Inuvialuit celebrations outside settlement area mark firsts

Underwood Day weaves a wooden stick through his legs, never losing grasp of opposing ends. He moves with it — slightly contorting his body to do so – and snaps upright once finished. You cannot look away. You are suddenly aware of your age.

He helped lead an enthralled audience through a slew of Northern Indigenous games at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre on Aug. 4 as part of a celebration marking 35 years since the final agreement between the Inuvialuit and Canada was signed, the second-oldest modern treaty to be established in the country, according to organizers.

The purpose of the games is to teach survival skills. Each one — from the two-foot high kick to head pull — is inseparable from Inuvialuit culture.

These games were unavoidable ways of life for elders, said Donald Kuptana, facilitator and instructor of the games, who, like others, travelled from Inuvik to be here. While that’s changed to a degree, it’s not gone.

“When we’re with our youth nowadays,” he said, “what we find is that they don’t go out on the land as much because, you know, climate change, not everybody can afford a skidoo to go out on the land. Our games are a way to bridge back our way of life, our cultural values to our youth.”

There was something new this year.

The event in Whitehorse, along with preceding ones in Edmonton and Yellowknife, were the first to be hosted outside the Inuvialuit settlement region, said Duane Smith, CEO and chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which organized the event.

There are 250 Inuvialuit living in Whitehorse, he added.

“We’re into the next generation of beneficiaries, so we need to keep them informed of the land claim, the final agreement, what it means to them, what rights it has under there for them, as well as for them to have the opportunity to celebrate, wherever they are.”

It was an opportunity for the community here to connect with old friends, to gel while watching drum dancing and eating country food.

There was dried fish, goose and caribou stew, muktuk, doughnuts and tea — lots of it.

At the end of the event, a large group of people, young and old, burst into sprints for remaining muktuk. No one was injured.

“When we bring that kind of food to our people, it connects them to their childhood, the people that have passed, because as a community you share your food,” said Christine Sydney, executive assistant for the regional corporation. “It doesn’t taste as good unless you share it. That connects you to your culture and your people.”

Stories were clearly being told during the drum dances, Sydney confirmed.

One is called “Trekking,” wherein dancers go through the motions of travelling from Fort McPherson to Herschel Island.

“So they’re walking and moving their arms, putting down the willows, moving the willows out of the way, then they’re pulling their boat. It’s a story about nomadic life,” she said.

Another is called “Airplane.” It’s a story about someone taking their first trip on an airplane, waving goodbye to those they love.

“Every time, no fail, everybody has a good time,” Sydney said.

Another highpoint were games of muk, where one person emulates the sound of an animal in order to crack up their “opponent.”

Being in the wilderness for long stretches is not only strenuous. It’s lonely.

“You get caught in a blizzard, you’re not gonna move for sometimes days,” Kuptana said.

This game helps with that.

“As soon as the two start going, everybody around is just laughing.”

True. Everyone did indeed laugh while one participant replicated the sound of a moose. His opponent, doing his best to remain stone-faced, gave in, unable to contain a big belly laugh.

“Lots of personal growth happens with these games. That’s what our elders passed on to us,” Kuptana said.

The events have been well-received, said Smith, adding that people in Edmonton and Yellowknife want more. Smith said that could be a possibility. The hope, he continued, is that people will form societies and create their own Inuvialuit celebrations every year.

“They don’t need us to do it.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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