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Video Review:
Keish: Skookum Jim, A Man Standing in Two Worlds

Reviewed by Murray Lundberg


Dateline: May 7, 1999

        Those of you who know the story of the discovery of gold in the Klondike will recognize the name Skookum Jim. Few people, however know anything about him other than the fact that he was one of the discoverers. Keish: Skookum Jim, A Man Standing in Two Worlds now provides an excellent look at the first Yukon Indian to become a success in the white man's world.

        Skookum Jim was named Keish by his parents, and Skookum Jim Mason by white men. "Skookum" means "strong" in the West Coast trading language called Chinook, and "Mason" was added by a Mr. Mason who was trading at the village of Tagish, where Jim spent much time.

        Through vintage film, and interviews with First Nation elders which have been conducted over the past 20 years or so, a well-rounded picture of Keish emerges. He appears to have been at ease in both the traditional world of the Tagish people and that of the white man, and was able to successfully combine the best of both worlds to help his family, and ultimately his people.

        Some aspects of the white man's world remained foreign to Keish. Although he was successful, he is described as a poor businessman who got defrauded out of huge sums of money. Despite that, he thoroughly enjoyed watching the greed of white men for gold, and would throw nuggets out of the window of his hotel room when he was in Seattle, just to watch the near-riot that would erupt on the street below.

        It would be easy to say that his presence on Rabbit Creek in 1896, when he, Tagish Charlie and George Carmack discovered gold, was just luck. The fact that he had previously shown Captain William Moore through the pass that is now the main entry to the Yukon from the coast, and went on to discover the gold that started the Kluane gold rush in 1905, proves that it was much more than luck, though. Keish travelled extensively, and was able to use his intimate knowledge of the country to his advantage when he realized what was valuable to the newcomers.

        The interviews of Native elders in this video provide a glimpse at a source of historical knowledge that few people know exists. Thousands of hours of video and audio interviews have been conducted, and this sampling proves the value of the projects. Among the people whose interviews are used in this production are Angela Sidney, Johnnie Johns, Patsy Henderson, Daisy Smith, Lucy Wren, Clara Schinkel and Edie Bohmer. As well as providing personal memories of meeting Keish, subjects such as the white man's names given to Indians with no consideration for family groups are discussed.

        Several of Keish's relatives were involved in the Klondike gold rush, and their lives are also covered. Keish's daughter Daisy Mason, Kate Carmack and her daughter Graphie, Tagish Charlie (later renamed Dawson Charlie) and Patsy Henderson all lived well for short periods as a result of the gold discovery, but except for Henderson, had difficult lives for the most part. This video avoids the temptation of over-emphasizing those difficulties, and comes across as a well-researched and balanced account.

        Most of the beautifully-decorated items of ceremonial clothing worn by Keish in potlach ceremonies are still owned by family members, and seeing them brought out and described with obvious great pride emphasizes the esteem in which Keish is held today.

        Mysteries are very much a part of Yukon history, and the possible murder of Dawson Charlie, and the ghost that inhabits the 3rd floor of his Caribou Hotel in Carcross (the hotel was still in operation when the film was made) add colour to the video.

        When Keish died on July 11, 1916, he left a trust fund to be used for the benefit of Yukon Indian people. That money was finally used in the 1970s to build the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse. The film closes by describing this modern facility, which stands as a tribute to the life of Keish.



Keish: A Man Standing in Two Worlds Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon'
Producer: Delores Smith
Released May 1999
52 minutes
$29.95 Canadian
Produced by:
      Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon
      4228 A - 4th Avenue,
      Whitehorse, YT Y1A 1K1

Available only through the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre.

Notes:
     

  • Keish is pronounced "Kaysh"
         
  • the term "First Nation" is a term often used in place of "Indian" in the Yukon today.


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