Chapter 6 – Artistic Expressions and Entertainment
Yukon’s Indigenous peoples have always had verbal forms of artistic expression: people who could tell stories and people who could compose songs. In describing past music and dance of the Gwich’in people, Slobodin wrote, “Verbal skills may be regarded as entertainment since the [Gwich’in] keenly appreciated style and wit in oratory and in repartee” (1981:528). As history and lessons about how to behave in the land and with your social relations are embedded within oral histories, learning how to tell stories of all types was, and is, an important skill for Yukon’s Indigenous peoples. In the cold winters, families would gather for storytelling sessions around the fires in their homes (McClellan 1987). The Elders were the ones to start the storytelling sessions and then, if time allowed, others would get to take their turns. Storytellers learned how to tell the stories by listening to their ancestors. Well-regarded orators would be called upon to make speeches at ceremonies, such as the potlatch (see below for more details on this ceremony). Storytelling and speechmaking were meant to be informative, but also humorous. In fact, it was the role of certain relatives to have “joking relationships” with their in-laws and paternal second cousins (McClellan 1975, 1987:249). Verbal artistry continues to be a valuable contemporary performance art. Below are modern day storytellers, renowned for their creativity and oratory skills.
Mrs. Angela Sidney (Storyteller)
The late Tagish Elder Mrs. Angela Sidney (Figure 3.2) received the Order of Canada in recognition of her contribution to knowledge about Yukon, which primarily occurred through her storytelling. She is famous for saying, “I have no money to leave to my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth” (Cruikshank 1990:36), and she worked with anthropologist Julie Cruikshank for an extended period of time to document her story knowledge. These stories are included in the academic books Life Lived Like a Story (Cruikshank 1990) and The Social Life of Stories (Cruikshank 1998) and in community-focused publications, such as My Stories Are My Wealth (1977) (co-written with Kitty Smith and Rachel Dawson), Place Names of the Tagish Region, Southern Yukon (1980), Tagish Tlaagú: Tagish Stories (1982), and Haa Shagóon: Our Family History (1983). The recognition of Mrs. Angela Sidney’s storytelling was instrumental in the development of the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, which began in Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1988 and ran until the summer of 2012. Storytellers from all over Yukon participated, as well as performers from across the circumpolar globe.
Louise Profeit-LeBlanc (Storyteller)
Louise Profeit-LeBlanc is Angela Sidney’s niece, and she learned the art of storytelling from a very young age. Louise is a member of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun and grew up speaking Southern Tutchone; she “is now the keeper of many of [her relatives’] stories of the ancient and not so distant past.” Louise is the co-founder of the Yukon International Storytelling Festival (described above), and she has performed in many different locations around the world.
Gramma Susie and Cache Creek Charlie (Comedy Duo)
As in the past, comedy is often an essential element to contemporary storytelling and two performers who embrace this are the comedy duo Gramma Susie and Cache Creek Charlie, played by Sharon Shorty and Duane Ghastant’ Aucoin, both from the Teslin Tlingit First Nation. They have made it their goal “to teach First Nation language and culture through humour and laughter.” Both second-generation survivors of residential school, they used their humour to help “heal through laughter” at the Truth and Reconciliation meetings held in Canada in 2011. They are frequent performers at festivals across Yukon; those individuals lucky enough to see them perform have an unforgettable experience.
Theatre, Poetry and Writing
Today, other forms of artistic expression come from the production of theatre shows, poetry and the written word. The Gwaandak Theatre provides an avenue for “Indigenous-centred theatre” (Gwaandak Theatre, 2019). It was started in 1999 by Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather with the intention of “illuminating Indigenous and Northern stories around the world” (Gwaandak Theatre, 2013). Over the years the theatre has produced works such as “Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak, Forward Together, Vuntut Gwitchin Stories” which was meant to honour “millennia-old storytelling traditions and Indigenous language revitalization” (Gwaandak Theatre, 2019). The company also runs an Indigenous Summer Play Reading that features Indigenous writers from throughout Canada which are often directed and performed by local talent. Justice, written by Leonard Linklater, was inspired by the story of the Nantuck brothers. These Indigenous men were the first to be hanged in Yukon in 1899. The play reflects on the “clash of culture systems” that took place (Gwaandak Theatre, 2019).
Allan Benjamin (Cartoonist and Poet)
Comedy based on grandparents is found in the comics and poems written by Allan Benjamin, from Old Crow. His comic, titled Didee and Didoo (which mean Grandma and Grandpa in the Gwich’in language), depicts Elders from Old Crow and what life was like in the past. It currently appears in the newspaper What’s Up Yukon. In an interview with that publication, Benjamin stated, “Being humorous is one of the ways that we survive; my grandmother was always funny, and I picked up a lot with comical people… Mostly I like to draw cartoons because they’re funny and I think it’s important that people get a good laugh” (Westover 2014). His poems also capture what life used to be like at Old Crow and are valuable for learning about the history of the Indigenous peoples in Yukon:
ALL THE LADIES WORE HANKERCHIEFS.
EVERYONE HAD HIGH CACHES.
ALL THE ELDERS SMOKED PIPES.
EVERYONE USED DOGTEAMS.
WE MADE OUR OWN TOYS.
EVERYONE HAD BIBLE NAMES.
WE ALL USED GASLAMPS AN’ CANDLES.
PLANES LANDED ON GRAVEL BARS.
WE PACKED WATER FROM THE RIVER.
WE CAN BUY CANDY WITH A PENNY.
INDIAN AGENT WAS A BIG SHOT.
WE ONLY USED BOWSAW AN’ AXE.
EVERYONE VOTED FOR NEILSON.
ONLY RICH PEOPLE HAD RADIOS.
WE USED TO PLAY BUTTONS.
LADIES WORE BLOOMERS (I THINK).
WE USED OIL DRUMS FOR STOVES.
THEY PLAYED RECORDS.
MOTHERS MADE SWINGS FOR BABIES.
THEY ONLY HAD 10 H.P. KICKERS.
WE USED TO MAKE SUGAR CANDY.
EVERYONE USED CELLARS.
NOBODY WORKED ON SUNDAY [Benjamin 2015].