'We just went for it': Yukon's Dakhká Khwáan Dancers celebrate 10 years

'Our purpose became, this is about us — our reclamation, singing and dancing and holding up our culture.'

The renowned collective of First Nations artists and performers continues to expand and evolve

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers have performed for audiences throughout Yukon, across Canada and overseas. This weekend, they're celebrating their 10 year anniversary with a free performance in Carcross on Saturday. (Dakhká Khwáan Dancers/Facebook)

It started with a simple idea.

"I thought, 'we need to be part of this tourism show here,'" recalls Marilyn Jensen, one of the founders of Yukon's Dakhká Khwáan Dancers.

It was 2007, and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway was newly back in service, delivering curious new visitors to Carcross throughout the summer.  

"So, we started a presentation that included how raven brought light into the world, and included some dancing and signing," Jensen said.

'At the end of the summer we were like, 'let's just keep going, this is awesome,' said the group's founder, Marilyn Jensen. (Angela Klondike)

"To make a long story short, no tourists came to see but at the end of the summer we were like, 'let's just keep going, this is awesome.'"

Ten years on, they're still going, now as a renowned and ever-growing collective of Tlingit artists and performers. A half dozen people started the group; there are now about 40 involved. 

They've danced for audiences throughout Yukon, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they visited the territory last year. They've also performed in Ottawa, and overseas in Israel, New Zealand and Taiwan.

"We kind of redefined our purpose, and our purpose became — this is about us, our reclamation, singing and dancing and holding up our culture," Jensen said.

"I always wanted to dance. It was always a part of me, and so the opportunity presented itself and boom — there we went. We just went for it."

'Saved my life'

Gary Sidney Johnson has also been there since the beginning. He's now one of the group's song callers, and it's a role he takes seriously.

"I get to be the leader, and hold those songs," he said. "I was one of the first people [in the group] who was asking questions about what the songs meant."

He joined the group after Jensen called him up and told of her idea. She told Johnson it could be the perfect opportunity for him, and she was right.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers "saved my life", he says.

"I was on kind of a rough path, down in Alberta — Calgary. And when I got this, it was at the perfect time in my life.

"If it wasn't for this dance group and that first starting year, I wouldn't be where I am today, which is teaching all over the Yukon and B.C., and teaching the language, culture, dancing — everything that goes with it."

Gary Sidney Johnson is one of the group's song callers, an important role that he's embraced. (Allan Ogilvie)

Feeling empowered

Johnson also enlisted his friend Blake Lepine to join the group that first season. Lepine was a 19-year-old aspiring musician at the time, and he dreamed of making a go of it with the band he had at the time.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers was just "something to do for the summer," Lepine said.

It became more than that. Like Johnson, he was soon steered down an entirely new path that he's still on today, working full time as a "contemporary-traditional" artist, while still part of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers.  

Lepine is a member of the Carcross Tagish First Nation, but says he never fully embraced his Indigenous heritage when he was young. He remembers dancing at ceremonies and potlatches, but mostly because that's just what his family did.

Blake Lepine says the group has inspired him to explore his Indigenous roots, something he didn't do as a young person. 'To be First Nation was like a shameful thing, so I put that part of myself aside.' (Stasia Garraway)
At school, he was picked on.

"I remember people were poking fun at me for being Native, and saying, 'oh your parents are really Native,' and these kinds of things," he recalled. "To be First Nation was like a shameful thing, so I put that part of myself aside."

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers changed everything, Lepine says.

"We actually had a group that could sing together well, could dance together well, and were really eager to learn more about our culture and who we were as First Nation Tlingit people.

"When we got into doing it, it was really beautiful to be with people that weren't ashamed of who we were, and to feel empowered by that. And so it kind of re-directed my life, completely," he said.

Expanding and experimenting

This weekend, the group is celebrating its tenth year with a free performance at the Carcross Commons on Saturday.

For Jensen, it's a way to mark the evolution of her original idea, from a summertime lark into a vital expression of culture, identity and empowerment.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers continue to expand and experiment - dancers add to their regalia, new songs are composed, and ideas are tried out. (Dakhká Khwáan Dancers/Facebook)

The group continues to expand and experiment, she says. Dancers add to their regalia, new songs are composed, and ideas are tried out. Earlier this year, they collaborated with DJ Dash on a performance that blended Tlingit song and dance with an electronic music and video show.  

"We just have that raw, really passionate energy about our culture, and we bring that forward. You know, we were taught right from the beginning about humility and about appreciation," she said.

"My mom always tells us, 'don't forget, we were not allowed to sing our songs, and now you guys can.' So, you hold that up, and you value that, and you take care of that."

Blake Lepine agrees, saying it's about "upholding our culture with as much integrity as we can."

"I definitely know there's been a lot of young people come up to me and ask me how to have a dance group, and how they can start one.

"And I always just tell them, 'just start it' — that's how we did it."

With files from Sandi Coleman