Wednesday, January 29, 2014

#8: KLONDIKE, The Real Story. NOT!


Yes, I get it. When you're telling a story, you utilize literary license to showcase the bigger truth of the story. You fudge a little on dates, maybe ignore conflicting or immaterial information, certainly beef up events that weren't necessarily meaty. However, in the recent airing of Klondike, I found the Discovery Channel to be so far off in their rendition of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush that all semblance of reality has been smothered and buried beneath a swift and suffocating avalanche perpetrated by Hollywood. I'm sorry because an opportunity was lost to tell the real story.

The purpose of this essay is not to reveal the historical inaccuracies (chalk these up to literary license) but to address a plot development that flies in the face of reality. While portending to tell the story of the world's most iconoclastic gold rush in history simply echoed yet another episode of Gunsmoke and the "wild wild American West." It's my contention that we can fictionalize anything we want--but when we do, a "based on actual events" no longer is an option. Or it shouldn't be. Because when we distort reality so drastically, truth is not served. Viewers of Klondike are now under the impression they know all about Canada's Gold Rush. They do not.

Let's begin with the invisiblization of Dawson City's First Nations people--the Throndike Whech'in.

Picture of Throndike Wech'in fishing village, Dawson City, and Moosehide--all hugging the east side of the Yukon River
The Klondike
Dawson City and Thronkdike
Thronkike Whech'in
They were replaced by Alaska's Tlingit--a coastal Native American band who, as a group, never went to Dawson City. In reality, the enterprising Tlingit were far too busy making money off the incoming gold miners, charging them an arm and a leg to haul gear and grub over Chilkoot and White Passes. And while there are written and oral histories portraying the Tlingit as warriors, nothing historical suggests that the Throndike Whech'in ever were. They in fact retreated from the gold rush to their little village of Moosehide, downriver from Dawson City. Yet the mini-series shows the Throndike Whech'in (mistaken as Tlingit) going after the Mounties, slicing throats and shooting rifles. No. The Throndike Whech'in never went after the Mounties; the Mounties never went after them. Why should they? The Mounties historically had a good relationship with the Natives. To invisibilize an entire group by mixing them up with someone else--and then assigning a violence not theirs--is to deny the very existence of an ancient and noble people and to spit in the face of truth.

Picture of Fort Constantine
Fort Constantine, Mountie Detachment
Forty Mile, Yukon, Winter 1895
Shall we tackle the Mounties next? 

The Mounties
Portrayed as violent thugs who came after the fact, hauling a cage? what? they were apparently at the mercy of Canada's Minister of the Interior, a supposedly arrogant, corrupt, and even more violent thug who loved to brow beat the Mounties.

To start, the Mounties did not arrive after the fact. For two decades, prospectors had been pulling bits of gold from the Yukon creeks; it was only a matter of time before the really big stuff was found. History being a good indicator of the future, Canada in 1895 sent up 20 Mounties to Forty Mile (Yukon government seat) as preemptive strike against any lawless Americans that might swarm in. When the gold was found, Canada immediately sent up more men. And in February 1898, Superintendent Sam Steele arrived to take over all Yukon Mountie operations.

He did not bring cage.

As to the violence... The Mounties were formulated twenty-six years earlier in 1873 under the model of the Irish Constabulary; empowered to make up laws as they went along, carry them out, and  execute punishment. By the time of the Gold Rush came along their power was more limited, but they still had authority to run a tight ship. All business in Dawson City was shut down on Sundays, as was prostitution. Drunkenness was forbidden, the guilty assigned to the wood pile. Mores serious issues involved the famous one-way order out of town. More importantly, the Mounties served less as law enforcement and more as servant to the needs of the citizenry. Superintendent Sam Steele writes:
Picture of Sam Steele
Sam Steele, Dawson City, 1898
"The more than 30,000 persons, everyone of whom had received assistance or advice, had passed down the Yukon. Over 150,000 dollars in duty and fees had been collected, more than thirty million pounds of solid food…had been inspected and checked over by us. We had seen that sick were cared for, had buried the dead, administered their estates to the satisfaction of their kin, had brought our own supplies and means of transport, had built our own quarters and administered the laws of Canada without one...complaint against us."
The Mounties did a good work and were well respected. They certainly did not hold a gun to an old man's head, let alone a child's, behaving like the terrorist thugs. To portray Canada's early Force as nothing more than an American army of blackguards so common in American history spins a story of nonviolence into its opposite.

picture of William Ogilvy
William Ogilvy
Klondike would have us believe that Canada's Minister of the Interior, William Ogilvy, was sent to boss the Mounties around. He was a surveyor!

Ogilvy was sent to the Yukon a full decade before the gold rush define the American/Canadian boundary. When the initial rush took off, he was asked by the locals to survey Dawson City, and, as the rush intensified, was asked by the miners to resurvey their claims to avoid errors, claim jumping, and any kind of violence. He did this willingly and without bribery, and you'll not find a single miner denigrating Ogilvy. He was, and still is, regarded (along with Sam Steele) as a real hero--a man of integrity and utmost honesty. Neither he (nor Steele) ever made a dime off the millions of dollars of gold floating around. Ogilvy certainly didn't dictate orders to the Mounties, nor did he luxuriate in hot baths while threatening Sam Steele. And he most certainly did not order the hanging of an innocent "Tlingit" man and his little boy.

When a plot line relies on murder and mayhem to tell the tale, a line is crossed from telling Canadian history to obliterating it. There were only three homicides in Dawson City, population anywhere from 30,000 - 40,000, and which Sam Steele reported as being "unpreventable." There was no Count to viciously and brutally reign havoc. And in the gold fields, not a single murder. True. A rather unique and significant detail somehow missed--a detail that defines the Klondike Gold Rush.

All story is always about truth. It's why we have literary license, so we can bring focus to truth without cluttering it up with messy, minor details. But in this case, the creators of Klondike went far beyond literary license when they buried the real story under a rubble of misrepresentation. A whole people were invisibilized and maligned; Canadian law enforcement was assigned historical American policy; heroes were stripped of honor, presented as hooligans; nonviolence was ambushed by violence. Such misrepresentation bothers me--because the purpose of all story is to tell the truth. Make something up, you're still bound to universal truth. When you advertise "based upon actual events," you are obligated to embrace the fundamental truth. Klondike, however, is a case of spinning truth into everything it wasn't, spinning gold, if you will, into mere straw

Viewers of Klondike think they now understand Canada's gold rush history of the Far North. They do not. The Klondike is not about murder and mayhem and selfish greed, but of heroism amidst hardship, of ordinary men and women who rose above greed and selfishness to live in unprecedented cooperation--people who collectively pulled off the most peaceful gold rush in world history.

That's the Klondike story.

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