Colonialism: Eternal punishment?

Tantalus Butte – a landmark in Carmacks, Yukon. It is named after a mythological figure from ancient Greece.

Tantalus was most famous for his eternal punishment. He was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink.

What an omen.

Historically, it was Frederick Schwatka who describes “In A Summer in Alaska” (1893):

In the region about the mouth of the Nordenskiöld River a conspicuous bald butte could be seen directly in front of our raft no less than seven times, on as many different stretches of the river. I called it Tantalus Butte, and was glad enough to see it disappear from sight. 

To the Northern Tutchone people, it was known as Gun Tthi, which means ‘worm hill’. They believed that a giant worm with eyes like the sun lived in the hill, and if they made too much noise while passing by on the river, the worm would cause a big wind that would upset their boat.

And the boats in Carmacks are still upset. Many of the people stand in a pool of clear water under an abundantly filled fruit tree with low branches – and the good life does not seem within reach.

The boy I used to regularly pick up with the school bus from the neighbouring driveway: accused of first degree murder. The girl that met me as the bus driver with a mix of contempt and regard – always good for a verbal fight and thankful for the extra service when running late – died as a young woman on a medevac flight under disputable circumstances. A man my age, son of the elder who wanted to adopt me into the First Nation, vanished for a bottle of booze: stabbed to death and disposed off in the mighty Yukon River.

When I stood as part of the honour guard at the ceremony for the signing of the self-government agreement between the British Crown and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation – dressed in a brand-new yellow jumpsuit of an EFF (emergency fire fighter), which eventually gave me my Indian name Tsüne Cho (“Big Bird”) – I became the impression that the community of Carmacks was on a healing way. The people embarked on a journey together for a brighter future (“Together Today for our Children Tomorrow”).

There was a strong focus on community development, on establishing self government, on taking control of indigenous peoples’ lives after a long period of colonization and paternalism by the state authorities. I had the impression that the worms of booze and drugs and violence started to crawl back into the burning mine shafts at Coal Mine Hill and Tantalus Butte.

Now, more than twenty years later, and from a distance, I sense that the curse of eternal punishment for the Northern Tutchone people of Carmacks is not broken yet. It is saddening to read of violent deaths, crime, and lack of improvement in the intercultural relationship between the representatives of the British Empire, the mainstream culture, and the indigenous people. As part of my own research into the beauty and challenges of working with indigenous communities, I concluded that it will take much effort to make peace with the colonial legacies and the genocidal policies that shaped the relationship between the “fuckin’ White man” and the “drunk Indian”.

Reading the news coverage of the latest coroner’s inquests and criminal court trials, involving people I got to know as neighbours in a small community with great potential on the banks of the Yukon and Nordenskjold Rivers, I sense that the war is still on: Health care staff are being accused of not doing the right (medical) thing; community members take little control of their less-than-health-promoting lifestyles but expecting a magic cure for their ills from the colonial health care system; the government of the Yukon has not even yet acknowledged the receipt of the recommendations from my own research for small policy changes that could improve the intercultural relationship and increase the cultural safety when working with indigenous communities.

It does not matter, whether the landmark hill near Carmacks is referred to by its colonial or its indigenous name: both names represent a predicament for a community that is longing deeply for healing at many levels, thus breaking the curses of the colonial legacy.


Arnold, O. F. (2012). Reconsidering the “NO SHOW” Stamp: Increasing Cultural Safety by Making Peace with a Colonial Legacy. Northern Review, (36), 77-96. Retrieved from

Arnold, O. F., & Bruce, A. (2005). Nursing practice with Aboriginal communities: Expanding worldviews. Nursing Science Quarterly, 18(3), 259–263.

Arnold, O. F. (2005). Nursing with indigenous communities: The question of membership. Retrieved from

Arnold, O. F. (2004). Working in Aboriginal communities: What kind of health are we promoting? Retrieved from

for Yukon News coverage on Carmacks (good news and other news):

for historical context on Tantalus Butte:

One thought on “Colonialism: Eternal punishment?

  1. Beautifully written sad story of indigenouse people of American continent….during my stay in Bishop, ca. I too saw poverty in indian reservations unfortunately!

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