North·In Depth

First Nations, first-hand art: A look at Yukon artists rebuilding their culture

Each summer, the Yukon is a hotspot for festivals that showcase Indigenous art — with one of the biggest being this weekend's Adaka Festival. Jennifer Liu looks at First Nations artists drawing on their traditions to rebuild their cultural identities.

Jennifer Liu takes a holistic view of arts and culture through the First Nations lens in the Yukon

The Selkirk Spirit Dancers perform at last year's Moosehide Gathering Cultural Celebration, held near Dawson City, Yukon. (Jennifer Liu)

Author's note: This project was assembled as a significant part of my Master of Journalism program at Carleton University. It's a commemoration of eight weeks of fieldwork — and immersive fun — among Yukon First Nations artists last summer. 

What follows is a selection of artists profiled at various culture festivals and spaces as they worked their craft and used their art as a direct extension of their First Nations identities. The complete project is housed here


Each summer, Yukon is a hotspot for festivals that showcase Indigenous art, with one of the biggest being the Adaka Cultural Festival, which begins on June 28.

First Nations artists have been drawing on their traditions to rebuild their cultural identities, nearly lost to the residential school system. There is a sense of purpose and pride in their artistic output. 

In Yukon MP Larry Bagnell's words, "There's much more culture, much more pride, and that's really what's needed for the kids to succeed. A wise Aboriginal youth told me, 'The culture is the beginning, not the end.'"

As Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Peter Johnston has seen culture's impact on the territory's First Nations under his watch.

When [Indigenous youth] understand where they're from, when they understand their culture, when they have pride in themselves, then they can handle all the challenges in life.- Larry Bagnell, Yukon MP

Today, he says reconciliation is more dynamic than just strengthening policies.

"[It's about] celebrating, feasting, dances, ceremonies; but also having some fun," said Johnston.

"We have to take the time to celebrate not only our achievements of the year, but also celebrate our time together as First Nation people."

Rapping the way to the light

Jeremy Linville, from Tahltan First Nation, is a rapper, single parent, and mentor to young artists. 'Don't let society tell you just to settle,' he said. (Jennifer Liu)

Jeremy Linville leads multiple lives: throughout the year, he is a rapper, runs the Youth of Today Society music studio in downtown Whitehorse, and is a single dad to his son. 

Jeremy is from Tahltan First Nation. If there's one thing he wants to pass along to the next generation, especially Indigenous youth who want to follow in his footsteps, it's that they should follow their heart, no matter what society dictates. 

"Don't let society tell you just to settle, 'cause I've had that happen to me a lot in the past," he said. "'Oh, just go get a job, just get a job; that money will make you happy.' It never did."

I have a lot of pride in being Native, so including that in my hip-hop music makes me a lot more proud to be on stage…. A lot of that is my Native pride, to stand up for my Native people.- Jeremy Linville

When Jeremy was 14, a little voice told him that music was the way. Now in his early 20s, Linville considers himself to be like an elder in his music mentorship role. 

Jeremy has found a healthy life balance in his art. A big reason is that he doesn't let greed get in the way of what he does: he says that in Whitehorse, it's wrong to be driven by money. 

"People spend time out in the bush, and they start getting connections with people and the land and finding how much more important that is than the money," Jeremy said.

"Because in the end, are you able to eat money? Are you able to wipe your ass with money? Are you gonna talk to that money when you need attention?"

Community groundings, big cultural returns

Beadwork artist Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé finds solace in her home community of Beaver Creek: 'That connection of just understanding that, 'I am a descendant of those people that actually lived there and resided there for that length of time' — it definitely warms the heart.' (Jennifer Liu)

For all of her 26 years, beadwork artist Teresa Vander Meer-Chassé has been grounded in her community of Beaver Creek.

It's a point of pride for her to call it her hometown.

"It's so much different when you actually go back home and you know where your family was born, where they hunted," she said.

"That connection of just understanding that, 'I am a descendant of those people that actually lived there and resided there for that length of time' — it definitely warms the heart."

