On the hunt for caribou, caiman and culture

Tall and lanky, with his long black hair tucked under a Native Pride cap, Isaiah Gilson stands out. His accomplishments do too — so much so,…

Tall and lanky, with his long black hair tucked under a Native Pride cap, Isaiah Gilson stands out.

His accomplishments do too — so much so, that last year this 15-year-old Southern Tutchone, who is a member of the Kluane First Nation, became one of six Canadian aboriginal youth chosen from more than 350 applicants to participate in Road Scholars’ upcoming season.

The TV series features youth who tote digital video cameras to various parts of the world to share and experience culture and heritage.

“The shows are really quite profound; I’m really, really happy with them,” said executive producer and creator Jane Hawtin from Toronto.

“Seeing the pride in these kids, when learning about another indigenous culture and when they have the chance to share their culture and what it means to them, it is great.”

Gilson, who lives and breaths culture, immediately made the cut.

“I was originally worried because he was so young,” said Hawtin.

“But talking to him, he really impressed us — he is 15 going on 50.”

He is an old soul, agreed Chris Allicock, the publicist for Amberlight Productions.

“He must have paid close attention to his elders.”

While growing up in Whitehorse, Gilson spent weekends in Burwash Landing where he learned Tutchone from his auntie and how to hunting moose, sheep and caribou from his uncle.

“As I got older, I went out on the land like I did as a child and, in doing so, I gained a large amount of knowledge of my land and how to have respect for it and the animals, for they give me their life to feed myself and my family,” he said.

A member of the Dakwakada Dancers, Gilson has travelled as far as Juneau, Alaska, to perform. He now attends the Amiskwaciy Academy in Edmonton, the only First Nations public school in Canada.

There he continues to drum and dance.

Classes begin every morning with smudging ceremonies, in which smoke from burning sweet grass is wafted over each student, said Gilson.

After he was chosen to be a Road Scholar, Gilson was flown to Toronto for orientation and appeared on City TV.

Three weeks later, after taking early exams at Amiskwaciy, he was on a plane to Costa Rica.

“I was a bit nervous; it was my first time on a big airline and I was worried about getting stuck in Houston (Texas),” he said.

But his trip to Costa Rica went off without a hitch and his host recognized him immediately.

“I guess it was my long hair,” he said with a smile.

Road Scholars placed Gilson into a pre-existing work/travel program for high school students run by Wilderness Ventures.

“They were mostly US kids from rich families” in the program, said Gilson.

“But they were interesting.”

Because he was fresh from a northern Alberta high school, the manic bustle of a South American airport already provided some culture shock — and it didn’t stop there.

The next day, after a lengthy bus ride, Gilson found himself in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest floating down a caymen-infested river on a raft.

“I saw four native kids by the river — that’s where they live, in a village in the middle of the rainforest,” he said, traces of awe in his voice.

After three days of tenting and rafting, and another lengthy bus trip, Gilson arrived in a little mountain village nestled in a tropical cloud forest.

He spent eight days there helping to rebuild the tiny community school, making cement, fixing the roof and pulling up weeds.

“I sang a traditional song and drummed for the villagers and got my hair braided and then the young children danced for me and the older ones sang,” said Gilson.

The little red light on his video camera continued to flash as he dutifully recorded all these experiences in his digital diary.

“There was an indigenous family in this valley and, after watching my performance, Leo, the head of the village, took me to visit them,” said Gilson.

It was only about a kilometre and a half to the family’s home and when they arrived Gilson drummed and sang for the mother and her two daughters, who were eight and two.

 The mother was only 19 — she was 11 when she had her first child — this is just a cultural difference, said Gilson.

He gave the family dream catchers he had made in Edmonton and, with rough translation, tried to explain how these woven rawhide circles would catch their bad dreams at night.

During this visit, the young mother told Leo how she wanted her older daughter to attend the village school.

“This ended up being so magical,” said Hawtin, who was there for a week with a cameraman to professionally film part of Gilson’s cultural adventure.

“A real change occurred — this family, with the aid of Gilson and Wilderness Ventures, was able to send their daughter to school.”

“It was the highlight of my trip,” said Gilson.

Gilson spent the next several weeks sea kayaking, flying through the rainforest on zip-lines and working to restore a large tract of land near the Pacific Ocean by picking-up garbage and planting trees.

Gilson filmed the sparkling phosphorescence in the ocean at night, the rare tropical birds that flew along the rainforest trails, sea turtle eggs his group spent a day protecting on a white sand beach and his bath in a tropical pool that his peers found much too cold.

“It was nothing,” the Yukon youth said with a laugh.

Gilson returned home sated and thoughtful.

“I would take more dream catchers and books on the Yukon next time,” he said.

But his vision extends beyond that.

“I want to help with human rights and help the native people down there,” he said.

Gilson also wants to help his peers in Edmonton.

There is a lot of racism and poverty in Edmonton and a serious youth drug problem; there are 14-year-olds doing ecstasy at parties and people getting beaten up because of race, he said.

“I’ve seen it and understand it.

“I want to run a workshop at my school to raise awareness and promote change. I don’t think adults understand it, so if I act as a mediator maybe I can make a connection between students at my school and the adults.”

Considering Gilson’s ideals, it’s no surprise to learn who his role model is.

“I want to meet the Dali Lama someday,” he said.

Gilson’s episode of Road Scholars will premier on APTN on February 1st at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time. It will repeat February 3rd, March 15th and March 17th at the same time.