Elder’s passing marks the loss of Tlingit life

In life, Lilly Kane was a witness to the slow disappearance of traditional Tlingit culture. But her death brings that gradual loss to a sharply felt…

In life, Lilly Kane was a witness to the slow disappearance of traditional Tlingit culture.

But her death brings that gradual loss to a sharply felt end.

“I think (traditional Tlingit life) is gone,” said a lifelong friend and elder.

Her friend wished to remain anonymous so she wouldn’t offend her community.

But she wanted to strongly convey that, with Kane’s death on November 7th at 98 years old, the Tlingit way of life is a thing of the past.

“I can see it,” she said. “They’ve let the language go.”

Kane was born in Tagish on April 1,1911, and she was raised in Carcross.

She was the youngest of three siblings and the last of a generation.

Kane spoke Tlingit and Tutchone fluently, said her friend.

In those bygone days, Kane was expected to hunt and trap.

Life was ruled by traditional laws that held a firm grip on the community.

“(The law system) was wonderful. It held the people in tow,” the friend said.

People were expected to respect the ancient rules.

“You were free until you were adolescent, when the uncles took the boys and the aunts took the girls,” she said.

Despite the rigidity of tradition, there was a stronger sense of trust amongst the Tlingit in the past.

“You could leave your door open and be trustworthy,” said the elder.

But the strict nature of Tlingit life is gone.

“Why do you think Tlingit people carve? Because they were trained,” said the elder. “It was compulsory to do some training.”

“We didn’t lose (Tlingit traditions) until the late ‘40s and ‘50s,” she said.

That’s when the Alaska Highway arrived in the southern Yukon along with more white schools, white laws and white ways of life.

“There they were forbidden to speak their language or teach their spiritual ways,” she said.

“To be a First Nations was a big no-no.”

But Kane was a rock throughout.

She continued her life through a century that would force Tlingit out of the everyday.

She was a quiet woman who held on to her traditions as if the world was not changing rapidly around her.

Kane would rarely comment on the changes, said her friend. She simply kept the Tlingit way of life going by example.

“She lived her culture,” said her friend.

No one realizes the lost world she symbolizes, she said.

“Nobody recognizes that. None of her relatives recognize what she was, and how she was.”

Her quiet and soft-spoken nature hid her depth.

“She’s 10 times the people we have today.”

Younger generations don’t realize the loss Kane represents.

“They don’t realize what a person she was because they’ve gone through a white man’s school.”

The Slim family was well known in Carcross, where Kane spent most of her life.

“That family was so prominent in the communities and they still have grandchildren and great-grandchildren there,” said the elder.

Her brother, Frank Slim, used to man a steamboat that travelled the Yukon River.

Generosity and trust were the mainstays of her life, as they had been when she was born.

“She was a very kind person, she never said a bad word to anyone,” said her daughter Dora Kane-Dunphy-Lautamus.

“If someone was needy, she would take them in,” said Kane.

“She’d rather give than receive,” she added.

Kane later married a Tutchone man from Champagne/Aishihik and moved to the area.

She enjoyed sewing and preferred the background over the spotlight, said Kane.

“She loved music while she was sewing, so all her children play instruments,” she said.

The elder would make her own skin and sew the traditional Tlingit way, said Kane.

Recently, the great-grandmother had to move to Whitehorse.

“I was her homecare provider in Whitehorse,” said her daughter.

In her ‘90s, Kane remained a kindhearted person.

“She’d eat anything and never complained,” said Kane. “She wasn’t difficult to live with.”

In her later years, Kane would take her mother on rides to Haines Junction.

“When your eyes diminish, you can’t sew anymore,” said Kane.

The elder could walk until a week ago, when she was hospitalized for stomach pain.

She died peacefully with family.

Her burial took place on November 13 in Champagne.

She was one of the oldest Tlingit women in the Yukon, said her friend.

And it was her traditions that kept her going, she said.

Kane was one of the unique people who kept to her culture, said her friend.

“That’s why Lilly Kane lived as long as she did.”

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.ca