Looking back on the 125th anniversary of the gold find that sparked the Klondike Gold Rush, Zena McLean wants people to reflect on the contributions of Tlingit woman Kate Carmack (Shaaw Tláa) to this defining event in Yukon and Canadian history.
McLean is a descendant of Kate’s, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and an Interpretation Coordinator for Parks Canada. McLean is passionate about sharing her family stories and their connections to Yukon history.
In August 1896, Kate was part of the prospecting party that pulled enough gold from Rabbit Creek, later renamed Bonanza, to cause nearly every miner in the surrounding area to converge on the Klondike River watershed.
When news of the gold strike reached the outside world the following year, tens of thousands of stampeders set off for these Indigenous lands, indelibly impacting peoples and places along the way.
The “Discovery Claim” was officially registered to Kate’s husband, American George Carmack, with nearby claims staked by her brother, Keish (Skookum Jim Mason) and her nephew, Káa Goox (Dawson Charlie). For more than 120 years, Kate was largely unrecognized for her role in making that find possible.
“Kate is what kept them alive. Kate is what kept George alive,” says McLean. “She was what held that party together. I always call her the executive secretary of her time. She was what kept things running.”
While there are family stories that it was in fact Kate who pulled the discovery claim gold from the creek, more important for the success of the group were her skills and knowledge of the land that she learned growing up within the traditions of strong Tagish and Tlingit women.
Most likely born around 1867, she was given the name Shaaw Tláa. Her mother was Dak`laweidí (Killer Whale Clan, Wolf Moiety) and her father was a Deisheetaan Chief (Beaver Clan, Crow Moiety). In her early life, Shaaw Tláa would have moved with her family following the seasons, learning to be a steward of the land, to hunt, fish, trap, sew and harvest plants for food and medicine in the area around the lakes now known as Bennett, Marsh, Tagish and Nares.
Shaaw Tláa’s first husband was the son of a Chilkat chief, who died of influenza along with their infant daughter while living in a village on the Alaskan coast. Returning to her family following this loss, Shaaw Tláa would eventually meet George Carmack.
“As far as we know, George was a scallywag … I would describe him as a rolling stone … he just lurched from one occupation to the next.” says McLean. “Skookum Jim Mason literally found this man starving on the beaches of Bennett.”
It was in keeping with their family values that widowed Shaaw Tláa would come to marry George. “Our family tradition is no one is left alone,” explains McLean. It was George that renamed her Kate due to his difficulty with pronouncing her Indigenous name.
Following her new husband’s rambling ways, Kate worked her way across the region — packing over the Chilkoot Pass, trading furs, hunting and trapping, running a trading post, and placer mining — eventually landing in the Klondike.
During the unforgiving winters, Kate’s sewing both kept her family warm and provided valuable income from selling mittens and mukluks to other miners. Over the seasons, she also harvested game and fish, berries and medicine, cooked and kept the household functioning.
In 2019, Kate Carmack was formally recognized as one of the Klondike Discoverers with her induction into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, 20 years after the men of the group received the same distinction. McLean accepted the honour on Kate’s behalf at a ceremony in Toronto.
“She’s the first Indigenous woman [inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame], so that’s very important,” says McLean. “I think she was a very strong person. I think she knew her own mind. I truly believe she believed she was equal to any man.”
To learn more about Kate Carmack and the discovery of gold in the Klondike:
Discovery Claim National Historic Site, Parks Canada (website): https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/yt/klondike/culture/lhn-hns-disc.
Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack), National Park Service (website): https://www.nps.gov/people/kate-carmack.htm.
Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold (book) by Deb Vanasse https://debvanasse.com/wealth-woman/.