The people will soon feast again. After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled 2020’s Moosehide gathering, the celebration of Hän culture is set to return to Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in traditional territory in the coming days.
First held in 1993, this year marks the 15th gathering, but the story goes back much further.
Against the backdrop of the recently established Indian Act – which brought with it the potlatch ban – the late 1800s saw almost 100,000 gold seekers descend on what colonizers later deemed Dawson City. Around the same time, residential schools started popping up all over Canada. The first Yukon residential school opened in Carcross in 1911.
Knowing his community’s traditional ways of life were at risk, Chief Isaac of the Hän people headed for the old Tanacross village at Lake Mansfield, Alaska. His goal was to pass knowledge to relatives and preserve his people’s songs and dances.
The Hän left their fish camp Tr’ochëk – located directly across the river from the gold rush boom town – for Moosehide Village.
‘We had to earn the songs back’
It would be decades before the Hän people took back the safeguarding of their songs and dances. Potlaches remained illegal until 1951. “The government and its supporters saw the ceremony as anti-Christian, reckless and wasteful of personal property,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when a group of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people committed to reviving their culture traveled to Tanacross to learn how to host a traditional gathering. They also learned those very songs and dances Chief Isaac sought to preserve.
With that traditional knowledge, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in hosted their first Moosehide Gathering.
“We had to earn the songs back,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph.
“We had to reinstate potlaches … each time we had a Moosehide Gathering potlatch, the Tanacross people would be invited as our teachers and they would guide us in a few songs,” Chief Joseph continued. “It’s about restoring our culture and our traditions because without it, we were quite lost.”
‘They haven’t been home for a few years because of the pandemic’
Much like most events over the past two years, the 2020 Moosehide Gathering was canceled because of COVID-19.
“It was quite depressing,” said Joseph.
This year, the biennial cultural celebration will once again bring people to Moosehide Village on the banks of the Yukon River. Visitors will leave Dawson and travel five kilometres by boat to see traditional and contemporary performances by artists from all over the Yukon and Alaska, feast on food, and participate in craft workshops.
“There are many Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Citizens who are coming from far. They haven’t been home for a few years because of the pandemic,” Joseph said.
The gathering kicks off with an opening ceremony that includes prayers, the lighting of the sacred fire, raising of the flags, and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Hän Singers followed by a feast. That evening, guests will be treated to performances by Kevin Barr and Dena Zagi along with community jigging and dancing.
Over four days, the Moosehide Gathering will present Jerry Alfred, Hucha Hudan Yellin, Tanacross Dancers, Teechik Dancers, and Blake Nelson Shaá’koon Lepine.
Other artists on the roster include hip hop groups Vision Quest and Local Boy, as well as the Lucky Ones, and Diyet and the Love Soldiers. There will also be a daily artist market with local and visiting vendors.
Workshops include medicine bag sewing, drum making and hide stretching as well as various music workshops.
Feasts will serve up traditional foods, wild meat, salads and sweets. Cook Andrea Moses is leading the kitchen with help from volunteers.
“To be able to prepare and get ready for our traditional potlatch is really exciting and everyone is looking forward to it,” Joseph said.
The 2022 Moosehide Gathering will take place from July 28 to 31.
Dylan MacNeil is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse.