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Re raising a house, re raising a culture

Few people get the chance to save something important before it's gone forever. But Marilyn Jensen is one of those people. The culture of Jensen's inland Tlingit clan is at a tipping point, she said.

Few people get the chance to save something important before it’s gone forever.

But Marilyn Jensen is one of those people.

The culture of Jensen’s inland Tlingit clan is at a tipping point, she said. And if her people don’t do something to save it now, they may never be able to.

It is something the matriarchs in her family have been warning about for years, she said.

Jensen belongs to the Tagish Dakl’aweidi, or killer whale clan. Its culture has survived on the brink of devastation for well over a century, enduring within shared stories and memories while Ottawa passed oppressive laws and sanctioned brutal regimes of assimilation.

For the Tagish Dakl’aweidi, that century began with an obvious blow.

Two traditional Tlingit clan houses used to stand in the community south of Whitehorse, one for each of the main moieties. Early Yukon explorers noted that they looked like the longhouse structures built by Tlingit on the Alaskan coast.

But nothing stands there today. There are no remnants and no photographs.

About 100 years ago, missionaries broke them down and used them for firewood, said Jensen.

“It was part of the assimilation process going on throughout Canada,” she added. “My grandma talked about it a lot. My aunt, who has passed now, she talked about it all the time. ‘We have to re-raise our house, we have to rebuild that house, the house is important.’ And although we heard her, we weren’t really getting it at that time.”

But Jensen’s generation of Tagish Dakl’aweidi are getting it now.

The Dakl’aweidi make up about 40 per cent of the entire Carcross/Tagish First Nations. This weekend, Jensen’s clan will announce plans to rebuild their clan house.

“We need to solidify our identity,” she said. “For me, personally, I’ve realized that my mom’s not always going to be here, and someday it’s my responsibility to know this and provide this history, this knowledge and this identity to the descendants.

“We have to know who we are, and we have to have a place, an actual place on our traditional territory. Everything really kind of swirls around the house: your identity, your language, your ceremony.”

The painted and carved longhouses are not only emblems of culture but places for celebration, political assembly and everyday life.

For the Tlingit, they are like a meld of the Eiffel Tower, Wall Street, the Royal Albert Hall and your own home all in one.

The idea to rebuild her clan house really began taking shape about three years ago, when Jensen was invited to a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch in a tiny village at Kingcome Inlet in Alert Bay, which sits in between Vancouver Island and mainland B.C.

Her sister married into the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation there. To get to the remote community, Jensen travelled by plane, ferry and river canoe. For the final stretch, she hiked.

The first thing she noticed was their majestic clan house. She asked them how they had built it.

We did it ourselves, they told her.

Where did you get the grant? asked Jensen, who has worked in Yukon First Nation politics for years.

No, we built it ourselves, they told her again.

It took a second to sink in. The First Nation’s citizens actually felled the trees, planed them, hammered them together and painted them all themselves.

The realization hit her hard. “Self-determination doesn’t equate to self-government,” she said.

She brought the idea home and then eventually to Sitka, Alaska, where the Tlingit culture hasn’t endured the same hardships as their inland brethren.

This weekend, 10 traditional Tlingit clan leaders from Alaska will join the potlatch celebration in Whitehorse and the sod-turning ceremony in Tagish.

“They’re basically starting from ground zero,” Edwell John Jr. said of his inland brothers and sisters. “And they’re reaching out for our help.”

John Jr. is a hereditary clan leader of the Dakl’aweidi in Angoon, Alaska.

He is playing a big role in the weekend’s ceremonies.

Clan leaders are caretakers, said John Jr., who was born into the role as, traditionally, all nephews of clan leaders are.

“As clan leader, your personal wants and feelings are secondary to the clan,” he said.

He teaches the clan’s traditions, songs, ceremonies. And he safeguards possessions like the regalia and totems that represent the ancestors.

This weekend, John Jr. will also help the Tagish Dakl’aweidi rebuild their traditional leadership.

A six-year-old and a man in his 20s have been chosen for training, he said.

They will be trained and challenged by John Jr. to eventually reinstate hereditary chiefdom for the Tagish.

As a whole, the Carcross/Tagish First Nations has tried to incorporate the traditional clan system into their self-governance system, said Jensen.

This is part of working in the best parts of tradition with the modern world, she said.

“I’ve seen what culture and our language does for our people,” she said. “It transforms them. We want our people to be strong, to heal, to be independent and happy.

“We have more work to do.”

There is no construction schedule yet, Jensen said. But the first step will be to follow tradition.

The Tagish Dakl’aweidi must ask the Dehshitan, or split-tail beaver clan to make a totem for the future house.

Traditionally, opposite clans built houses for each other.

So for Jensen’s Tagish Dakl’aweidi, which falls under the eagle or wolf moiety, the Dehshitan, which falls under the raven moiety, must agree to work with them.

This weekend, matriarchs from the Dehshitan will respond to the Dakl’aweidi’s request.

Before the missionaries destroyed them, the other clan house that once stood in Tagish was the Dehshitan’s.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at