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First People, First Finds

First People, First Finds

Some of the North’s biggest “discoveries” weren’t discoveries at all
By Herb Mathisen
Nov 01
From the November 2015 Issue

History is rarely ever the whole story. Many of the mineral deposits that literally put towns on the map were long known to the people who already lived there. And the stories behind their origins may not be so black and white.

Klondike gold

The vision came to Skookum Jim Mason in a dream, and the details of the dream differ depending on who tells it: a frog turned into a man, who showed Skookum Jim a mountain and said a fortune was to be made there; or the frog was the Wealth Woman, a spirit-helper, who gave him a walking stick with a golden bottom, and pointed him in a direction where he could find more. Either way, on August 16, 1896, Skookum Jim, his nephew Tagish (later known as Dawson) Charlie and his brother-in-law George Carmack found gold at Rabbit Creek, known now as Bonanza Creek. No one knows for sure who first spotted the dime-sized gold nugget, but Carmack, the only white man in the party, registered the claim. According to Tagish First Nation stories, it was clearly Skookum Jim who saw it first.

Oil at Norman Wells, NWT

When oil was struck near present-day Norman Wells in 1920, it was big news. But it was no secret to the Sahtu Dene along the Mackenzie River. Oil seeped out of the riverbanks there and Alexander Mackenzie recorded observations in his journal of Dene using oil-laden tar to waterproof their canoes in 1789. Tar was even commoditized throughout the trading posts along the big river. In 1911, J.K. Cornwall of the Northern Trading Company noticed an oil slick on the river and hired a Dene guide—Karkassee—to find the source. He did. The sample he returned was analyzed and it was confirmed to be high-quality crude oil. Claims were staked, Big Oil took interest, drills were dispatched and, soon, oil was being pumped out of the ground below Norman Wells.

Gold in Yellowknife

In 1898, E.A. Blakeney found gold around the Yellowknife River. A little more than three decades later, it was a full-on boom. Johnny Baker, whose Burwash Point discovery begat Yellowknife’s first mine, is most often associated with the beginnings of Yellowknife as a community. But could his name—like the mine—have faded into obscurity had it not been for Dene elder Liza Crookedhand? According to Weledeh Yellowknives Dene history, a prospector noticed a large gold-bearing rock at her camp. The prospector gave Crookedhand a stovepipe in exchange for the rock—and for details about where she got it. Crookedhand had been picking blueberries with two other women on the northwest shores of Weledeh-cheh (Yellowknife Bay)—an area that would later became the site of Giant mine.

Uranium at Port Radium, NWT

Dene stories warned to stay away from an area on eastern Great Bear Lake and its rocks that made loud noises. It is said a medicine man travelling through this place woke from a dream and shared with the rest of the group his prophetic vision: men walking into the ground and coming out with rocks; a giant bird carrying a stick that was dropped on a land faraway, burning its people who looked like Dene but were not.

The prophecy played out many years later—it’s possible that uranium mined from the Eldorado Mine at Port Radium was used in the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—or at least in the Manhattan Project. And it gets worse. The mine was responsible for the early cancer deaths of many Dene men who hauled bags of pitchblende (containing uranium) with no protection and no knowledge of the dangers, as well as the miners who dug out the rock.

The mine has an ignominious legacy. So too might its origins. Charlie Neyelle told Up Here editor Tim Edwards the story of an old man, Beyonnie, who used to traverse the area often and brought back “a strange rock, a nice-looking rock.” Contradicting the official history of Gilbert Labine’s find, the story goes that a prospector paid Beyonnie to take him to the source of the rock. Beyonnie got 100 pounds of flour and a can of lard for, what was then, the world’s largest uranium deposit.

Iron ore on Baffin Island

No, Inuit didn’t know Nuluujaat (“looks like buttocks” in Inuktitut) contains hundreds of millions of tonnes of iron ore—the sought-after mineral used in steel production. But it certainly did stand out. The mountain landmarks—mountains that, well, look like buttocks—have been used as a landmark by Inuit travelling north Baffin Island for generations. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it was pinpointed as ground zero of what’s now Baffinland’s Mary River iron ore mine.