A journey of revitalization: film showcases Yukon First Nation artists

It’s a journey that brought dancers, carvers, fashion designer, sculptors, weavers and singers from all over the Yukon and even Alaska to one place: downtown Whitehorse.

It’s a journey that brought dancers, carvers, fashion designer, sculptors, weavers and singers from all over the Yukon and even Alaska to one place: downtown Whitehorse.

Journeys to Adäka tells the stories of seven First Nation artists who came to be involved with the Adäka Cultural Festival celebrating First Nation culture in Whitehorse.

But the film is first and foremost an exploration of what culture is and that without it, there is no identity.

“This story is about the healing journey of these individuals, the role of culture in overcoming some history and some unfairness and a legacy of hurt in many cases,” said Teresa Earle, the film’s producer.

The film follows artists from almost every part of the territory.

Each one has a different story — for some it’s an internal journey, say, overcoming addiction and abuse — but all speak to the power of culture in their lives.

“Some of those individuals featured in the documentary really speak about the life transformation (they experienced) and reclaiming their culture and identity,” said Marilyn Jensen, a member of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers and board member of the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association, which participated in the film.

The film features Carmen Baker, the leader of the Selkirk Spirit Dancers, from Pelly Crossing, Gary Sidney Johnson, one of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers from Carcross, Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver in Haines, Alaska, Chantal Rondeau, a journalist, filmmaker and fashion designer originally from Carmacks, Dennis Shorty, a Kaska Dena sculptor from Ross River, also an accomplished drummer and singer, Ann Smith, a Kwanlin Dun First nation elder, known for her ravenstail weaving and Diyet Van Lieshout, born and raised in Burwash Landing, a singer and songwriter.

The film, two years in the making, will premiere May 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Quoting her partner, director Fritz Mueller, Earle said producing the film made him realize the incredible talent and humility of some Yukon artists.

“Yukoners don’t know we have cultural giants in our midst,” he told her. “There are some impressive people and I’m blessed I got to know them.”

(The News couldn’t speak to Mueller directly because Earle said she had locked him in the editing suite to put the finishing touches on the film).

The Adäka Cultural Festival came to be after the Vancouver 2010 Olympic games. A contingent of Yukon First Nation artists went to the Games and performed throughout.

The success and energy from that lead to Adäka, Jensen said.

And while it’s a good opportunity for non-First Nation people to discover a new culture, the festival is first and foremost about First Nation people practising their culture.

“If we reflect back to my mother’s generation, they were not allowed to sing their songs,” Jensen said. “(But) here we are, in the middle of downtown Whitehorse, singing as loud as we can. It’s an amazing thing.”

Jensen has danced at the Adäka Cultural Festival. In fact as part of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, she’s danced all over the world. Yet for her there is no experience like dancing at home.

“Just to see the faces, the smiles, and sometimes tears on our elders faces is why we do this,” she said.

“It’s about our people and our community.”

Culture is so closely connected to people’s identities, it’s crucial people get to practice it, Jensen said. Now her own kids have grown up in a world where dancing at the festival is completely normal.

“Without the expression of art, culture and language, we lose so much of who we are,” she said.

And despite the legacy of colonialism, First Nations cultures are growing and thriving again.

“It’s been a journey of huge revitalization,” Jensen said.

The film will also be screened at this year’s Adäka Cultural Festival. Earle hopes to show the films at festivals throughout the world. The film has already been nominated for an award and will be screened at the Yorkton Film Festival, the longest running film festival in North America.

“It was important to us we make a story that is universal and that audience outside the yukon will celebrate and embrace and can relate to,” Earle said. “We feel this story here is of importance across Canada and elsewhere in the world.”

Mueller and Earle also worked with local composer Jordy Walker who created the film’s soundtrack.

The film also features several traditional songs in different languages, Earle said.

She found it difficult to condense so many life stories in a film, so much so that they’ll be releasing additional short films and bonus features in the next months.

Journeys to Adäka will premiere at the Yukon Arts Centre, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available at yukontickets.com.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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