The ghost town of Snag, where a church and a few dilapidated cabins are all that remain from the Second World War era, was likely the last place Ukjese van Kampen expected to meet a distant relative last summer.
The Northern Tutchone artist was in the remote location to give workshops at the White River First Nation’s cultural camp, and that’s where he met Martha Northway.
Both are relatives of Annie Ned, the award-winning Southern Tutchone matriarch who spent 35 years teaching song and dance in residential schools, at Yukon Hall and to her own large family.
“I’d been told growing up that our family had a connection in Northway, Alaska,” van Kampen said.
“When I was in Snag, Martha Northway’s daughter told her that the great-grandson of Annie Ned was there. She came down from Northway to see me and that was quite a nice occurrence.”
It was also exciting for van Kampen because he was meeting the daughter of Walter Northway, the revered chief after whom the village is named.
“He was a cultural icon,” he said.
Van Kampen was the first participant of the Little John Archaeological Site artist-in-residence program last summer, sponsored by the Yukon Art Centre’s Culture Quest Program, Yukon College and the White River First Nation.
The program took him to Little John first, an excavation site between the Canadian and American borders in the Beaver Creek region, and then to Deadman Lake in Alaska.
The Little John Field Camp, first established in 2002, has yielded proof that humans have been living in the area for more than 12,000 years.
Van Kampen watched as archaeologists dug for arrowheads, scrapers and other cultural artifacts.
“They found some obsidian (a naturally occurring volcanic glass) at Deadman Lake,” he said.
“It’s important because if it’s there, generally that means that it was brought from somewhere else.”
And as they were closing down the site at Deadman Lake they discovered a discoloration in the sand that caused some excitement, but they had to fill up the hole and leave because they ran out of time, he said. They will re-visit the site this summer.
Van Kampen, who holds a doctorate degree in the history of Yukon’s First Nations art, has put together a show featuring paintings, sketches and photographs inspired by his time in the program.
Called Archaeology in a Northern Community, the show will be displayed at the Yukon Arts Centre Community Gallery starting tomorrow.
But van Kampen doesn’t like to call himself an artist.
“If you make candles, you can call yourself an artist,” he said.
“I call myself an image and statement maker. Some of the paintings make blatant statements while others are more subtle.”
One example is the painting of a woman from the Upper Tanana people, standing in between the American and Canadian borders and holding flags in both hands.
“She doesn’t look so happy because her people are split in half,” he said.
The Upper Tanana regional bands, part of the Tanana Athabaskan people, are mostly located along the Tanana River in Alaska but some live in southwestern Yukon.
Van Kampen said he plans on adding chicken wire along the border to emphasize the split.
Another painting depicts Martha Northway sitting on a chair at the cultural camp in Snag, with the White River in the background.
Van Kampen had taken a picture of her elsewhere but wanted to show her “in her people’s land,” he said.
A Champagne and Aishihik First Nations citizen, van Kampen is a former Canadian Airborne Regiment commando and combat engineer in the United States Marines.
His art has been featured around the world including in Munich, Seattle, Ottawa and Sydney, Australia.
One of the reasons the artist-in-residence program was so successful was because it was a First Nation person participating, he said.
“And also someone who has a connection with the community, who knew something about the art and the people,” he added.
“The interactions were very easy going.”
Archaeology in a Northern Community opens tomorrow evening. There is an opening reception at 5 p.m. with refreshments and Van Kampen will be in attendance.
Contact Myles Dolphin at