Chapter 6 – Artistic Expressions and Entertainment
Yukon Indigenous people, like many people around the world, have developed forms of entertainment specific to their territories, such as games. Catharine McClellan documented some of the games people used to play and she states that many of these were competitive (McClellan 1987:243). Different cultural groups were involved in different types of games and play. For example, the Gwich’in held foot races, tug-of-wars, wrestling, and a bouncing game that involved making a trampoline type item out of “strong, untanned moosehide” (McClellan 1987:244). Northern and Southern Tutchone communities played a game similar to volleyball, where the ball was “made of tanned skin stuffed with animal hair, and a marten tail or some bird down was attached to it so that it streamed out behind like the tail of a kite” (McClellan 1987:244). People would throw the ball and try to keep it moving and up in the air.
Gambling was also a popular pursuit and almost any game could be a source of gambling entertainment. However, the best-known gambling game was the stick game, which was played by many different cultural groups in Yukon (McClellan 1987:244). Catharine McClellan gave a description of what stick gambling entailed in her book Part of the Land, Part of the Water:
In playing the stick game, one team of players tried to prevent the other side from guessing who was holding the stick. The team members lined up and passed the stick between themselves, always trying to fool the other side. Each team had a skilled drummer at the end of the line, and everybody sang lively gambling songs. This added to the pace and excitement of the game. The leader of the team that was watching tried to guess who on the opposite team had the stick. If he guessed correctly, the team that was hiding the stick gave him a counting stick. If he guessed wrong, the leader of the guessing team had to give up one of his own sticks. The teams played until one side had won all of the other side’s sticks. The counting sticks were often of carved bone with engraved designs. Stick games could be very exciting and last a long time. Players tried to find out who had the stick by staring into the eyes of their opponents or clapping their hands quickly to surprise the opposite side into showing where the stick was [McClellan 1987:244–245].
Gambling, and the stick game in particular, occurred spontaneously, and also occurred at many different social events, such as celebrations. Tournaments dedicated to the game were often held, and both men and women gambled and played the game. Today what was once called stick gambling is now called hand games. These tournaments have had a resurgence in Yukon in recent years. Every year, the 14 Nations Hand Games Society organizes hand games, including all women and youth competitions (McLean 2015). These events are very popular and well attended.
Music, Dance, Drumming
Music and dance are also popular forms of performance art. In the past, the types of music played throughout Yukon varied. In the north, Slobodin describes the instruments played by the Gwich’in (as recorded in Murray 1910) as “tambourine [shaped hand] drums, wooden gongs, and willow whistles” (Slobodin 1981:528). As well, “singing was highly regarded; supernatural power was manifested in song, which was judged for tone, voice production, and style, as well as text” (Slobodin 1981:528). In many Indigenous cultures in Yukon, songs were the property of the composer and others could sing them only if the composer granted permission. Crow and Obley write that there were four types of songs that were composed by and for the Hän peoples: “love, war, potlatch, and shamanistic,” and, like the Gwich’in, the Hän used a tambourine-shaped hand drum as their main musical instrument (Crow and Obley 1981:509). Similarly, McClellan writes that the topics of Tutchone songs included “romantic love, loneliness, the beauty of their country, the pleasures of drinking with their affinal relatives, and poignant mourning songs for those who had died” (McClellan 1981:502).
As noted above, drums were a popular instrument. Two types were often found in Yukon: skin drums (used by many groups of people) and plank drums (used by the Tlingit and Gwich’in) (McClellan 1987:246). Different groups made their skin drums differently, but there were some general similarities:
Skin drums were made of untanned caribou or moose hide. A piece of wet hide was stretched over a circular wooden frame and laced onto it with strings of babiche that crossed the back to form a kind of handle so the drummer could easily hold the drum [McClellan 1987:246–247].
Plank drums were made from flattened planks and often painted with red ochre (McClellan 1987:246). However, McClellan notes that the Tlingit people she spoke to stated that “on the Taku they also used the coastal type of box drum” (McClellan 1975:295). Today, the process of drum making is very similar to drum making in historic times. Clan symbols and other images continue to be painted onto drums. Special workshops are put together for people to learn the art of drum making (Champagne and Aishihik 2017) and there are special music festivals that promote this art such as the Dákų̀ Nän Tsʼèddhyèt Festival of Drumming, Song and Dance (Champagne and Aishihik 2019). Moose hoof rattles were also used throughout the southern Yukon, particularly by traditional Indigenous healers (McClellan 1975:295). Skilled dancers would drum or rattle while they danced, and this practice continues today.
Dances, songs, and stories changed with the influence of newcomers to Yukon; in particular, the fur traders brought with them “square dances, jigs, and later on, polkas, waltzes and two-steps” (McClellan 1987:248). As well, new instruments such as the fiddle, harmonica, and accordion became popular (McClellan 1987:248); and the Gwich’in are still known for their fiddle playing skills. The recent development of cultural festivals, such as the Adäka Cultural Festival at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, the Moosehide Gathering in Dawson, and the Ha Kus Teyea Celebration in Teslin, gives people the opportunity to see the diversity in dance and music styles across Yukon for themselves. Below are just a few of the amazing modern-day Indigenous performers who play music and perform in Yukon, nationally, and internationally.
Boyd Benjamin (Fiddler)
From Old Crow, Boyd Benjamin comes from a long line of fiddlers. He has released two CDs, Home Sweet Home, 2011, and The Flying Gwitch’in Fiddler, 2013, and played at many festivals and shows. He has played alongside Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ashley MacIsaac, Fred Penner, and Tom Jackson, and performed at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. In 2008, he was awarded a Special Youth Award at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (Benjamin n.d.; Figure 6.1).
