By Briana Campbell
122 years ago, thousands came flooding into Skagway, Alaska; home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park or as it was known then the “gateway to the Klondike”. They came with hope in their hearts and their eyes on gold. Though few found the gold they came for, many left with a new perspective. Who are those we place on a pedestal, today more than ever? The likes of Jack London and John Muir just to start. But there were so many more who came, whose stories have slipped through the hodge-podge of history. Who were they? To start, the Tlingit who use this land long before Euro-American settlers arrived. But next to them were the women of the gold rush: have you heard of Harriet Pullen, Ethel Berry, or Martha Purdy? What about the intersection of both these identities? Indigenous women’s present matters. What becomes of a people who depend on the women to pass down their culture? Does it begin to die when the women are “married” off to stampeders and have to assimilate to western customs? The Tlingit’s culture is tied up in their language and so when the people must conform to the Euro-American languages part of who they are begins to be lost. But we do what we have to survive or what we think is best for us with the information available to us at the time. Did the stampeders of the Klondike Gold Rush know the setbacks and hardships ahead of them? Did they have a gut feeling that they wouldn’t find what they were looking for? Or did they place hope in a new location, a change of scenery.
Much like those who came to Alaska in the Klondike Gold Rush, the people who come today are searching for hope, a change of pace, and room for growth. I came to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park with hopes of doing some self-exploration of what I need and wanted out of both my life and career. I didn’t know which direction I was going in: did I want to pursue higher education in the field of archaeology, practice stewardship in some capacity, or change the direction of my education all together? I felt lost, in more ways than one: I feel out of place at Lake Forest College, the work I was doing was rewarding but the upper levels of the department were forcing a hand that seem to tactfully demoralize their employees, and somehow lost track of who I am. I came because it seemed like the perfect escape into a topic, I hold close to my heart: the untold stories of women and how they gained their rights in the rigidity of 19th century society. At the time I was still a little weary. Could I really come to the most visited national park in Alaska and find my footing? Would it make me feel even more lost?
By some miracle I think I’ve found a couple bits of myself over in my brief period here, only 162 hours. I cherish autonomy and thinking through what reservations I have: am I really scared of bears, moose, and wolverines or the lack of control they represent? Am I looking toward my future or trying to escape the past? There aren’t clear answers and they shift with each new piece of perspective I gather. So, yes, maybe I’m trying to escape the hopelessness that I felt at Lake Forest College. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m starting to map out my future. It turns out that I’ve found a passion for the Junior Ranger Program (Children’s education) and interpretation for the public. Here I felt a tangible connection to both activities. While some people may view the JRAC (Junior Ranger Activity Center) as exhausting, I find it refreshing, albet a challenge. Some children refuse to interact until you make them comfortable. What makes them comfortable? Well, it is different for each one but that is part of the fun. During Flag day (June 14), I was working with one of the park rangers, Stephanie. It was busy: kids spilling out of the JRAC throwing sand and pouring dried beans all over. Yet in this chaos there were moments for teaching. Stephanie is a pro. Amongst all these children, there she is calmly conversing with a child and allowing them to feel special. Letting them show off all they have learned today and inserting their past experiences. What impact does this have on the child? Will they have felt listened to in that moment, when everything in this town seems to be geared toward their parents? Will they look forward to learning and thinking through history instead of accepting it at face value? Only time will tell.
Like most things working in the JRAC seems to get better as time passes and I learn to navigate the challenges of interpreting to children. Many of the children don’t want to have a conversation about the whole activity so on slow days I try to coax bits of themselves out at each individual station so that our final conversation is a little more lax, allowing their coiled nerves to unwind a bit. It’s easy to forget that children are people and share the same reservations we do. Do you want to put yourself on the line and be judged for the way you articulate yourself and your rhetoric from a stranger? I mean, that is basically what I do every day, but it is alien to children. We ask them to not speak with strangers and to know their place, which seems to be quiet and well behaved away from conversations. But what happens when you center the experience around children? They begin to come into their own. They feel like they may have a chance for their ideas to change the world.
My favorite Junior Ranger ceremony I performed was on Flag day for a girl about 10 years old. She was rather meek when she walked into the JRAC taking everything in, this was a whole new world where her experience was centered. Is that something we are moving toward? Of course, but only in certain settings, like playgrounds and areas designated for children. The park should serve all not just the main demographic of the cruise ships: an aging population who want to know about gold (and have their hearts broken when they discover gold was found a mere 500 miles away in Dawson). But kids deserve to engage with the park, they deserve to be a priority in its offerings. They are the future and their perception now can impact the cultural significance of parks in the future. Olivia, the little girl I wore in, allowed me to see the power offerings like the Junior Ranger program have in our lives. She came in unsure of me, and my beaver puppet, Rupert. Every interaction we had she gained her footing; she pulled a little bit more of herself out and offered it up to the world. By the end she knew her opinion was valued, by the end she felt like she could say what she meant and not what was expected from her. She came in unsure but walked out with confidence in herself, not just from a badge but from persevering through the unknown. Did she know what heritage, perseverance, entrepreneur, bravery, and luck were? Yes, but knowing them isn’t the purpose of this activity. The purpose is to show people that their thoughts and opinions matter, that they have a place in the world.
Maybe I’ve placed too much value in these interactions, maybe they aren’t changing the experiences of our younger demographic, maybe they’re just a way to get a free souvenir. Or these experiences are teaching young people to value themselves, they are letting the invisible feel seen for a change. Did the women of the Gold Rush come here in 1897 to feel seen, to have their voices heard? Was this happening de jure back in ’97 or was it felt de facto in 1913, when women (read white women) were given the right to vote? Was it later when indigenous women were given the right to vote in 1915 (only if they gave up their culture and community)? Or even in 1962, when every state finally recognized the rights of indigenous people to vote?
ACE EPIC CRDIP Intern at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway Alaska.c