Colonization is easier if you have a road...
The Alaska Highway, the greatest road ever built…but wait is it really? Whose story is that, whose voices do we hear when that story is told? And whose voices are left out of that story? And at what cost?
Our trip has brought us to Whitehorse in the Yukon. We are so lucky to be traveling through the Yukon. It is without doubt, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is a mixture of so many different landscapes. The trees are small, which allow for you to see so many breath-taking views. We also stopped at Carcross where there is a small desert left here from the last ice age. The Indigenous people of this land have been here for 11000 years. When we crossed the provincial line, I looked up some of the Indigenous communities in the Yukon and found out that almost all of the communities were self-governing communities. This means they are not suffocated and oppressed under the Indian act any longer. These communities have the power and ability to care for their members and their land in the way they see fit. Since 1993, 11 of Yukon’s 14 First Nations have had land-claims and self-government agreements, accounting for almost half of such agreements in Canada. This is amazing. I am curious to know what we can learn from this as a country? But that will be for another post.
When we were in Whitehorse we took in many sites, one of them was the Transportation Museum. Knowing before I even stepped into the museum, this would be the perspective of the settler’s worldview. I was struck by what brought the settlers here and how they even survived this place. There were photos of settlers coming in the winter with massive amounts of provisions that they dragged through the mountains on sleds or by foot, in hopes to find some gold. Some would get to the river just as it froze over for the winter and then had to wait until the spring for it to thaw to travel. What a huge amount of patience and stupidity they had. Clearly from the pictures the settlers were not equipped or knowledgeable about the land and how to survive on this land.
Since before 1889, the Indigenous people of the Yukon lived a nomadic lifestyle, they followed the food and the seasons. The life on this land was hard but they learned how to live off the land and sustain their way of life for 11,000 years. When the gold rush hit, this land became populated with settlers hoping to get rich quick. Indigenous people were the ones to support the settlers in their searches as guides and teachers of how to survive on the land. This also was the time when the fur trade dried up. Once the gold rush dried up, the majority of the settlers went back to where they came from and the Indigenous people went back to their way of life way up here in the north.
It wasn’t until WW2 that things drastically changed for the Indigenous people of the Yukon. The Americans were terrified that the Japanese would attack them from the north so they believed that they needed a road to get to the north to protect “their” land. The Alaska Highway was then commissioned to be built using the army to build it. I found out a lot of really interesting information about this period of time. There is a book written about the 3 regiments that were all black soldiers. The racism they faced while building the road must have been even harder than building a road in this vast wilderness. They were not allowed to eat and sleep with the white regiments. They had to build cabins for white soldiers, while they were only allowed to sleep in tents in minus 40 weather. They were not allowed in the hotels or restaurants. They were also never photo graphed in any of the promotional materials shared about the great highway construction project. The book is called “We fought the road” Written by historians Christine and Dennis McClure. If you are interested in learning more about this.
When the highway was constructed, there was never a point in this plan to connect with the Indigenous communities to get permission to build a highway through their territories. It was just an onslaught of over 12,000 American soldiers that came to plow through the land. The goal was to build it as fast as possible. They sent out survey crews with Indigenous guides, then sent in the bulldozers that tore down anything in their way, the path they carved out of the landscape was 50 to 90 feet across. Then the road building crew came to build the road. The terrain was so difficult to navigate that once crews finished areas they were working on, they left their things behind, that included trucks, barrel cans, and all other things they did not want to bring back to where they were going. Still to this day you can see them lining the road, 80 years later. This is a picture of one that we saw.
The displacement of the trees, the flora, fauna, animals and people impacted this place greatly. It altered migration patterns of the animals, it killed off trees and flora of the areas, it also killed off 50% of the Indigenous people that lived here from the diseases that the military brought with it. They brought influenza, whooping cough, dysentery, and Tuberculosis. These diseases created a pandemic among the Indigenous people of the area and killed 50% of the population. The Indigenous people did not do the labour of building the road, they did guide the settlers through the land using their walking trails and dog sled trails as a guide to where the road would be placed. The Indigenous women were hired to cook and do laundry for the army men that had man camps all along the way of the new highway. In these camps the men used animals as target practice which drastically impacted the food source of the Indigenous people.
The lives of the Indigenous people were never the same after the highway was built. As our tour guide told us in the transportation museum, colonization was much easier when you had a road. This road allowed for the transportation of Indigenous children to the places the government called schools, the residential schools. This accessibility of transport, made it so much easier for the government to steal children from their home communities to assimilate them in the governmental institutions that they called schools.
In the settler American/Canadian eyes, this looked like the greatest highway ever built as told to us in the museum. It was built in under 2 years over this vast wilderness. But through an Indigenous lens, this highway decimated the way of life for the first peoples of this land. It changed the land scape for the animals, trees, flora and fauna. It killed off the Indigenous population and it stole their children. Colonization is much easier when you have a road. Whose lens you use to look at things matters. How you talk about this place matters. Like what I talked about in my Barkerville post, we need the stories of all who have been here to fully understand how we are here today. Connecting this to how we teach in our classrooms comes back to whose perspective are we using when we learn about the history of this land? If we were only to hear the settlers’ stories, like we did in the museum, then we would only know their struggle and accomplishments. Digging deeper and looking at the bigger picture of the land and people of the land we can hear other stories. But this takes research, time, and our own work to understand the bigger picture. As educators this is our job. Making sure all of the voices are heard so that the story of this place is from all perspectives.
My questions I leave you with today, is it really the greatest road ever built? What was the cost of it being built? How can we make sure as educators that we include the Indigenous voice in all we do?