The construction of the Alaska Highway is often portrayed in a positive light for the territory: it allowed greater access to the Outside, bringing fresh food and other modern amenities.
But there’s another side to that story: it also made taking away First Nation children to residential schools a lot easier.
That story is one of many told during Map of the Land, Map of the Stars, Gwandaak Theatre’s latest creation.
“Those are the stories we are trying to unearth,” said Yvette Nolan, the piece’s co-director. “Everything is a mixed blessing.”
The performance looks at relationships between Yukoners – be it those fresh off the Air North flight or those with ancient ties to the territory.
“Yet we all have to live here together,” said Nolan said. “How do we reconcile with those histories?”
She remembers learning how many black American soldiers were sent to build the highway, some of whom ended up dying in the territory.
For Patti Flather, one of the co-creators, it’s about how fast the highway was built, and how it affected the people living there.
“There is a lot of exploration to how all of us with all our different cultural backgrounds have connections to the land and the river,” she said.
The stories span a vast period of time – from the gold rush to recent years.
They explore places people connect in the city and elsewhere.
“Sometimes there’s racism, sometimes there’s a beautiful meeting of people,” said Flather. “And that continues to this day.”
But it’s also about personal stories not widely shared.
“It’s history that you may not read in a history book or tourism brochure,” said Andrameda Hunter, one of the dancers.
The ensemble brings together a variety of Yukon artists who’ve been working on the piece for about a year.
It’s not just a bunch of people hired for a part; everybody contributes to it, Nolan said.
“When we started, everybody brought things they were interested in to the table, images and stories,” she said. “That’s how we built the piece.”
The cast itself is a good reflection of the territory, she said, with a mixture of recent Yukoners, old-timers and First Nations citizens.
The representation this weekend is only a first draft. The ensemble hopes to have a final version ready by next summer.
The piece’s creators wanted to make viewers feel more engaged than a regular sit-down theatre or dance performance. So the show moves around.
It starts outside the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, by the river. The audience is then guided back into the building for the bulk of the performance.
“I didn’t want to pretend we weren’t attached to the land,” said Nolan. “The Yukon River is one of the first trails.”
The show features dancing, story-telling and visual projections by Dawson City’s Chris Clarke.
Footage of the stars, northern lights and swimming fish are all projected onto a big parachute.
Some projections are even shone directly on the performers, which will be a bit of challenge, Nolan admits.
On top of the show, viewers go through the cultural centre with many different exhibits featuring Yukon stories.
There’s a replica of a 19th century dress, the ones that look like big elaborate parachutes. The story isn’t so much about the dress but how Han children saw it.
“They would see the European women getting off in their big skirts,” said Nolan. “They thought that’s how they packed their tents.”
You could peel back another layer to that story by asking why those kids were hiding in bushes to watch people getting off the boats. They weren’t allowed to be in Dawson at the time, Nolan notes.
Nolan’s own story is a familiar one for many Yukoners who’ve came to call the territory home.
She originally came for five days to take part in a writer’s festival in 1995.
She ended up staying five years, and while she now lives in Saskatoon, she can’t seem to stay away for long periods of time.
“I got off the plane and felt, ‘Oh this is home’,” Nolan said.
Map of the Land, Map of the Stars is playing Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 and 7:40 p.m. at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.
The public is asked to arrive early to allow for some time to go through the many installations preceding the show.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at email@example.com