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Rendezvous culture clash

This year, the festival that celebrates the Klondike Gold Rush is paying homage to the aboriginal culture the late 1890s migration damaged.

This year, the festival that celebrates the Klondike Gold Rush is paying homage to the aboriginal culture the late 1890s migration damaged.

For example, the overnight occupation of thousands of liquor-drinking, self-made miners represents one of the first and strongest blows to Dawson’s Tr’ondek Hwech’in traditional culture.

The First Nation community fled to the other side of a mountain in an attempt to separate and protect itself, and its way of life, from the denizens of the tent city.

The Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Festival venerates the gold rush and has nurtured the stampeder brand for the territory.

“I don’t think there’s any contradiction,” said Jon Solberg, executive director of the festival. “From my perspective, we’re focusing on how to build this festival to really incorporate all the communities and all the people in the Yukon.”

Solberg is new. He took over organizing the festival November 1, after this year’s theme had been decided.

Direction for the festival comes from the Rendezvous Society’s 60-person board.

The board approached former commissioner Geraldine Van Bibber for ideas, and she was the one to suggest a First Nation theme, said Solberg.

“Celebrating Yukon’s First People,” is the slogan.

It should have happened sooner, said Whitehorse Coun. Ranj Pillai.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “Should we have seen rendezvous integrate that culture in a more focused way at an earlier time? Sure, but I’m just glad they’re doing it now.”

Many Yukon First Nation people, including Pillai’s wife, have great memories of Rendezvous and quite enjoy it, he says.

Past festivals were far different than those staged today.

“There was always a lot of First Nation involvement and people,” says Sharon Shorty, remembering her childhood in the 1970s.

“For myself, when I was a young girl, I remember I used to sew and sew and get moccasins ready for sale and things like that and it was just a time of being pretty integrated.

“Some of the early queens were First Nation and Wilfred Charlie was the dogsled racer usually running - that was always a highlight, as I remember, standing on the river right down across from the main street, watching him come round the corner and knowing that not only was he First Nation and a champion, but he was my relation as well, so it was just a lot of pride.”

This year could signify a return to that, says Shorty.

She will be telling traditional Tlingit and Northern Tutchone stories at this year’s festival and she will include stories about how the festival used to be as well, she said.

The Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation dancers are also expected to join the bill along with Burwash Landing songstress Diyet and Old Crow fiddler Boyd Benjamin.

First Nation events from the ‘70s, like the regalia fashion show and sewing contest are things Shorty would really like to see come back, she said, remembering when she won first prize for her sewing when she only eight years old.

“We are going to have First Nation-themed events from now, moving forward,” said Solberg, noting it is the direction from the board.

“The society is leaning towards getting people participating and involved in the different activities and events going on here - and that’s not ruling out any sewing competitions in the future.”

A new event to this year’s festivities is the “grad challenge,” for local graduating students. The native and nonnative youth will be hosting and participating in events for community service hours, a requirement for graduation, and for cash prizes that will go towards their school’s prom or celebration.

Rendezvous will be centrally located at Shipyard’s Park and will run from February 24 to 27.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at