Four Yukon First Nations women are taking to the Yukon River this week to honour Indigenous women and girls.
Team Dinjii Ni’jootl’i Ka’t is among the 122 participants in the 2019 Yukon River Quest, an annual paddling race that sees canoers, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders make their way from Whitehorse to Dawson City by water.
Made up of Pauline and Alice Frost, Emily McDougall and Melissa Carlick, the canoe team is hoping to not only raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), but to inspire others by showing Indigenous women in a positive light.
The team takes its name from the Frosts’ historical family name, which roughly translates to “we are First Nations on the island around the bend.”
The Frosts are citizens of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, while both McDougall and Carlick are citizens of Kwanlin Dün.
In interviews June 24, all four women said that while they’ve been personally affected by the issue of MMIWG, they also want to show the strength, pride, leadership and perseverance that Indigenous women possess, too.
For Pauline, who put the team together, the race is an opportunity to promote awareness amongst young Indigenous women about the importance of self-dignity and speaking up “to be part of the change.”
“We need to encourage one another and support one another in a positive way, and I’m not doing this as a politician,” she said.
“I’m doing this as Pauline Frost, a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and an Indigenous woman who has impacted by the very issues that are before us, that we see in our communities and our society, and it’s a way to say … the only way to resolve anything is by working together and just supporting one another.”
The team’s name is also symbolic.
“(The name means) something about being around the bend,” she said, “so in essence, what we’re trying to say is, you can always look to the future … We want to keep our eye on trying to find that next bend and have hope in the future.”
McDougall said that she was “honoured” to have been invited to be part of the team. While she’s the only member who hasn’t done the race before, she does have river-guiding experience and comes from a line of people comfortable and in-control on the water — her great-grandfather was Frank Slim, the first Indigenous person in the Yukon to get a riverboat captain’s licence.
“He would be in a hundred-foot-long sternwheeler and he’d be navigating those rivers with such expertise, you know, avoiding small sandbars and knowing the channels so well and so intimately,” McDougall said. “I think I carry a lot of strength from family knowing that he was a trailblazer and that he had done that … I feel that spiritual connection to the water.”
She also said that she thought the message of inspiring women, and particularly Indigenous women, was an important one.
“I think you have to tell a story of hope,” she said. “I think that’s something that people can hold on to, so I think creating positive messaging is a stronger point when you’re trying to advocate for a cause.”
Carlick and Alice agreed.
“(We’re) focusing on the healthier side, because when you focus on the dark, it just gives it more life, I find, from personal (experience),” Carlick said. “You focus on the good and the positive and what this can possibly do for others, you know?”
While all four women acknowledged that they know the race while be difficult, they also said that being on the water will be healing, too.
“Your whole physical, mental, spiritual well-being is compromised on the river,” said Pauline, who has done the race more than a dozen times now. “You check yourself in and you realize the only way out is to continue to paddle … We all have to be in the same canoe, paddling in the same direction towards the same vision and the same goal, and so it is very, very healing.”
“In those deep, dark times where we need to find solace in ourselves or just find the support that we need and the strength to continue on,” she continued, “those are the times that we’re going to stop in the river and just make offerings and give thanks for what we have, but also to make an offering for the women that have sacrificed a lot in terms of being vocal and being outspoken and being out there to dedicate their lives to make this world a better place for our children.”
The Yukon River Quest begins June 26.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org