It was this village’s big day.
The Olympic torch, having been carried in San Francisco, Beijing and Paris last year, drew crowds in a very different part of the world Wednesday.
It landed in the heart of small-town, aboriginal Canada.
Old Crow’s airport had to be restructured for the 737 aircraft carrying the torch. The fences were pushed to the sides and the tarmac had to be covered with new protective material.
The torch flew on the largest plane ever to land in the community of 267 people.
A couple dozen relay officials were taken aback by Old Crow’s hospitality during the few hours they rubbed shoulders with the locals.
“In Victoria, all the pomp and circumstance kind of prevented any genuine warmth to come through,” said a Coca-Cola advertising official dining on caribou and onions.
“But this,” he said. “This is really unique.”
They were treated to a fashion show of traditional Vuntut Gwitchin clothing, a feast of caribou and a dance that brought the house down.
Olympic officials mingled with elders and young Vuntut children inside the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School, where the festivities took place.
In a town that isn’t connected to the world by road, the welcoming spirit hasn’t worn off. Visitors are still treated like visitors in Old Crow, not people just passing through.
With minus 40 Celsius weather outside, Brendan Kyikavichik, who works in the Vuntut government’s heritage department, offered a piece of history for his guests.
Kyikavichik explained how the Vuntut used to build fences to corral the Porcupine caribou herd with wood cut with saws made from caribou antler.
“It was an incredible engineering method, in my opinion, especially when you consider the climate and conditions they endured to pull off such an incredible feat,” said Kyikavichik. “They had to wake up early in the morning, put on their snowshoes, and walk into the bush on an empty stomach, sometimes walking for days.
“If someone was lucky enough to make a good kill, he would give the meat to the other families,” he said.
“That is our cultural history in a nutshell. That is the essence of Gwich’in culture.”
Following Kyikavichik, the Vuntut put on a “handkerchief dance” in which one man and two women dance while holding a colourful leather band.
Fiddle music filled the room, and when the band began the Red River Jig, the visitors were asked to join in the dance.
Relay staff and Vuntut dancers danced in a circle, as the festive mood reached its peak.
It was hard not to get up and dance.
The torch relay has been the talk of the town for weeks, said Lorraine Netro, who co-ordinated the relay in Old Crow.
“As the time came closer, the excitement was building right up until today,” said Netro, who was the event’s MC.
The Vuntut, maybe because Outside visitors are so few and far between here, displayed remarkable and genuine warmth during the few hours they had on the world stage.
“We’re always happy to share our culture with the world,” said Joe Linklater, the Vuntut Gwitchin chief.
“(Sharing) is something that is sometimes forgotten in the world and it’s appropriate with the Olympic torch here to demonstrate that,” said Linklater.
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