David Dickson is an interviewer’s dream: he is present and available to the conversation, giving respectful attention to each question. He has a face full of mischief, and his answers reveal a mind-delighting in humour while at the same time showing a great deal of thought.
Watson Lake is home; he is Kaska, and the Kaska have always been here.
He grew up with stories from the elders; many were about helping the first white people get settled in this area.
The Lower Post Indian Residential school was “home” for four years. David says he has blocked out that experience, knowing only it was a painful one.
Imagine, Dickson asks, how you would feel if the RCMP, the Indian agent and the missionary came to your door and took away your five-year-old child. Imagine being told, “We know what is better for your child”.
The children learned to feel shame for being native and their language was forbidden.
Their parents were left bereft and lonely; many parents at that time went to alcohol to numb the pain, the trauma.
He has one brother and five sisters; another sister was killed by a drunk driver.
His parents are gone; his mother died in 1987 and his father in 1996. He misses them, and tells children to always love their parents, regardless of how they are treated.
We don’t know what our parents have experienced in their past that has shaped their attitude towards life, he says, urging kids to ask their mothers and fathers about their lives.
He tells a story his dad told him, about the Indian agent coming into his grandfather’s camp to take Dickson’s dad to residential school.
His grandfather asked, “How long are you going to take my boy?” and when the answer was “Seven years” the grandfather said, “No.”
He’s glad his dad didn’t go, Dickson says now, because he was able to teach many of the traditional ways. He wishes I had run away from that school.
We, as Kaskas, have had a lot of things happen to us, but we are adaptable, and strong, and we will stand up and speak loud if we are ever threatened again.
Dickson lives in Upper Liard, doing odd jobs, hunting and fishing. The latter activities are for food, he reminds me, not for sport.
His father told the people not to sell the land; the money will be gone, but the land will still be here and the people who know how to live off the land will survive.
I believe my dad, says Dickson.
Q: Tell me your experience of the Kaska elders.
A: The elders will show their concern and heart for people when someone in the community is ill, or passes away. That’s when their realness shows up, the care in their hearts. They are there when we need them.
They are strong in their stand against settling land claims, they are united. We have strong elders.
Q: Do you speak Kaska?
A: I wish I did. I wish I could experience the feelings of my people who can talk Kaska. The stories are more humorous in Kaska; I see my brother really laugh when he and his friends tell stories to each other. He tells me the humour is a lot less when translated.
People are sometimes afraid to try to speak their language; they are afraid of being laughed at, but I tell them to try. The elders laugh because they are happy to hear it spoken; it makes them feel good.
Q: The schools in Watson Lake have are causing parents of both cultures a lot of concern these days. How do you seeing them serve the needs of the Kaska, and where do they fail?
A: The good news, in my view, is that the schools integrate native and non-native kids so they are learning to live together.
The Yukon schools need to veer away from learning about castles and a way of life in Europe and learn more about the environment they live in — the First Nations, the local geography. The students have to learn of their environment and then learn outwards.
We as natives have learned to live in a European-influenced society, now non-native people need to learn of the native world: how we live, why we need to be in the mountains and with the rivers.
We understand you, now you need to understand us, our world view. With understanding comes respect for each other. Only then can we live together equally.
Respect is critical. Other First Nations and governments call us a “non-self-government Indian Affairs First Nation.”
We, the Kaskas, are self-governing and self-determining; we don’t need to be recognized by another race of people saying “You are now self-governing” — it’s oxymoronic.
Q: Do you think the Kaska children will wish to live the old ways?
A: Yes, they will. Our children will carry on; it’s an inherent way of life for them, it’s in them. We have damaged youth who walk the streets that someday will go out in the bush. They will.
Q: The different roles of Kaska men and women in today’s world — any comments?
A: The women took on administrative jobs a long time ago while the men were still hunters. The men got left behind then, but we are catching up. Kaska men and Kaska women should be proud of each other’s achievements. They each have a lot to contribute to each other.
Q: Do you believe it is possible for native and non-native people in Watson Lake to work together?
A: Yes, I believe so. If we could unite as one to co-manage the land and resources outside of “land claims” imagine how powerful Watson Lake could be!
I worry more about the Kaska, hoping we can integrate as one nation.
We have to learn to have one political view. My people are strong, but we will be stronger if we learn to work together. It doesn’t matter where your parents are from: Pelly Banks, Francis Lake, Ross River, Upper Liard, etc. We have to do this for our children.
Q: What do you hope for yourself?
A: I hope to meet my maker without bills left behind and to be spiritually ready. I strive to be a better me.
Q: What would you like people to know about you?
A: I worry about my people, our young people who are lost and walking the streets. I think about how drugs and alcohol are damaging our people. Regardless, we will survive and evolve into a stronger race.
I tease people, but sometimes the wrong words come out; there is a difference that I sometimes don’t recognize when I tease, whether it’s an age difference or cultural, I don’t know. But I don’t want to be seen as disrespectful, or hurtful.
I also want readers to know these are my views and opinions.
I am proud of my Kaska people … whether they are from Daylu Dena Council, Ft. Ware, Liard First Nation, Dease River First Nation or Ross River Dena Council … we are a strong people.
I am not representing Liard First Nations, just myself.
And if anyone wants to comment or offer feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or complain to Tor — this is her idea.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.