs his own business now, doing everything from clearing land with a bulldozer to welding to towing.
"There was no road when I was born up here," he said. "In 1940, there were only five white people in the White River area." When WRFN separated from Kluane, he and his family moved to Beaver Creek.
"There was only one house there in 1991. We built five houses. And we built the streets, too. We had to start from scratch," he said.
When it's a 12-hour round trip to get groceries and the temperatures can get down to minus 60 C, you learn to plan ahead and not fly by the seat of your pants. Like most of the people in the region, Eikland has a rugged, hard-nosed sense of self-reliance.
Jimmy Enoch and his wife Lena are getting on in years now but still live together in a house not far from the WRFN band office. Jimmy Enoch was chief at the time of the amalgamation. When Windspeaker dropped in for a visit on March 27, the former chief was reading over some mail about a meeting of former students at the St. Paul's residential school in Dawson City, a place he quit at the end of Grade 7. The meeting was to explain the opting-in process for the Indian residential school compensation agreement. He recalled a time when he and 13 other Yukon chiefs traveled to Ottawa for a meeting related to land claims in the 1960s.
"We had a heck of a time," he said. "We were not used to the city."
Robert Service probably never met Sid Vander Meer, a Dane by birth and an original Beaver Creeker, but he's the kind of character that populates the poet's creations.
His home is stuffed with collectibles and he plans to one day open a museum. A mechanic of renown in the region, his front and back yards are filled with old wrecks waiting their turn to be restored in his three-car heated garage. And legend has it that Vander Meer jumped into his Piper Cub JB airplane to fly the 740 km round trip to Whitehorse and back so he could surprise his wife after she admitted to having a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Two of Vander Meer's children are on the band council and his son Sid, Jr. is the band's executive director.
Vander Meer's first wife--the mother of Sid, Jr. and the two councillors--is Marilyn Sanford. She is the exact opposite of shy. A cheerful, friendly woman with a twinkle in her eye, she warms you up the moment you enter her neatly decorated home.
The John Wayne memorabilia that is everywhere in the house is a little disconcerting in a First Nation community but Sanford seems to enjoy the irony of it all.
"I love John Wayne," she proclaimed without shame when questioned. "I used to have one of those life-size cardboard cutouts of him but Sherman looked like he was getting ready to shoot him, so I got rid of it."
Sherman Thomas, her husband today, earned nine medals in Vietnam, making him one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers in that conflict.
"He was trying to catch Audie Murphy," his wife said proudly.
Murphy was the most decorated U.S. soldier of the Second World War. He received the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for courage under fire.
He later went on to have a successful movie career, starring in the silver screen version of his 1949 war memoir, To Hell and Back.
On Nov. 6, just across the border in Northway, Alaska, the deputy commander of U.S. Army Alaska, Col. Robert Ball, held a ceremony honouring the Silver Star recipient. Medals he'd earned during the war had been lost and the ceremony was held to restore them.
Thomas is a man of few words, especially when he's talking about his wartime exploits. All he did was go back from a safe position, under enemy fire, to retrieve a comrade who'd been shot and carry him the length of a football field to a waiting helicopter. That got him the Silver Star, the army's third highest award for valor.
Now 62 years old, Thomas seems almost uncomfortable talking about that remarkable feat.
"You don't think twice. You just do what needs to be done," he said, when asked about that day.
"He was the sergeant. He had to save his men," his wife adds.
People in the community say Thomas is a phenomenal sharpshooter and one of White River's best hunters.
Life in a very small community can produce some startling developments from time to time. Sid Vander Meer, Jr., Sanford's son, is the band's executive director.
"He fired me twice and I'm his mother," she said, laughing. "And he told me, 'Mom, it won't be hard to fire you a third time.'"
Tommy Johnny, the chief's half-brother, is another one of those unforgettable characters. Chief Johnny refers to him as "the last bush Indian." He lives in the 30 km wide no man's land between the U.S. and Canada Customs stops along the Canada/Alaska border. It's not part of the land set aside for WRFN, but the people know it's part of their traditional territory. His half-brother says Tommy's a "keeper of the land" for the Northern Tutchone people. He lives alone in the bush and has done so for most of his 70 plus years.
Tommy Johnny refused repeated requests by Windspeaker to allow his photograph to be taken. He looks a bit like Cree NHL hockey legend Fred Sasakamoose, and, thanks to a lifetime of chopping firewood daily and roaming the traplines in rugged country, has the same strong, stocky build of a former athlete.
"I was born here and I live here. It's my land, not the government's land. The government never did nothing for me," he said when asked if anyone had ever challenged his presence in the no man's land.
Chief Johnny said there was never any reason for any government official to make trouble for his half-brother.
"He lived here his whole life. He was never on SA (social assistance) or anything. He's an Elder and DIA never built a house for him. He built his own house. He never asked for help," the chief said.
The Elder doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
"It's nothing special. I cut wood all winter. I've got something to do every day. We've been here for thousands of years, my parents, my grandpa, my great-grandpa. I know back 300 years," he said. "I'd rather live like this. It's better than town; it's too expensive. And you get better health, too. You can eat whatever you want to eat. It's a better life. Out here you can do whatever you want but in town it's different.
"You lose contact with the land. In Whitehorse, the only thing you can do is go downtown and bum around. Here, you've got a lot of things to do."
Someone who lives that close to the land seemed like the perfect person to ask about global warming. He has noticed the climate getting warmer over the last couple of years.
"Two, three years ago the weather wasn't very good. The snow wasn't here. You couldn't even skidoo. There was no way to trap. It was like that for three or four years. You could walk without snowshoes," he said. "I don't have snowshoes. I threw them away. But right now it's just perfect and you need snowshoes. But I threw them away. I just walked around."
His brother goes out to visit regularly, as do many people from Beaver Creek. And Tommy Johnny is well briefed by the chief about the political situation facing his people as the Alaska, Yukon and Canadian governments push for the Alaska Highway pipeline. He's ready to do what it takes to ensure his people's land rights are respected. If the companies and the governments think they can walk over top of the WRFN people, they might want to think again, he said.
"It's not going to be that easy. It's my land, too, you know. We're not going to sit and watch. Would you?" he asked.
By Paul Barnsley
Windspeaker Staff Writer
BEAVER CREEK, Yukon
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|Title Annotation:||aboriginal life in Beaver Creek, Yukon|
|Date:||May 1, 2007|
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