Indigenous youth return to the land at Kathleen Lake gathering

This week, indigenous youth from across the Yukon will gather at Kathleen Lake near Haines Junction to learn traditional skills, share stories and connect to the land.

This week, indigenous youth from across the Yukon will gather at Kathleen Lake near Haines Junction to learn traditional skills, share stories and connect to the land.

Shana Dakeyi Kay – Youth On Our Country is the third annual youth wellness gathering organized by Our Voices, a collective of young indigenous leaders, in partnership with Yukon First Nations, the Yukon government and Parks Canada.

This year’s gathering is hosted by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. The focus is on building a connection to the land and teaching skills like sheep hunting, gopher snaring, setting fish nets and tanning moose hides.

“I really think that knowing who you are and where you come from and knowing that you’re valued and that you matter, those are some really important parts of being a healthy person,” said Kluane Adamek, co-chair of Our Voices.

Adamek said she helped create Our Voices after her cousin died by suicide a few years ago in Burwash Landing. At the time, she said, she was living in Ottawa and felt disconnected and isolated from her community and culture. So she reached out to other young indigenous leaders in the North with a question.

“What could we as young people do to support the other young people in our community?” she said. “We decided we wanted to have a gathering on the land.”

The first wellness gathering was held in 2014 at Brooks Brook, near Teslin. The second took place last summer at Jackson Lake, in partnership with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, and focused on mental health.

This year’s events launched with a water ceremony and the lighting of a sacred fire this afternoon at Kathleen Lake.

Over the next four days, youth will learn traditional skills, help build a sweat lodge, and hike and canoe in Kluane National Park and Reserve. They will speak with Champagne and Aishihik elders, participate in indigenous art and music workshops, learn about traditional medicines and discuss the history of colonization in North America.

They will also hear from keynote speakers Brandon Kyikavichik, Alaskan pro basketball player Damen Bell-Holter and teenage activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney. Kyikavichik, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen from Old Crow, will talk about connecting with the land. Bell-Holter will discuss how he overcame his personal experience with substance abuse and suicide. And Blaney will talk about environmental protection.

Adamek said this year’s focus is hands-on learning, as opposed to just sitting and listening.

“The formal workshop setting is something we wanted to get away from … so people didn’t feel like they were in school,” she said.

She’s expecting about 200 youth to participate over the next four days, with an additional 50 chaperones. Last year, about 150 youth were at the gathering, and about 100 attended the year before.

Adamek said the youth are coming from across the Yukon and from the Taku River Tlingit, Tahltan and Gwich’in territories. Some may even come from Alaska.

The budget for this year’s events is $80,000, paid for by the Yukon government and Yukon First Nations.

Shauna Strand, the lead coordinator with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, said the focus on the land is at the core of this year’s gathering.

“I think there’s a definite relationship between our overall wellbeing and the land and our relationship to it. I think that it’s a spiritual connection that I think can sometimes be hard to put to words,” she said.

“It’s what has kept our ancestors healthy for thousands of years.”

She said holding the event in Kluane National Park and Reserve is important, given that the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations only regained their right to return to their traditional land and hunt in the park in 1993.

This gathering is helping to build the relationship between the First Nations and Parks Canada, she said.

“I feel proud that we have access to this amazing, beautiful country that we live in and that we can share it with youth from across the Yukon,” Strand said.

Adamek said she’s seen youth undergo dramatic transformations during previous wellness gatherings.

“We’ve seen people in the group who may have been a little shy or not want to engage who have done this 360 and who are, like, everywhere,” she said. “They’re excited. They feel good. And I think when you feel good and you feel strong and you feel confident, then … you’re likely not to do something that’s going to inflict harm on yourself.”

She said these gatherings are part of a movement among young indigenous people to reclaim and embrace their culture, instead of trying to hide it or feeling ashamed of it.

“It’s really neat to see all these young people coming together to want to learn,” she said. “Young people are aching for this.”

The youth gathering takes place today until Sunday, Aug. 7 and is open to indigenous and non-indigenous youth aged 14 to 30. Those interested in participating can still show up to register at Kathleen Lake, south of Haines Junction. The celebration feast at 6 p.m. on Saturday is open to the public.

Contact Maura Forrest at