Tradition fuses with modern art at the Northern Nations tent

It’s not often you see elders bopping to hip-hop beats. But as smells of bannock and bison stew filled the air in the Northern Nations tent on…

It’s not often you see elders bopping to hip-hop beats.

But as smells of bannock and bison stew filled the air in the Northern Nations tent on Friday afternoon, there were more than a few grey heads rocking back and forth to the sound and spectacle of the Nunavut Floormasters.

The dance troupe melds Nunavut with New York City. Their moves are pulled from inner-city streets, but their costumes are traditional Inuit parkas and mukluks.

Their music is a mix between traditional throat singing and techno.

“We live in Nunavut and the culture is very rich up there so we just automatically do what we feel and that’s what came out,” said Floormaster Christine Lamothe — a self-styled B-girl of more than 10 years.

She brought her break-dancing skills from Ottawa to teach social work through hip-hop in the remote territory.

“The kids are attracted to the dance and we use it to empower them in their own culture,” she said.

 “For me to work with youth that have a very rich cultural background and them teaching me, it’s just automatic that these things start happening.”

The Floormasters were just one of dozens of acts to take the stage for the four-day Gathering of Northern Nations Aboriginal Trade Show and Cultural Expo last week.

The event, hosted by the Yukon First Nations Tourism Association, brought together artists, craftspeople, tourism operators and community leaders from northern First Nations and related groups like the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry.

“Our goal was to give Yukon First Nations the opportunity to partner with us to bring forward their stories, their songs, their art and their traditional knowledge,” said Yukon First Nations Tourism Association executive director Meta Williams.

And the event was a rousing success.

On Friday afternoon there was standing room only in the cozy tent at Shipyards Park.

At the Old Crow exhibit, the dried caribou and bannock was long gone, but the fight to protect the Porcupine caribou herd was far from over.

“It is my responsibility today to do everything I can to make sure we have that herd for generations to come, and it’s not only for my grandchildren but also for the children who are not yet born,” said Lorraine Peter, who was representing the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Vuntut Development Corp. in the tent.

“For us to be here and show off our arts and our crafts and show off who our people really are is very special,” she said, while pointing out traditional crafts, replicas of caribou fences, spears and snares and information on one of the First Nation’s biggest success stories — its partnership in Air North.

“With the Vuntut Development Corp., we’re a very progressive First Nation within the Yukon,” added Peter.

At a nearby table, Whitehorse elder Gertie Tom was doing a booming business selling handmade slippers, mitts and mukluks.

On Thursday, a group visiting from Grande Prairie, Alberta, had nearly cleaned her out.

“They bought a whole bunch of them from me and said they would give them as gifts,” said Tom, who sews tanned moose hides into wearable items and decorates them with colourful beaded flowers.

“I’m a fussy person — I have to make sure that everything is done right,” said Tom, who has been sewing since she was eight years old.

“My mother told me if it don’t look good you gotta’ do it over again, and I usually do and it turns out I get to sew really good.”

Around a jam-packed corner up by the stage sat Ojibway craftsman Joe Migwan, who emigrated from Manatoolin Island to Whitehorse nearly two decades ago.

Migwan was demonstrating what he called a “dying art” — crafting and latching snowshoes and drums.

There are spools of caribou hide soaking in a bowl on the table in front of him.

As of Friday afternoon, his stock hadn’t been moving as fast as Tom’s.

“I think some people are holding on to their money, but I don’t mind — that’s not what it’s all about,” he said with a wide smile.

“I’m here to demonstrate what I do and promote cultural awareness and the elders’ knowledge — the work speaks for itself”.

He uses elders’ knowledge to keep the traditions alive.

“It’s so ancient and practical.

“I wondered why people weren’t making snowshoes anymore — it’s because it’s so much work,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s hard!”

On the other side of the tent the Teslin Tlingit Council was showcasing its culture, artists and carvers.

“We’re giving our artists and craftspeople an opportunity to showcase their work at the Canada Winter Games but also to let everybody else know what we’re made from,” said council member Peter Johnston.

“There’s a lot of First Nations people here just to gather and that’s what the whole point of it is.

“A lot of these people we see on a daily basis, but it’s good to see them just the same.”

“This is the first time an aboriginal cultural event of this magnitude has happened in the North,” Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor said in a release.

The government contributed $100,000 towards hosting the event.

“It’s an opportunity for participants to showcase their talents and the traditional knowledge and wisdom of their elders to all who are interested in sharing in this uniquely northern heritage.”

Back on the cozy stage, the Nunavut Floormasters were wrapping up their spirited performance.

Each member of the break-dancing trio was taking turns flipping from their feet to their hands, showing off their skills as the deep guttural sounds of throat singing kept the beat in the background.

In between flares, six-steps and backspins the troupe rowed a canoe, harpooned a seal and mushed a dog-team.

As the music faded out, the troupe struck a pose: they searched off in the distant sky for a sign of some sort and walked off the stage to thundering applause.

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