Meet The Chief
Champagne & Aishihik First Nations
"My role as Chief has always been about our kids. My dad worked hard to provide me with more opportunity, not anything material, just more opportunity. When he was growing up, any opportunity was limited. "
This past summer our Shakat team stayed in Haines Junction for a couple of weeks to benefit from the people, traditions, and to re-visit my personal past and first home in the Yukon. The hospitality was above and beyond and I can’t thank the people of Haines Junction enough for their warm welcome and permission to engage their youth and traditional festival. There are many stories to tell, but this story in particular touch our hearts and we needed to share this through our “Meet The Chief” headline. Our youth interviewed Chief Smith during the Da Kų Nän Ts'èddhyèt 2019 festival and transcribed his thoughts from the video that we will release in conjunction with this edition of Shakat Journal.
This celebration is almost like a tool we use to accomplish many of our cultural goals. Our people, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, recently entrenched the term “dunke", “dun’k", which means "Our Way" or "The People's Way”, it was a philosophy that we’ve embraced to advance our people. For many years (under colonization) we have been told "this is how your kids are going to be educated, this is how your kids are going to be taken care of.” The traumatic impact of residential schools on a lot of our people has taken it’s toll. Residential school has been downplayed in Yukon’s history and throughout various media, the impact has downtrodden our people and our magnificent culture we once lived by.
We are people that didn't just survive, we thrived. We are the people who know this country better than anybody else and know how to live and survive here, we know how to take care and educatedour children. The residents who live in Haines Junction, or "dak wakada" are all about creating what we call "dun sho thun", which is good Champagne Aishihik people.
This is an encompassing philosophy because when you're creating good people, you're educating them properly, you're ensuring that they have the means and resources to further their life ambitions and goals, and most importantly, healing them from the atrocities of the past. Our culture was literally beaten out of our people. For a lot of our older ones, it's been a real challenge for them to express their past in a good way because they were oppressed for so many years, they were made to believe that they were less than anyone else. They were treated inhumanely.
So the festival is a way in which they can restore past traditions and recapture the stories that they were told before our older ones were forced to residential school. As our elders regain confidence and heal from the past, we see them re-engaging by providing advice and their wisdom and you can often hear;
"This is the way I’ve learned
from my grandmother”
We, as a people, use their knowledge and pass this on to ensure that our young ones have a stronger connection to their families, community and people, to have the ability to celebrate who they are, their dance, and their culture.
The number of people participating in the festival has really increased in recent years providing positive exposure to traditional and cultural activity. I truly believe it has help spawned our language and adult immersion program and our child care facility, Da Kwon jang-ho", which is our language house, it allows all of our citizens to partake and engage in our traditions and culture. The Festival has become a wealth of greater understanding of not just who we are, but the path that we must take to restore our identity. We are Southern Tutchone, but we have a strong Tlingit influence, Tlingit people came here as trading partners. We've adopted some of their formalities but we've kept some of the informality, one of these informalities are with traditional songs.
It's always important that with the introduction of the songs to always pay tribute to the people who created the song. Some of these songs are owned by clans, some owned by Nations and then of course, there's songs that are created by individuals. So it's one of the most important things, that when we sing the song, to always pay homage to the owners who created it.
Song protocol is quite strong and complex but still we try to adhere to it as closely as possible. It's sort of a cultural faux pas, and offensive if not followed correctly, and can often leave the song owner feeling bad or wronged, this is not what this Festival is about. We try to communicate these protocols at our festival, we're a little bit more understanding with young people who are trying to grasp these traditions.
There's a difference between someone who's trying and they make a mistake than someone who should know. When we're dealing with young people and when we're dealing with visitors, people who share this country with us, they may make certain mistakes and we try to be a little more patient, understanding and provide guidance to them. Then the next time they'll know better. So the protocols are something that makes us unique, it's our way and how we deal with distinction. So it's important to continue to work on these cultural distinctions.
My role as Chief has always been about our kids and youth. My dad worked hard to provide me with opportunity, not tangible items or anything material, but more opportunity such as employment and education. When he was growing up, the opportunity was very limited, there were only four or five jobs available. In the past, native Elders had been restricted, but when I reached the working-age, I had better opportunities, there were opportunities out there that I didn't even think of. Today our kids have even more suitable circumstance, the whole world is open to them now, educational opportunities, job opportunities and beyond, it's amazing to see this growth.
My role for the time that I'm Chief, shares equal responsibility as each of our citizens have, in the sense that we all work towards a common goal, to provide the best opportunity for our children and families. Teaching them to be "done show fun", good people. Being good people is a process, its a means to further our traditional understanding, its how we will evolve. For a lot of years, it was a federal government who just came in and said, "well, this is the way you're going to do it.” What we've said is,"NO, we're the ones who will decide." In saying that, it causes some challenges for us, because for many many years that responsibility was taken away from us.
As we've evolved over the last 25 years, a whole generation, and through the early years of self-government, I have had to make note that it was very different from living under the Indian Act. Some of these young kids running around have parents who have never lived under an Indian act. The Indian Act was the leading cause of our oppression and our young people are working towards understanding the impacts it has had on the generations before them.
“You see these little ones running around
here today, they're the ones who are
going to take us into the future”.
They're the ones who are actually going to recapture our ancestral ways and get one step closer to living the life we had prior to colonial contact, prior to when the federal government decided that they wanted to just do away with the so-called Indian problem.
As we move toward a stronger future, we see that there is no one way that is the right way for anybody to express or capture cultural arts. There's visual arts, music, sculpture, dance, and the performing arts and much more. However with each of these mediums, you’re able to capture an individual’s expression, those are the opportunities that I talked about earlier. These kids have new opportunities, when I grew up I expressed myself in the performing arts as a dancer. The singer was never ever really in, I didn’t have the opportunity for any kind of visual arts, and any kind of carving or form line painting or any kind of stuff like that was just not there.
“I’m proud to know that our children
have several opportunities today
to express themselves”.
It's difficult to get up there and dance or sing in front of everybody but that never means that the individual doesn't have an opportunity of expression or an opinion to share. It's just may mean that they may not want to express themselves in that context. The same awareness happened in me, I'm not a great visual artist, I wish I was, but I found the best way to share and express who I am was through performance, song and dance. I think anything that we expose our children to, or that points them in the direction and gives them insight into the way in which they want to grow, then that's good.