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Teslin Tlingit heritage celebration reconnects families, nations

For Linda Wynn, the Ha Kus Teyea Celebration was more than a heritage festival. It was a chance to fill in some pretty important blanks in her family history.


For Linda Wynne, the Ha Kus Teyea Celebration was more than a heritage festival.

It was a chance to fill in some pretty important blanks in her family history.

Originally from Klukwan, a small Native community on the banks of Chilkat River in southeast Alaska, Wynne came with a genealogy book in hand.

Now living in Juneau, her 84-year-old father just told her this year she had family in Teslin – relatives from her mother’s side.

“She never said anything to me, and I’m the oldest of five kids,” she says.

But here, at the weekend celebration in Teslin, Wynne began to collect the pieces to help mend the family gaps.

Hosted by the Teslin Tlingit Council, Ha Kus Teyea, which means the ‘Tlingit way’ in the local language, brought together people from around the world, drawing almost 4,000 visitors in just three days.

Built on the vision of community elders and leaders, the festivities included traditional performances, singing, dancing, drumming, artist demonstrations and canoeing.

It’s the second such celebration. The first was staged in 2009.

Wynne was there. She remembers seeing names on a genealogy chart displayed at the festival, names she now realizes could easily be her kin.

“At that time, I didn’t have my family research with me, but this time I brought it.”

“I am hoping to bridge that gap,” says Wynne, who, since arriving in Teslin, has been busy sharing her genealogy research with community members, exchanging information, contact names and numbers.

Although she has a long way to go, she says she already feels the reconnection taking foot.

“I bought my grandkid from southern California, so he can learn about his roots,” she says. “And he’s 10 years old.

“I would like to continue the research on my family and to complete it, and to share it with the rest of them.”

Benjamin Schleifman, a Tlingit carver and jewellery designer from Palmer, Alaska, also has family connections in Teslin.

He was happy to be back in the area.

“We went camping on the land for the last few nights, on traditional territory,” says Schleifman.

“But this gathering is a just a really good excuse to come.”

With jewellery to sell, he packed up his family and drove 20 hours to attend the celebration.

It was the first time his wife and seven-month-old son stepped on his homeland.

“Half the village is family,” says Schleifman. “The baby gets passed around from uncle, auntie, cousin, and then our two older boys help take care of him as well.”

“My auntie Charlotte was born and raised in Juneau, she has never been Teslin. But she showed up yesterday, not really knowing anybody, and she was looking for relatives and I just happened to hear her voice and started to introduce her to half the town.

“I still haven’t met all my family in Teslin here and I’m 32 years old. Every generation is bringing in more family.”

It has inspired Schleifman to return more often, including a trip to celebrate an uncle’s 76th birthday in November.

That reconnections are taking place at the festival doesn’t surprise Peter Johnston, chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council.

“Not only does this provide the opportunity for us to celebrate our culture, but it bridges us back together – back to our roots,” he says.

Teslin, Carcross and Atlin people are all related.

“The whole idea for this celebration is to reconnect the three communities,” he says. “But it’s is also to bring our Alaskan brothers and sisters together.

“Unfortunately, self-government has taken us off the land quite a bit. We’re not getting out as much as we use to, however we do have to find that balance.”

This type of event helps keep the balance, he says.

The celebration is pivotal, not only nurturing family, but also the fostering the language of the Tlingit people, says Tip Evans, director of the Teslin Tlingit Council Heritage Centre.

“There are a small groups of people sitting around and speaking Tlingit,” he says, pointing to the crowds.

“All First Nations are struggling with the preservation of their traditional languages. In places like this, we get opportunities to bring speakers from a wide range of cultural areas, and bring them together.”

“It’s about language, family, art, trading – and enjoying each other’s company,” says Evans.

Wynne agrees.

“Being here in Teslin feels like home to me. It’s something I can’t explain – it just feels right.”

She’s planning to attend the next celebration. There are no concrete dates, but a similar gathering is in the works, this time in Juneau, Alaska.

And if this year’s festival is any indication, more connections will be made.

Martha Troian is a freelance writer. This is her first story for the Yukon News.