Hot Dogs may be a common sight at Yukon Campgrounds these days, but they are rare fare at the community kitchen in Carmacks.
The kitchen, held at the Heritage Hall on the north side of the river, provides a hot, healthy lunch to any local or visitor who drops in.
Mooseburger soup, roast beef sandwiches, or whole-wheat pasta are the normal, nutritious choices offered at the free, daily lunches.
When this pilot program started in December, some Tantalus School students were suspicious of all the fresh food.
“For the first week there were a lot of vegetables thrown about,” said program director Susan Davis.
However, the students quickly adjusted to the healthy menu, she said.
Now, about 120 people, many of them Tantalus students, eat at the hall everyday.
Processed meats are banished from the kitchen. Friday’s lunch, the last before summer holidays, was an exception. For the first time since the program began, hot dogs and fries found their way onto plates.
For this last meal, cooks bustled in the kitchen.
Community volunteers, mostly middle-aged mothers and grandmothers, served the youngest children as well as elders at the head table.
Men in plaid jackets and teenagers in hoodies waited in line for their plates.
Vera Charlie helped serve before sitting down with her daughter and two grandsons for a bite. She enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren at the lunches.
“It’s very beautiful,” she said. “A lot of people come out. You come here and eat healthy. All the people know about it. They come here and socialize, and look out for their kids.”
Before the kitchen project started, holidays and special events were the only times the community gathered together, said Charlie.
“It wasn’t like this when I was growing up. This is better.”
On Friday, the assembled group had to wait for a local elder to say a prayer in Northern Tutchone before they ate their hot dogs.
Exposing youth to the Tutchone language is one of several reasons why the lunch’s nourishment extends beyond the stomach.
“The free food is just a side thing,” said Davis.
The program’s wider goal is passing down traditional laws, teachings and culture.
At Christmas, diners got to sing along to Northern Tutchone Christmas carols.
When elders take small groups of young people or kitchen staff onto the land to stock the larder with moose or fish, they speak Tutchone. Elders also help supervise the meat cutting, and teach traditional hide-tanning techniques.
In the six months since the program started, participants have captured two moose, four caribou, 100 whitefish and 50 grayling.
Plans are in the works for fish and moose camps in July and August to teach people how to dry meat.
The hunting trips are more than just a source of food and traditional knowledge. They also provide valuable documentation about the First Nation’s land use, said Davis.
The records can help educate government organizations about how the land is being utilized, said Davis, who is also the director of lands and resources for the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.
“There is the perception that it’s not being used.”
The LSCFN filed an injunction at the end of May seeking to prevent the Yukon government from granting an agricultural land parcel of 65 hectares in their traditional territory to Larry Paulson.
Back at the hall on Friday, head cook Earl Fields was documenting the program’s productivity.
The former army cook said the kitchen goes through 18 loaves of bread and three large pots of soup on an average day.
The kitchen is a busy place, but Fields loves to cook and has passed knowledge on to the other staff, some of whom had little cooking experience before they started here.
“Now, everybody knows how to cook something, even the dishwashers,” said Fields.
Finding full-time employment in Carmacks is difficult, and the kitchen, funded by the LSCFN, provides a stable income for nine people, said Davis.
But the Heritage Hall is not just a rendezvous point for carrots and cooks. It is also a place where trust is built over the breaking of bread and problems are addressed with needle and thread.
RCMP officers, nurses, and social workers often visit the lunch to strengthen their ties to the community, said program manager Leta Blackjack as she took a post-lunch break on the weathered picnic table outside the hall.
Davis, also seated on the bench, said the government and other outside organizations use the lunch as a way to consult the First Nation about projects, such as mine closures and power lines.
“Whoever is needing to talk to us brings the materials here and sets them up before lunch … It makes it much easier for us to get information out to the community.”
Locals also share information about Carmacks issues and events at the program’s morning prayer circle and afternoon sewing sessions at the hall.
“It’s a real good communication format to come out and talk and share things that are happening in the community, said Blackjack.
It’s not surprising that the community kitchen project encompasses such a wide range of activities.
Integration is an important element of the holistic, circular world view of the Dan. (Dan is the name the LSCFN people give themselves.)
Davis hopes that youth will learn traditional laws by absorbing the lessons learned during the program’s lunches, hunting trips and other activities.
These laws, as well as an understanding of the culture and land, will play an important part in the First Nation’s journey towards traditional self government, she said.
The community kitchen program will return to the Carmacks’ Heritage Hall this fall.