A Whitehorse school celebrated its silver anniversary this week, as Elijah Smith Elementary marked its 25th year with its annual start-of-school feast and open house.

"The majority of our community, Kwanlin Dün First Nation, attends this school," says Jesse Dawson, a councilor for the First Nation and member of the school council who has grandchildren and a great grandchild at Elijah Smith.

Elijah Smith community feast

Everyone was welcome at the anniversary feast on Thursday - from students and parents of students to community members. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

According to Dawson, about 50 per cent of the students at the school are First Nations, a fact that former principal John Wright says was not lost on staff and administration.
John Wright

John Wright was the principal of Elijah Smith from 1996 to 2012. He retired when he was 71, but says he could have stayed on for many years. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

"I think there was a concerted attempt right from the beginning to make sure this school reflected First Nations history and culture," he said at the feast Thursday night.

But, it's not just the culture, traditions, language and history that make the school special. It's that anyone is welcome to participate in it, said Dawson. The other 50 per cent of the students at Elijah Smith, she said, "come from above us" — referring to the neighbourhood of Copper Ridge, which is located above the school.

"We're sharing culture at this school," said Dawson.  "And that's really important because non-native people need to know what our culture is like, you know?"

'It's great to see our culture and traditions being reflected in our school'

The school is named after a Kwanlin Dün elder who started the Yukon Native Brotherhood — a group that took the document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow to Ottawa in 1973, kickstarting modern-day treaty negotiations in the territory.

Elijah Smith plaque

Elijah Smith, who the school is named after, was a Kwanlin Dün elder who helped start the modern-day treaty process in the Yukon. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

At the feast, primary-aged children — both First Nations and non — were dressed in dance regalia. The Chundӓy K'ànát'à Dancers performed for the crowd during dinner.

Returning graduates came to the school for the evening to serve dinner, more evidence of the community culture promoted at Elijah Smith. That wasn't lost on Wright, who retired from the school after 16 years as principal. He called his time at the school "a labour of love," saying that he could have stayed for many more years.

Kwanlin Dün chief Doris Bill attended the feast. As a child, she went to a residential school in Inuvik, and says she wasn't exposed to culture in a school setting.

"A lot of our people grew up in that institutional setting," said Bill. "So it's great to see our culture and traditions being reflected in our school, and seeing the children enjoy those activities."

Chundӓy K’ànát’à Dancers

Chundӓy K’ànát’à Dancers before they perform at the celebration. The name means 'flying eagles' in Southern Tutchone. Everyone is welcome to join the dance group. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)