When the U.S.-Canada border was drawn through Southeast Alaska in 1903, it left Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian peoples on both sides. But though that line may have led to different political and legal systems, they are one people and Celebration strengthens them all, they say.
“We’re all on this road toward reclaiming our culture, our language and really our identity as First Nation or as Native people,” said Sean Smith, a member of the Kwanlin Daghalhaan K’e dancers out of Whitehorse and Kwanlin Dün First Nation Councillor. Smith is Tutchone Tlingit.
“I have learned much from our people on the coast and have shared knowledge from the Interior too,” said Marilyn Jensen, founder and leader of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers out of Whitehorse. Jensen is Inland Tlingit and Tagish Khwáan. “We truly consider ourselves to be one nation although things are vastly different on each side of the border politically.”
Canada indigenous populations have recently seen a marked change in the political conversation with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in May 2015 (the TRC addressed the treatment of First Nations) and the election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister later that year.
“There’s a lot of good positive movement happening,” said Robert Davidson, a founding member of the Rainbow Creek dancers and a renowned Haida artist and carver who did the external panels of the Walter Soboleff Center. According to Davidson, the TRC report “really opened the eyes up of the general Canadian population on how First Nations were treated. A (Supreme Court Chief Justice) declared that it was genocide.”
Canada’s First Nations have been engaged in a battle for cultural and treaty rights.
“It’s been a tough number of years,” said Smith of the Harper government. “It was a challenge for the First Nations community to reclaim those cultural components within their communities.” Trudeau’s government has put a priority on building relationships with the First Nations and recognizing what happened in the past, Smith said.
In December, Trudeau called for “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.” He’s vowed to increase funding for education in First Nations communities and has launched an inquiry into the large number, somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000, of missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada.
But changing Canada’s relations with its indigenous peoples is easier said than done, in Jensen’s opinion. “The new power word and terminology used is ‘reconciliation’ which requires that we start at a place of truth,” she wrote in an email. “It means that every person living in Canada must deconstruct a painful and ugly history,” she said. “It can’t be forced by government and it cannot be one-sided.”
Jensen, Davidson and Smith all see culture — and the sharing of it through festivals such as Celebration — at the heart of indigenous resurgence and growing political voice on either side of the border.
“Through dancing and through singing our songs, I really feel that we are gaining a lot more strength,” Davidson said.
“Just coming to the festivals, that’s an important bridge behind the whole movement behind revitalizing First Nation (and) Native communities,” Smith said. “We have strength in numbers and if we’re connected then we’re stronger as a people.”
The name of Smith’s dance group reflects its mission to connect Native people to each other and to their culture. “Kwanlin” is the Southern Tutchone name for the area around Whitehorse and “Daghalhaan K’e” means “amongst our relations.” The group has members from the Southern and Northern Tutchone, Kaska, Tlingit and other tribes. They have also focused on developing a relationship with dancers in Klukwan.
There are versions of Celebration in Canada too, such as Há Kus Teyea, held in Teslin in odd years, and Adäka in Whitehorse. Smith said that members of a Mount St. Elias dance group have attended those festivals looking to reestablish connections to the inland that go back thousands of years.
Davidson describes the Rainbow Creek group as small but committed. Going up to Juneau and seeing the strength of other dance groups helps them stay inspired.
“Some day they will be the elders,” Davidson said.
Jensen said that communication between people on both sides of the border has increased in recent years. She credits social media as helping to connect her with coastal Tlingits.
“We can keep up with what is going on each others’ lives and communities,” she said, noting that she’s “especially close to other dancers because we share the same passion in life, we share knowledge, we share songs, and we share our desire of reclamation, revitalization and being active participants of our culture.”
• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer and designer Randi Spray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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