It is a well-known piece of Yukon history: when gold fever rolled through the Klondike area in the 1890s, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in leader Chief Isaac made a bold decision that would change the fate of his people.
As gold-hungry adventurers swarmed into what became Dawson City, Chief Isaac moved his people three miles downriver to Moosehide in an effort to preserve their culture.
A quote from one of Chief Isaac’s children shares the chief’s reasoning: “My Dad saw that they’d get civilized with that gold rush and was afraid that his people would learn bad habits from the white people, drinking and trouble like that.”
Today, more than a century later, the elegant profile of Chief Isaac has been recreated in a clay bust by Whitehorse sculptor Harreson Tanner. Like his subject, Tanner is consciously working towards preserving history.
“It’s fascinating that this part of culture is still around today because of the decisions [Chief Isaac] made,” Tanner shares.
Likewise, it is fascinating to encounter an artist who uses his gift to ensure history is honoured.
If you’ve walked down Main Street and met eyes with a bronze Jack London, you’ve encountered Tanner’s art. The bronze statues of well-known Gwitchin Elders Annie and Joe Henry that preside over the Dempster Highway are also his work.
Tanner has developed a reputation for canonizing prominent historical figures – a unique niche that requires both artistic skill and an appreciation for local history.
Tanner conveys both when he speaks about his work on Chief Isaac’s bust.
“It’s an honour to be asked to do it,” he says of the commissions that have led to his portrayals of northern icons.
He describes the process – researching, poring over photographs and historical accounts, and listening to the stories of Chief Isaac’s remaining relatives – all this before even touching the clay.
By the time he sits down to sculpt, Tanner has immersed himself in as much knowledge as he can about his subject, with the result that he feels “inorexably connected” to them.
Tanner speaks of creating Chief Isaac’s bust as a sort of communion with the man himself. During his first attempt to shape the chief from clay, a struggle for the right conditions left Tanner frustrated enough that it almost never came to fruition.
“I was prepared to walk away,” he says.
Intuition led him to leave the project, reflect on it and come back. When he did, the piece was completed in an hour and a half.
“[Chief Isaac] tested me and tested me and finally gave me permission,” Tanner surmises.
Tanner’s research led him to feel that Chief Isaac was an elegant man who exuded an elder’s wisdom even in his youth.
Best known for the courage and insight it took to foresee that Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in society was at risk during the gold rush years, Chief Isaac not only moved his people to safer ground, he also entrusted many of their traditional songs and dances – the stuff of their culture – to the Alaskan people for safe keeping.
These decisions are looked upon as one of the reasons the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in culture survives to this day.
To capture these qualities of intuitive wisdom and courage, Tanner went beyond photographs and personal descriptions. Before he can render a subject in clay, he explains, he has to “get a really good sense of the soul of the person.”
This alone is no small feat, and with such a widely known and celebrated man, there is also pressure to create a genuine likeness.
“Chief Isaac is powerful still. He impacted a lot of people,” Tanner says, “…and he’s everywhere.”
Indeed, because of the lasting impact of his leadership, images of Chief Isaac populate many northern cultural centres and history books.
Considering the chief’s part in preserving his people’s culture, it is fitting that he is now cast in clay – a long-lasting medium that exudes the permanence and strength of its subject.
Tanner’s bust of Chief Isaac will be on display at Yukon Artists at Work in Whitehorse until November 30, before travelling to its permanent home at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City.