This article is part of the column, Canada’s First Peoples, by Hans Tammemagi, which appears regularly on Roadstories around the middle and end of each month. The column focuses on Canada’s aboriginal peoples and their rich culture.
When visiting the Yukon recently, I loved travelling from one area to another, seeking out First Nations’ cultural centres and learning about the long history, fascinating culture, and colourful art of the original inhabitants of this northern land.
The fourteen First Nations, I found, are a bold presence, comprising 24% of the Territory’s 35,000 population. They are progressive with eleven of the fourteen Nations having signed treaties for self-government, the highest percentage in Canada.
My first stop was at Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, located on the Yukon River in central Whitehorse. Opened in 2012, the large, attractive centre rapidly became a mainstay of the community. I walked past art and archaeological displays that tell the story of their people from more than 8,000 years ago. Facilities include a ‘longhouse’ with a capacity for 1,200 people, and class rooms and meeting rooms. At the café I enjoyed still-warm bannock. Behind the Centre sit three brightly coloured sheds, which are for artists-in-residence. Jared Kane, of the Southern Tutchone and Tlingit First Nation showed me his paintings and carvings explaining how his grandfather had given him the inspiration to become an artist.
The Healing Canoe in the lobby is particularly poignant. Tlingit master carver Wayne Price led 19 carvers for 10 weeks on a holistic program in which everyone committed to live free of drugs, alcohol, and cell phones. The men carved and reconnected. Elders regularly visited the camp and shared stories. Talking circles, drumming, fish netting and moose hunting took place. A sweat lodge was built. In 2012, twenty proud men paddled their canoe down the river for the grand opening of the cultural centre.
The traditional village of the Kwanlin Dün was forced to move five times because of Whitehorse’s growth.
“My uncle went to shop for an hour,”
our guide said,
“and when he returned a bulldozer was demolishing his home.”
The cultural centre represents an enormous turn-around. The Centre sits on prime real estate, is a major tourist attraction, and is a sought-after meeting place for Natives and non-Natives alike.
As I left, drumming and chanting resonated from a story-telling circle.
I continued my quest to visit as many First Nations cultural centres as possible.
At Haines Junction, the gateway to the mighty icefields of Kluane National Park I found the Da K? (Our House) Cultural Centre, which celebrates the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. The centre couldn’t be missed for it also houses the visitor centres for Parks Canada’s Kluane National Park and the Yukon government. There were many displays, but I best remember the Dakwäkäda Dancers, who demonstrate native culture through song and dance. Enthusiasm was high and one of the performers was only two years of age.
On the long, lonely Klondike Highway north to Dawson City, I rested at Carmacks and visited the Tagé Cho Hudän Cultural Centre of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation. The centre has many fine displays, but I particularly enjoyed following a trail past a caribou fence, a pole house, a moose-skin tanning camp, drying racks, winter moose-skin shelter, and the only mammoth snare in the world.
Arriving in Dawson, which is preserved as though it is still in the gold-rush era, I headed for the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, the gateway to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation heritage. The centre was busy with cultural activities, performances and special events. I joined a tour of the Hammerstone Gallery and learned how poorly Natives were treated during the gold rush.
I headed to Carcross, stopping briefly at Emerald Lake and then at an unusual sight, the world’s only northern desert. A small community of about 430, Carcross boasts a colorful gold-rush history and is a popular tourist stop. Most striking, however, is the strong Carcross Tagish First Nations presence. Totems rise in the village’s main square and bright First Nation’s motifs cover many buildings. It felt like I’d entered a traditional Native village. I watched as two ladies wearing button-blankets and cedar hats sang a welcome song next to a totem pole. Unfortunately, the cultural centre I wanted to visit was under construction.
I returned to Whitehorse and again visited the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre. I learned that First Nations people from across the Territory gather here annually for the Adäka Cultural Festival. Launched in July 2011 to showcase, celebrate, and foster the development of native arts and culture, it’s a huge, happy celebration attracting hundreds of performers and artists and large audiences.
As I left, although many cultural centres remained, I had seen enough to realize that after decades of repression, First Nations culture has emerged and is flourishing in the Yukon.