Taku Kwaan dancers spread their wings

By Allan Sheppard Special to the News Taku Kwaan (People of the Taku) is a traditional dance group of the Atlin-based Taku River Tlingit. Its members have come a long way since the group was formed in 2006.

Taku Kwaan (People of the Taku) is a traditional dance group of the Atlin-based Taku River Tlingit.

Its members have come a long way since the group was formed in 2006.

Taku Kwaan’s performances have become an annual highlight of the Atlin Arts and Music Festival, and they will make their fourth appearance there on Friday. They will appear at Teslin Tlingit Council’s Ha Kus Teyea Celebration, July 22 to 28, and they are waiting for confirmation of an invitation to perform on the international stage at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games in 2010.

Tlingit traditional dancing and the culture and spirituality it created, and is in turn sustained by, had virtually died out in Atlin by the fall of 2005. Then the Taku River Tlingit First Nation invited Wayne Carlick to lead a cultural revival in the community.

Carlick was happy to accept the invitation.

“In 1993, the elders gave me a set of carving tools and their blessing to move to Vancouver and become a carver. This was a chance to repay them for their faith in me.”

In Vancouver, Carlick found work as an carver-in-residence at the Capilano Suspension Bridge International Park. That job allowed him to hone his creative skills.

He found opportunities in Vancouver to meet and work with many First Nation artists and cultural leaders, including Dempsey Bob, a Tahltan-Tlingit carver.

“Dempsey Bob became my mentor,” says Carlick, who also had opportunities to rub shoulders with the Haida master Bill Reid and other established artists.

Bob and the others taught Carlick that he could not become the kind of artist he wanted to be without learning and practising the culture, spirituality and protocols in which traditional Tlingit carving is embedded.

With encouragement from his employers, Carlick enriched his carving work with Tlingit and other West Coast First Nation singing, drumming, dancing and regalia, always learning and seeking new opportunities to learn.

Carlick’s relatives, friends, and family members often travelled from Atlin to Vancouver to help him celebrate special achievements, such as the raising of totem poles.

Having been alienated from Tlingit culture, the visitors from Atlin were inspired and energized by their participation in the ceremonies Carlick organized based on what he had learned in Vancouver. They persuaded the Taku River Tlingit government to invite Carlick to return to Atlin in January 2006.

Carlick was joined in his cultural revival assignment by elder Mary Anderson, who grew up on the Taku River and in Atlin and now lives in Whitehorse.

“Auntie Mary is one of the last fluent Tlingit speakers, and she still remembers the protocols that are important in our culture and art,” he says.

Carlick and Anderson chose traditional dancing as the focus for their work because it incorporates a broad range of cultural elements—music, storytelling, language, spirituality and spiritual arts and crafts—and because it could help restore a sense of community and solidarity among the dancers and their community that had been lost under government policies, along with their culture.

Taku Kwaan gave its first public performance in the spring of 2006 at Celebration, a biannual sharing of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian culture and art held in Juneau, Alaska.

The group returned to Juneau in 2008 and will perform there again in 2010.

“Celebration gives us a chance to compare our skills and progress against other dance groups that have more performing experience,” says Carlick.

Although it began in Atlin and is based there, Taku Kwaan now draws about half its members from Taku River Tlingit families living in Whitehorse.

“We have some challenges getting everyone together for practices,” says Carlick. “But we help maintain ties to the community for people who have had to leave.”

The group exchanges performers and performances with Inland Tlingit dancing groups in Carcross and Teslin, contributing to and benefiting from cultural revival programs in those Yukon communities.

Taku Kwaan added a children’s component in 2007.

Ranging in age from two to 11, the children comprise a sub-group called Dikee Aakaawu Yatx’I (Children of the Creator).

Now about a third of the membership, the children are the heart of Taku Kwaan and the foundation for future Taku River Tlingit cultural development. They are being groomed to become the group’s leading singers, soloists, drummers, regalia-makers and choreographers and continue a renaissance of their culture and identity.

Unlike their parents and many of their grandparents, the children growing up in close contact with Tlingit culture and language.

Taku Kwaan is also drawing community elders into its programs.

Most living elders never had opportunities to live with their language, culture and traditions, which were stigmatized by Canadian governments and society. Many were shamed into selling or giving away the ceremonial blankets, regalia and artifacts that came down to them from their clans.

Elders suffered much for their culture and later from its absence. But they kept the memory alive until Carlick and others could nurture it back to life, and the dancers want to honour that contribution through their work and by sharing what they learn with the elders.

Taku Kwaan members look forward to continued participation in the Atlin Arts and Music Festival as a way to build respect and closer relations with the non-aboriginal members of the community in Atlin and the community of performers who appear at the festival. The 2009 program will give some of them a chance to perform with M’Girl, a trio of aboriginal women who fuse their Metis/Cree, Ojibway and Mohawk traditions with R&B, blues, folk/roots and other mainstream music traditions.

“We want to recover and preserve our Tlingit identity through dancing,” Carlick says. “But we know we will have to adapt our culture to carry it into the future. Groups like M’Girl show us how that might be done. Dancing exposes our children and youth to wider horizons that Tlingit culture can open up for them.”

Allan Sheppard is a freelance

writer and a friend of the

Taku Kwaan dancers.