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Dance festival set for Haines Junction

Festival happening this weekend
The Dakwäkäda Dancers sing an exit song as they leave the longhouse at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre on Feb. 17. The group will be performing at the Da Kų Nän Ts’étthèt Dance Festival being held from June 23 to 26. (Yukon News file)

Dancers are usually unsung heroes, says Rose Kushniruk, but they’ll be cheered pretty loudly at the Da Kų Nän Ts’étthèt Dance Festival this month.

The festival, which was held for the first time in 2013, takes place this year from June 23 to 26. It’s always provided an opportunity for craft, community and activity. But Kushniruk, festival coordinator, says it’s part of a deeper vision to reconnect to cultural history. And dance is integral to that.

“[Dancers] have been keeping language alive for a while,” says Kushniruk. “There are big movements right now in language revitalization […] so many people are proud of who they are and where they come from now.”

Kushniruk says keeping their songs accessible and alive is important to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN). She says CAFN made a huge commitment to language in 2018, when the First Nation announced its Dákwänjē (Southern Tutchone) language immersion program. The two-year course is now going into its third cohort of students.

“It feels really incredible to be a part of that vision that is still being fulfilled. [The festival] is one way of fulfilling that vision,” she says.

This year, the Da Kų Cultural Centre will host dance groups from the Yukon, British Columbia, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. These include the Tagish Nation Dancers, Northway Dancers, Han Dancers and the Dakwäkäda Dancers.

Kushniruk, whose own mother was part of keeping the Dakwäkäda Dancers alive for 30 years, is excited that there will be an exhibition opening to honour the 30th anniversary of the dance group.

In addition to dancing, drumming and more, there will be workshops to make beaded picture frames, medicine bags and octopus bag-making. There will be a talk on First Nations art, as well as campfire stories, hair-braiding, a blanket toss, Tlingit language games and a workshop where CAFN citizens can learn more about their family trees. There will also be a vendor’s market featuring all kinds of crafts and artwork, a feast night on June 24 and an outdoor DJ dance for youth on June 23.

Finally, Tlingit master carver Wayne Price will be at the event to name and launch a canoe. Together, the community will “dance it to life,” says Kushniruk.

One of the apprentice carvers who worked on the canoe, CAFN citizen Kevin Todd Jim, died in 2021.

Suzanne Hume is his younger sister. She remembers her older brother as loving and, partly because he was older, someone who fell easily into the role of caregiver in her family. Hume will be in attendance at the festival.

The canoe was meant to launch at the Tlingit Celebration in Alaska last spring—a paddle from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau. However, the canoe wasn’t finished in time.

In honour of her brother, Hume made the trip in a different boat in 2022. She says seeing his boat launch this weekend will be significant for her family.

“Kevin was very proud when he started working on that canoe,” she says. “So it does mean a lot (to us.) And there will be some sense of some closure as well.”

The launch will take place June 23 at Pine Lake at 3 p.m.

Kushniruk says she hopes to see everyone out at the festival. You don’t have to be a CAFN citizen to attend, and you don’t have to be a dancer either, she says.

“Our dance group has always been open to anybody who wants to learn and sing the songs,” she says. If you don’t feel like you have the chops, she says the best thing to do is ignore that feeling—getting up and giving it a try is good for self-confidence.

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