Haines Junction’s Southern Tutchone First Nations dancers have been on the move again.
Isn’t that what most dancers do?
Yes, but this group not only dances, it often travels to stage international performances.
On June 1, joined by the Elijah Smith Dancers, 67 children, teens, chaperones and parents travelled to Juneau, Alaska, to participate in Celebration 2006. (Fifty were performers.)
Celebration is an enormous, international Tlingit gathering that occurs every two years in Juneau. All nations are welcome.
During its four days in Juneau, the Dakwäkäda Dancers slept in the school gym, performed twice, and some participated in the parade in the rain (the third day of it).
They watched dance demonstrations, attended workshops and some shopped and rode the trolley.
The dancers also delighted tourists on the ferry with a hand games demonstration.
“All of the dancers were fantastic ambassadors for Haines Junction, Whitehorse, Yukon and Canada. Be proud of them all,” says Lisa Paul, one of the dance leaders.
Fourteen-year-old Chloe Godson has been with the group for seven years and was thrilled to attend Celebration.
She loves the travel, and sees the dancing as “something different.
“It’s a great way to experience other people’s culture,” she says.
For Logan Pauls, 11, the actual dancing is the best part of it all. And he’s been dancing since he was a tot.
This is not the first time the group has joined in Celebration, and it is not the only place it has travelled.
Since the group’s inception in the early 1990s, many of its members have been to Bella Coola, Winnipeg, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Mexico, to Moosehide and Dawson (often), and other parts of the Yukon.
Fundraising is ongoing. Early on a Saturday morning during the Alsek Music Festival (one week after the Juneau trip), Pauls is setting up the hospitality area with her two little girls, who are part of the group.
Others join her later, and some bring donated baked goods.
“We have to say a huge thank you to Lisa Pauls,” says leader Diane Strand.
“Right from the beginning, she’s been our background organizer. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where the dancers would be.
“And she’s always the nice one when handling the kids.”
The group does not charge for performances in the territory, but Strand is grateful that many events they dance for contribute an honorarium or provide travel expenses and food.
Champagne and Ashihik First Nations has always supported the dancers, she adds.
The Dakwäkäda Dancers has its roots in the teachings and vision of the late Annie Ned.
Ned was an award-winning, Southern Tutchone matriarch who spent more than 35 years teaching song and dance in residential schools, at Yukon Hall, and to her own large family.
She recorded many of her songs, which the Dakwäkäda Dancers sing and perform.
As well, the Tlingit people have added the gift of a few of their songs.
In 1992, four of Ned’s granddaughters organized the present dance group, then called Annie Ned Dancers.
One of the granddaughters, Josephine Boyle, recounts Ned’s passion for keeping their culture alive.
“She has instilled these songs in her grandchildren and has said to all of us that it is up to us to keep the traditional identity alive,” Boyle says.
Another granddaughter and co-founder of the group, Sheila Kushniruk, maintains that keeping the language alive is of particular importance, and song can do that.
“And sharing in a group like this teaches our kids how to live and work together — both First Nations and other cultures,” she says.
Strand (also Ned’s granddaughter), agrees.
“As adults, it’s going to be that much more harmonious for them living in a small community.”
“I’m not First Nations, but I got involved for my kids,” says Pauls.
“It’s all about embracing culture, celebrating, and having fun. When you’re teaching and including people, they become more embracing of other cultures, and tend not to stereotype.”
“We wanted to be more inclusive, not just family, and not just First Nations participants, so we changed the name,” says Strand.
(Dakwäkäda means “high cache,” the original Southern Tutchone name for the Haines Junction area.)
“Before our sister, Kathy (Kushniruk) passed away in 2000, she had the same goal as our grandmother — to keep the songs and dance alive,” Strand continues.
“I truly believe that she was instrumental in making sure we weren’t going to stop.
“That summer, we had more than usual invitations to dance and to travel; we tried to fulfill them all and haven’t let up.”
(For a year, though in mourning, Kushniruk’s sisters — Sheila Kushniruk, Diane Strand, and Josephine Boyle, did not dance with the group. They did sing with it, but only with the traditional two black stripes painted under their cheekbones.)
One of the dance group’s major challenges is acquiring and learning new songs.
“It’s difficult when we don’t have the language ourselves,” says Strand.
Part of the relief from this comes from Steven Reid, a Whitehorse language teacher, who is part of the dance group.
Two key songs for the group are Le-sta, a potlatch song — a happy song, and Se-sta, an exit song. Strand explains the significance of Se-sta.
“That was our grandma’s song. We always exit with that because when she sang it, she sang it with power. When we sing and dance it, I always visualize my grandma and thank her.
“It’s going to give us strength to continue so we don’t lose the reasons why she felt it was so important to be passing on the songs and her traditional teachings.”
Some of the Dakwäkäda Dancers live in Whitehorse. This presents another challenge: how to practice?
But they manage by separate weekly practice sessions, and then all together before a performance.
“Our style of dance is different from most native dance,” says Strand. “It’s not pow-wow or fancy dance or jingle dress that most people are familiar with, and our dancers are always well received.
“Sometimes the kids have even been asked for their autographs. So it’s like Pavlov’s dog. The more reward, the better the performance.”
Pauls describes the dance style: “There isn’t always a set foot pattern, but always a set rhythm. The drum is our heartbeat; it has the power. And the twirls and circling are always in the way of the sun, clockwise.”
Various dance members drum. But like their regalia, if the drum has a clan symbol, only members of that clan may use it.
“If you use another clan’s drum, you can take away their good medicine from it, so we have to be respectful of that,” Pauls explains.
“We try to make the drums not clan specific, so anyone can use them.”
Boyle is keeper of the regalia.
“It’s a challenge to have the regalia sorted, and who’s wearing what, and keep it all in order when we travel and perform,” she says.
“I always have to be there well ahead of time.”
Despite the hard work, what is the highlight for these enthused leaders?
“The kids,” they all say, without hesitation.
“I’m going to do this until I die, and then the younger generation can take over,” says Kushniruk, smiling.
What are the dancers’ future plans?
“Perhaps a group for just adults somewhere down the road,” says Strand.
For now, in September, they will dance at the headstone potlatch for former dance member, the late Doug Twiss Jr.
Later, children, youth and parents will attend the Native American International Event at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
An apt theme song? On the Road Again.