Clara Schinkel loved to dance in big, high-heeled shoes.
Even after arthritis bowed her body, the 70-year old wolf clan matriarch was sometimes spotted cutting the rug at the ‘98 Breakfast Club, especially when Joe Loutchan pulled out his fiddle.
“She never drank, she just loved to dance,” said Schinkel’s niece Shirley McLean.
On October 1st, just before her 71st birthday, the Daklaweidi elder was taken by cancer.
But, even during her last few days, she wanted to leave the hospital bed to attend a potlatch in British Columbia.
“She’s a fighter,” said McLean.
“Nothing stopped her.”
For several years, Schinkel, who had a pacemaker, carried around an oxygen tank, but it didn’t slow her down.
And the well-respected elder left her Carcross/Tagish First Nation a lasting legacy.
A negotiator during the First Nation’s final agreement, Schinkel helped identify its traditional territory and trails.
“She was a very powerful and big contributor to that process,” Indian Affairs’ chief federal negotiator Tim Koepke said from Vancouver.
Schinkel’s intimate knowledge of the Tagish people and their history and merger with the Tlingit is vast, he said.
“And she had a very unique way of presenting things.
“She was very gentle in her approach, but she was feisty.”
During negotiations, Schinkel faced some difficult memories, including the government’s alleged destruction of a longhouse in the Tagish area.
It was pretty difficult for her to deal with, said Koepke.
“And to give her full credit, as much as she was really an expert on the past, she was able to see the future and recognize that, although the government didn’t have the ability to right all of the past wrongs, we could at least acknowledge they occurred, set them aside and move on to design a better relationship for the future.
“And she was always working on that ultimate thought.”
Koepke, who knew Schinkel for more than 15 years, watched her provide wonderful leadership and good guidance in the elders’ council.
During the negotiations, melding the aspirations and views of the Tlingit people with those of the Tagish proved difficult, and Schinkel was one of the elders who played a significant role in fusing these disparate viewpoints, he said.
“She always, always looked to the future,” said Koepke.
Even last October, already very sick, Schinkel took part in the land claim signing ceremony.
The Friday before Schinkel passed away, Koepke went to visit her in the hospital.
The next day he was heading to Carcross to attend a community event celebrating the re-established trails on Montana Mountain.
“Clara was a passionate advocate for maintaining the cultural and historical aspects of these trails,” said Koepke.
So, he promised to take some pictures for her.
Sadly, when he returned Sunday, he was an hour too late.
“But on Friday night she said to me, ‘the people all have to work together,’” said Koepke.
“So, as weak as she was, she never lost sight of that objective and that whole goal.”
“Clara was a wise and generous teacher, and lots of fun,” said Yukon College director of student services Linda Johnson.
The two women met in the ‘70s, just after Johnson moved to the territory and started working at the Yukon archives.
“I was a stranger to the Yukon,” said Johnson.
“And she helped me learn about the people here — she took education very seriously.”
In ‘81, Schinkel and Johnson organized a heritage conference in the territory focusing on Yukon First Nations.
It was called Kwada Kwadan, or long ago people.
“We brought back different artifacts,” said Johnson.
“And we displayed them in the museums and schools and kids in the territory came to see the treasures.”
More than 200 people registered for the three-day conference and thousands saw the displays, she said.
Schinkel, who was one of the key organizers, still found the time to help Johnson with her new baby during the conference preparations.
“Clara was always willing to hold the baby,” she said.
“And she was an experienced mom and grandma, so for me as a new mom, she was incredibly generous with her time, advice and positive energy.
“It was really a wonderful time in my life.”
For several years, Johnson was president of the Yukon Historical and Museums Association with Schinkel as her vice-president.
“We were a dynamic duo,” she said.
“And we worked on several more heritage conferences.”
After Johnson had a second baby, Schinkel took over as president.
“She was the president for two or three years and, during that time, she also became the first aboriginal person to be appointed as a governor of the Heritage Canada Foundation,” said Johnson.
The national organization, founded by Pierre Berton, had a board of governors from across Canada, but none were from the North.
“We had asked them for several years to appoint a Yukon governor and they always said the North didn’t have enough people,” she said.
But when Schinkel returned from its annual general meeting, she had been appointed the first Yukon governor on its board.
“She was a powerful advocate in a very classy way,” said Johnson.
“And she convinced them that they needed northern representatives on their board, so she was the first one, the first aboriginal governor and the first one from the Yukon.
“It was a big honour for Clara, but it was also a big honour for the Yukon and she did it for us.”
Schinkel served on Heritage Canada’s board for years, and also became chair of the Yukon Heritage Resources Board.
“She had many responsible positions and well deserved honours and was always such a generous person in sharing her knowledge, and fun,” said Johnson.
One night, after the conference, Schinkel told Johnson to leave the baby home with her husband and come dancing.
“We’re going to have fun, she told me,” said Johnson.
“And I thought I was too worn out to go, and here she was a grandma — it was a fabulous night.”
Schinkel’s list of achievements is long.
As the education liaison with the Council of Yukon First Nations, she helped incorporate First Nations culture into the school curriculum.
She also taught and preserved the Tagish language through song, dance and the creation of the website First Voices — work that earned her a Governor General’s Award.
“She really was a link between the older and younger generations,” said Johnson.
“And she encouraged longtime elders like Johnny Johns and Kitty Smith to meet the younger generation.”
“Aunty Clara did have a turbulent, rough life,” said McLean.
“She did go to residential school.
“But in the 1960s she became a Baha’i’ and it changed her life.”
In keeping with her love of dance, Schinkel created the Tagish Nation Dancers, who have travelled through Canada, Alaska, Mexico and Japan.
“She was everywhere,” said McLean.
Part of the college elders’ council, Johnson remembers Schinkel standing with her oxygen bottle welcoming students and participating in the events.
“Even near the end of her life, the activities never stopped,” she said.
During her last few weeks in the hospital, Schinkel asked all her old friends to come visit.
“She wanted to talk about all the fun we had,” said Johnson.
“When I came in, she perked up, she was so happy to see me, she made me feel like a million bucks.
“And she still had that sparkle in her eye.”