Tr’ondëk First Nation Singers
The Tr’ondëk First Nation Singers are a performance group from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, located in Dawson City, Yukon. Following the Voices of the Talking Circle: Yukon Aboriginal Languages Conference, in 1991, Hän community members developed the goal of reviving Hän songs and dances as part of the community’s cultural life, including the use of the gänhäk, which is the special stick held by the leader of the dance group to let the dancers and singers know when to start and finish a song. By 1996, the singers had learned enough to perform at the Moosehide Gathering for the first time; they have continued to grow and develop as performers since that time (Adäka Cultural Festival 2019).
Jerry Alfred (Musician)
Jerry Alfred is of Northern Tutchone descent and a member of the Selkirk First Nation. A biography of Alfred from the Virtual Museum of Canada describes him in the following way: “The son of a shaman, Alfred was designated a ‘Keeper of the Songs’ at birth.” (Harris 2002). During his childhood, Alfred sang in a choir that performed throughout Yukon, which taught him about Western musical influences as well. In 1995, he and his band the Medicine Beat won a Juno Award for Aboriginal Recording of the Year for their song “Etsi Shon” (Grandfather Song) (Van Matre 1996).
A singer with Southern Tutchone, Japanese, Tlingit, and Scottish roots, Diyet grew up in Burwash Landing and is a member of the Kluane First Nation. Her music is described on her personal website as “alternative folk, roots, country, and traditional Aboriginal with catchy melodies and stories deeply rooted in her Indigenous worldview and northern life” (Diyet and the Love Soldiers 2019). She has been nominated for many different Aboriginal Music Awards, including Best New Artist, Best Songwriter, and Album of the Year.
Vision Quest (Hip-Hop Duo)
Yudii Mercredi and Nick Johnson, who are the hip-hop duo Vision Quest, reside in Whitehorse, Yukon, but the two performers have roots in Gwich’in (Mercredi) and Southern Tutchone (Johnson) communities. One 2013 article on their music described them in the following way: “The duo want their songs to be relevant and to describe what it’s like to grow up now in the Yukon,” and “their First Nation culture is something they want to explore in upcoming songs” (Gillmore 2013). Their debut performance at the Frostbite music festival battle of the bands in 2013 earned them first place, and they have since received other awards and honours (Vision Quest 2019).
Figure 6.1 Educator, consultant, and dancer Marilyn Yadułtin Jensen wearing Inland Tlingit regalia. (Photograph courtesy Simon Ager.)Marilyn Yadułtin Jensen is senior consultant with Social Innovation where she focuses on Indigenous issues across Yukon. Prior to that, she was an instructor in Yukon University’s First Nations Governance and Public Administration certificate, which is a program meant to support the development of strong leaders within Yukon First Nations and Indigenous governments through university-level programming.
Marilyn comes from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and was born in Whitehorse, Yukon. Her traditional territory encompasses Carcross, Dyea, Tagish, and Marsh Lake. She began her academic career at the University of Alaska, where she was required to take a course titled “Native People of Alaska,” which she really enjoyed and which introduced her to the field of anthropology. After completing that course, she continued her studies in anthropology because she liked the balanced and holistic way the discipline approached the study of peoples. She completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska in 1992.
One of Marilyn’s primary research highlights came right after she completed her bachelor’s degree. She was hired by the Council of Yukon First Nations to work on the Elders Documentation project. This project lasted three years and allowed her to travel throughout Yukon interviewing Elders from many Nations, recording the material and then transcribing it. This experience was significant to her because she was able to work with Elders that are no longer with us and she was also able to learn more about the different First Nations communities in Yukon.
Another highlight came when Marilyn and her colleague Ingrid Johnson (also an anthropologist) were asked to create a land claims training workshop for Yukon government employees. The focus was on Yukon First Nations people today and the self-government work that different Nations were taking part in. They also taught people about Yukon First Nations culture and contemporary issues.
A few years later, Marilyn decided that she was ready to go back to her studies and enrolled in the Indigenous Governance master’s program at the University of Victoria, under Dr. Taiaiake Alfred. Marilyn was inspired and challenged during her time in the program, and she found her student colleagues “academically brilliant.”
Dance is another important aspect of Marilyn’s life. She began dancing when she was two, in the 1970s. As a teenager she stopped dancing, but when she began her master’s program she saw other students dancing and being strong culturally. Upon her return to Whitehorse, Marilyn decided to start an Inland Tlingit dance group, the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers (discussed in this chapter). In 2016, Marilyn received the Polar Medal of Canada, which “celebrates Canada’s northern heritage and recognizes persons who render extraordinary services in the polar regions and in Canada’s North” (Governor General of Canada 2014).
For Marilyn, the best part of Yukon is in her traditional territory of Carcross: being on Bennett Lake, looking towards the mountains, and knowing that her ancestors have been there for thousands of years gives her strength and helps her feel rejuvenated.
Dakhká Khwáan Dancers
One of the best-known performance groups in Yukon is the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers. The group formed in 2007, under the direction of Marilyn Jensen (Figure 6.1), and quickly grew from 6 members to 25. The goals of the group are “to bring opportunity of cultural revitalization and social transformation within our communities by reclaiming our languages, traditional values through the traditional art form of song, drumming, dance, storytelling” (Dakhká Khwáan Dancers 2019). The group now has a children’s dance group as well, which was created with the intention of passing on the cultural knowledge of dance and song to the younger generation. They have danced all over the world, including at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, in New Zealand, and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Most recently, they were nominated for an Indigenous Music Award, for their first album, Deconstruct/Reconstruct.