Skip to content

Ceremony at Yukon River seeks salmon’s return

When you haul water from a stream to drink it, you keep it clean, say those gathered for ceremony
Water healing ceremony on bank of Yukon River, early morning Aug. 7 (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

It was at about 5:20 on Aug. 7 when 24 slightly groggy people assembled on the banks of the Yukon River to participate in a water healing ceremony. Sunrise is an especially powerful time for ceremony. The invitation had been passed only by word of mouth, in keeping with the old ways.

Matriarchs and elders of the three nations — Kwanlin Dün, Ta’an Kwäch’än, and Carcross/Tagish, all relations and descendants of the Tagish Kwan and Tlingit people — assembled to conduct ceremony to clean the water and call the salmon back.

“When you haul water from a stream to drink it, you care for it, you keep it clean,” Colleen James of Carcross/Tagish said at the start. “Water is us, we are made of water, and we need to heal both.”

The ceremony was one small part of the three nations’ How We Walk with the Land and the Water relationship building initiative. The elders of the project decided that now is the time to go to all lengths to ensure the future of the land and the waters. The responsibility for healing needs to be shared.

The river water was churning as the prayers started. Unbeknownst to most, an eagle flew over up high. Four women spoke of how water gives life. Women spoke because women, too, give life.

In the days before the ceremony, water had been collected from nearby lakes that are the source of the river — like Fish Lake and Crag Lake — then, that water was poured together, blessed and smudged. Cups were passed and everyone drank the clean water from the source lakes. The rest of the water was poured into a basin, and was smudged again as a song was sung.

The water in the river calmed a little. The young ones were asked to carry the basin of lake water to the river, and so they did. They walked the basin to the river’s edge and poured the lake waters into the Yukon River.

The accompanying prayer spoke to the journey of the special lake water as it flowed with the Yukon River to all the other communities and spots along the way to the Bering Sea with its healing essence.

Then people sang; rattles held the rhythm. The river calmed further. A congress of ravens flew east across the river just after the song ended.

Food was passed. A small bowl had been made for each person with moose, corn and soapberries inside. Soapberry ice cream followed while people mingled and talked quietly.

Betsy Jackson, an elder present, pointed to the sky, and a translucent rainbow spanned trees overhead. She said the river was more at peace than at the beginning.

“If people would sit every morning with a glass of water and think of its importance, that would be good,” Jackson said.

Another person said that if we focused our attention on water, and used that as our lens for making decisions, then all our decisions would be better, and all things would live better.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at