Teresa is a member of White River First Nation. With 250 members, it happens to be the smallest First Nation group in the territory. She is one of three residents who have chosen to make a living off of their traditional art, explaining that "it's a science of how to actually make it as a full-time artist."

It's taken Teresa four years of working full-time in the arts to get to where she is. She "absolutely" acknowledges that putting a monetary value on a historically priceless art is shaking up tradition: in April 2017, Teresa received a major Indigenous arts grant from the Canada Council for the Arts called Creating, Knowing and Sharing.

She used her $50,989 award to mount her public-private art sculpture project in schools and to curate workshops from Beaver Creek to Whitehorse to Montreal.

"It's kind of like, we're working in this very interesting colonial system, but we're kind of taking advantage of it in some ways, right? Because we know that there's a market for Indigenous art," she said.

For her own peace of mind, Teresa consults with her family and elders from her First Nation about her artistic choices. She wants them to hold her accountable in her actions, to authorize how artwork is produced or shared outside the community. 

A dynamic First Nations duo

Kevin Barr and Boyd Benjamin perform at the Moosehide Gathering. The festival has phased out drugs and alcohol, and the grounds today are rich in First Nations culture. 'We gotta stand up strong. Better put that bottle away... get back to the land,' said Barr. (Jennifer Liu)

Each time Kevin Barr and Boyd Benjamin perform at the Moosehide Gathering Cultural Festival near Dawson City, they strive to uphold a sacred vision of Indigenous elders: creating safe spaces for participants to reconnect with their inner selves, and with each other.

Kevin is of Anishnaabe ancestry and was adopted into Carcross-Tagish First Nation. Boyd is from Vuntut Gwichin First Nation and his hometown is Old Crow. 

Moosehide Gathering represents a fresh chapter for Indigenous peoples. Drugs and alcohol were phased out of the festival, and the grounds today are rich in First Nations culture.

"This is a sober thing here [at Moosehide Gathering], because we had to get rid of that stuff," Kevin said. "Many people a long time before me, kept talking about, 'We gotta stand up strong. Better put that bottle away … get back to the land.' That's what's happening." 

In his past life, Kevin was a member of the Legislative Assembly for Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes, south of Whitehorse. One of his key initiatives was to put forward a motion to make Aboriginal Day a statutory holiday in Yukon. That motion passed, and is now celebrated yearly as National Indigenous Peoples Day. 

For Boyd, music is his way of connecting to his homeland when he's far away. He credits Moosehide Gathering with helping him to revive traditional fiddle and dance songs.

"If I don't continue to play them, then I will forget them," Boyd said. "What I would take away from a festival like this being so culturally-based, is that I get to play those songs again." 

Art's forward momentum to reconciliation

A visual artist from Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation, Jackie Olson is trying to move First Nations art onward: 'We don't need to go back to who we were.' (Jennifer Liu)

A visual artist from Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation near Dawson City, Jackie Olson is ready to move First Nations art onward to a better place. 

"We don't need to go back to who we were, because we'll never get there; we've lost that," she said. "So, how do we get to a new place, as Indigenous people, and the feeling that it's ours?" 

Jackie says that art and culture are "pivotal" to reconciliation for youth: "They need to feel that they belong to a part of something that's stronger than the negative, and it allows them to express and show in their own way what it is to be First Nations."

It starts with teaching traditional arts like beadwork, carving, drum-making and tanning animal skins.

"All that stuff is as important as learning how to paint or express yourself through film or video or pictures," Jackie said.

"It's a grounding of who we are as we move forward, and you can be whatever you want to be."

About the Author

A Toronto ex-pat, Jennifer has Master’s degrees in piano performance and journalism. Jennifer salutes all who are using multimedia storytelling to bring Canada’s cultural sectors to life. In her spare time, you’ll find Jennifer on a photo safari in her adopted home of Ottawa or planning a road trip out to Quebec, Toronto or beyond.