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Gold in your 'backyard'. Yukon mining history from First Nation Elders' perspectives fresh from print

Have you heard of the Klondike Gold Rush? We guess you did. But how do First Nations in Canada experience mining on their traditional homelands today and how do they think about the past 100 years of mining in their ‘backyard’?

About half of the people who live in Mayo, a town of around 500 inhabitants in the Yukon Territory of Canada, are Indigenous and belong to the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun (Big River people). Together with the offspring of newcomers to the region, they contribute and participate in the mining economy of the region for over a century now.

The history of mining in the Yukon was often written from the perspective of ‘settler’ or ‘white’ mining proponents. But, how do First Nation Elders remember the history of mining and what do they think about what is going on their homelands today?

Upon request of the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun we set out to address this question. By means of sixteen qualitative expert interviews and many informal conversations we explored the perspectives of Nacho Nyäk Dun Elders. The outcome was a poster and a booklet called “Dän Húnáy – Our People’s Story”, beautifully illustrated with professional photographs of our study participants and local flora and fauna.

In the Yukon, mining for precious metals is taking place since more than a century. Based on the research we conducted in the town of Mayo, together with First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun citizen and community researcher Joella Hogan, we examine a different perspective on mining in Canada – namely the one by the original inhabitants themselves.

“Dän Húnáy – Our People’s Story” – Cover page of the second edition.

Mayo is a small town in the sub-Arctic. But the issues people are dealing with in their everyday lives are much larger – think of the global economy. For example, every time there is a global financial crisis, say in 2008 or during the COVID-19 pandemic, exploration for gold, silver and other precious metals explodes.

The population living in the Mayo area is dealing with and participating in these boom-and-bust cycles for more than a hundred years now. However, most financial benefits ultimately leave the region – historically leaving behind a legacy of environmental destruction too.

The Elders’ stories shed a nuanced light on mining and how it is impacting their personal and their community lives. Instead of highlighting discovery and making a lot of money fast, they tell how their lives have changed dramatically throughout the 20th century.

Most importantly, they emphasize how mining historically led to an increase in skilled workers, wage employment and other economic opportunities in the region.

Dän Húnáy – Our People’s Story” Presentation and signing ceremony with First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun Elders in Mayo, November 2019.

At the same time, it has led to environmental deterioration and still poses increased risks for the local environment and population. Climate change in particular brings with it new challenges, such as thawing permafrost soils on which new and old mining infrastructure is built.

Nowadays most First Nations in the Yukon have self-government and land claims agreements. These (and other) robust legal frameworks govern interactions with mining and exploration companies, entail consultation requirements and enable Impact Benefit Agreements between the parties.

In light of all these historic and potential future impacts: How would you feel about mining if it was taking place in YOUR backyard?

For more information on our research project go to: The project website or to the Heritage Department of the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun.

Media information

Written by the APRI-Media Team.
Contact: use our contact form.

Photos, when not stated otherwise: © Taylor Smith (Arrowsmith Productions)

About the scientific authors

Susanna Gartler and Gertrude Saxinger are members of the working group Social and Cultural System at the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI.

Download the book as PDF.