Remembering Jojo: Dene man loved life, music, bingo and Behchoko, N.W.T.

Joseph Jean Washie, better known as Jojo, was a fixture at every dance and bingo game in Behchoko. Born with Down syndrome, Jojo lived life on his own terms in a community that loved and protected him.

'He knew the whole town and the whole town knew him,' foster mother recalls

Washie is remembered for his love of life, music and bingo, and attending every community event. (courtesy of Connie Lafferty)

Everyone in Behchoko knew Jojo Washie.

If there was a dance, a bingo game or a community feast, Jojo was there… a fixture.     

"When they had a drum dance he was always the first one out on the floor," says his older brother James Washee. 

"He wouldn't wait for anybody. Then people and young children would follow him and the dance would get started."

Joseph Jean Washie was born on September 2, 1956, the youngest in his large, prominent family. He was born with Down syndrome. Doctors said he probably wouldn't live past 40, older brother James said — the standard life expectancy then for people with the condition. 

But Jojo lived to celebrate his 60th birthday this fall, with a big birthday cake and members of his family and community surrounding him at the Jimmy Erasmus Senior's Home in Behchoko, pop. 2,100, where he lived for the last year of his life. He died Oct. 17. 

"You might say the community took the responsibility to raise Jojo as well," said James. "That's a good cultural tradition we have in the Tlicho region where we all take an interest in raising the children that grow up in our community."

Dancing in church

For most of that life Jojo was a free spirit, roaming the streets of Behchoko collecting piles of old newspapers and catalogues to hoard in his room, Connie Lafferty, his foster mother for nine years, recalled.

"He was an early bird," Lafferty said in an interview. She'd hear him in his room early in the morning rearranging his piles of newspaper and his impressive collection of bingo dabbers.

Jojo Washie was a well known fixture in Behchoko, known for his love of drum dancing and music. (submitted by John Gon)
Bingo was another passion of Jojo's. While he didn't understand the finer points of the game, Lafferty said, he loved to dab his cards and shout "BINGO!" He sometimes annoyed the local ladies on bingo night, but for the most part he was not only tolerated in his community, but loved.

Jojo's childlike love of life endeared him to people. "He knew the whole town and the whole town knew him," Lafferty said, laughing as she remembered dancing around the kitchen table with Jojo to the sound of drum dance music on Harriet Paul's Tlicho radio program on CBC.

Jojo even danced in church, Lafferty said, moved by the pastor's gospel music.

When Jojo moved to the senior's home in July of 2015 due to failing health, Lafferty said her house and heart felt empty. "He was so much fun… we missed his presence here with us."

Behchoko chief Clifford Daniels made a statement on Jojo Washie's death this week, offering condolences to the family. He said the community is planning to hold a drum dance in Jojo's honour.

with files from Mark Hadlari