March 10, 2017

The Spell of the Yukon: Native North America Tour with Willie Thrasher & Linda Saddleback

A few weeks ago I took a trip to the Yukon with Native North America Vol. 1 producer Kevin Howes, and Willie Thrasher (Inuvialuit musician from Aklavik, Northwest Territories) and Linda Saddleback for The Spirit Of Skookum Jim Tour. We traveled to White Horse and Dawson City for a series of events and performances, and we definitely fell under the magical spell of the Yukon. It has truly been an honor working with these folks over the last year, getting to know them and other First Nation musicians, and getting to witness first-hand the healing power of music and storytelling. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is used to reconcile and resolve polices and practices of the state that have left legacies of harm and trauma for the First Nation communities. Their mandate is that through storytelling and education, Canada will learn the truth about what happened in residential schools and rebuild a more unified country. Acknowledging the truths of the past, even when painful, can help provide an opportunity for healing and growth. As I continue to process what is happening in my own country with Standing Rock, Native American sovereignty, and environmental and civil rights, I look to these experiences to remind me of our potential to learn, heal and grow.

Today, on March 10, 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Indigenous grassroots leaders call on our allies across the United States and around the world to peacefully March on Washington DC or in your local city. We stand with you today in solidarity and with the Indigenous peoples of the world whose rights protect Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) for the future generations of all. Mni Wiconi. Water is life.

Spell of the Yukon1 from Amanda Leigh Smith on Vimeo.
Video by Amanda Leigh Smith. Music by Willie Thrasher from his Spirit Child LP available through Light in The Attic Records

The Spell of the Yukon:

Photography by Amanda Leigh Smith
(February 2-8, 2017)

On one’s first trip to the Yukon, there are many special details that can make you fall under its spell. During Winter, it’s the crisp, clear, cold, snap, and crackle of air, snow, and ice, a brisk contrast to the open-armed warmth of its people: Indigenous, settler, immigrant, or passerby. There is also the active city life of Whitehorse (Ta’an Kwäch’än and Kwanlin Dün territories) as well as quiet, winding, rural routes which took us to the traditional lands of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in (later known as Dawson City) with veteran Inuvialuit singer-songwriter Willie Thrasher and his singing partner Linda Saddleback.  Dubbed “The Spirit of Skookum Jim” tour by Willie in honour of a trailblazing Tagish First Nation packer and prospector, Willie and Linda shared their musical gift along with storytelling, film, and archival presentations from the Grammy-nominated Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985 compilation. Once again, we were blessed to travel with photographer Amanda Leigh Smith to help document the proceedings. Each of us felt extremely honoured to experience a glimpse into the Yukon’s eclectic reality.

After getting acclimatized in Whitehorse, we had a variety of pre-scheduled media links to attend to. It was exciting to participate in a series interviews at the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, including a memorable segment translated into Inuktitut by journalist Dodie Lennie for northern transmission, as well as a "drive home" show hype up at CHON FM (Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon) squeezed in between a double-shot of tunes by 1970s/80s rock icons Styx. We were on hand to represent and promote Native North America: A Night of Music, Storytelling, and Film at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre and the annual Skookum Jim Friendship Centre Folklore Show. At the CBC, we were also given the opportunity to dig through the remains of their once extensive vinyl library, a glimpse into the musical past. Fueled by a hearty meal at a busy Chinese restaurant, we were almost ready for our evening at the Beringia, a museum and theatre not far from the downtown core. The audience assembled there was diverse in age and background, which was very nice to see. As with most Native North America related events, we began with a screening of Willie Dunn’s 1968 National Film Board (NFB) short, The Ballad of Crowfoot, essential viewing for anyone who wants to know the truth about colonization from an Indigenous perspective.

Crowfoot was followed by a recent work from 2016, The Recording of Willie Thrasher, a 30-minute biographical documentary on Willie by director Adam O. Thomas and producer Am Johal via Simon Fraser University’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. But the main attraction was yet to come, a live performance from Willie and Linda that featured even more stories and songs. Culminating in a lively call-and-response chant from all in attendance, the energy was flowing from everywhere in the room. In the theatre lobby, Willie and Linda connected with friends old and new and signed autographs on albums and t-shirts. 

The next morning, we were able to catch the start of the legendary annual Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dog sled race which brought hundreds of people from around the world to Whitehorse. Willie and Linda took plenty of pictures for their friends and family back home. After a quick bite to eat we were ready to head over to the Yukon Arts Centre for the evening’s gathering. The annual Folklore variety show has been going on since 1973, a celebration of First Nations talent, both locally and beyond. The evening, hosted by Grandma Susie (Sharon Shorty) and Cache Creek Charlie (Duane Ghastant’ Aucoin), was comprised of a fashion show, Keish Elder and youth recognition awards, Dené hand games, and live music from Kiera-Dawn Kolson, Ed Peekeekoot, the Women of Wisdom Drummers, and a finale from Willie and Linda. The stage was decorated with a vintage t-shirt teepee made by designer Nic Netro-Hendrie, an impressive backdrop to the action. As an outsider, I was tremendously humbled to take a supportive part in this special event and it was great to connect with residential school survivor Larry Smarch who told me about his powerful story of activism and awareness raising. Early to arrive, our crew was the last to leave. On the road and feeling alive, we were already thinking about tomorrow’s event.

In the morning, we picked up a rental car, some food, and hit the Klondike Highway to Dawson City, a seven-hour adventure through the breadth of nature’s beauty. There were mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers to the left and to the right for as far as the eye could see. The Winter roads were open and drivable, but we had to proceed with caution through the snow, ice, and bright sun. Stopping for gas in the village of Carmacks we joked about finding Willie’s missing finger, which he lost nearby, fighting fires in the early 1970s. After another scenic stop in Pelly Crossing, we made it to Dawson and checked in at the historical Downtown Hotel. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to visit, Dawson City is a heritage town that has preserved elements of its Gold Rush history, a time warp indeed. A regional Indigenous presence and perspective both past and present can be felt at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. The Centre sits next to the Yukon River, south of the adjacent Moosehide community, and would be home for our next two events.

On our first evening, we hosted a screening of The Recording of Willie Thrasher followed by a question and answer with Willie, Linda, and myself. It was great to connect with the locals, share our experiences in music, and learn a bit more about the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in (that translates into English as “People of the River”) First Nation. The next morning, we returned to Dänojà Zho and presented a workshop for Robert Service School’s Secondary students. We started with The Ballad of Crowfoot, which rolled into an amazing storytelling session from Willie about a young Inuvialuit hunter trying to feed his family. With a handful of aspiring musicians in the room, a short set of songs by Willie and Linda rounded out the morning. Once again, this ended in chanting and clapping from all in attendance. We later connected with teacher Peter Menzies at the one room CFYT radio station, a terrific resource and outlet for the area.

Next, we walked over to the Art & Margaret Fry Recreation Centre concession for a lovely lunch. With fresh juices and home-cooked food on the rotating menu, it was a far cry from standard deep fried hockey rink fare and just what we needed. Despite the frigid weather, we cherished the afternoon off to explore the city and take photographs of the land, buildings, and even a crew of horses discovered on the edge of town. The evening’s concert was hosted at the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture (KIAC) and once again it was incredible to see people responding to Willie and Linda’s music and stories from the road. One gentleman even brought an original copy of Willie’s 1981 Spirit Child album for Willie to sign, an album gifted to his sister by Willie in Northern Ontario back in the day. It was mind blowing to witness this heartwarming example of how music, feeling, and positive energy can travel throughout the years. It felt good, but a little sad to think that our short Yukon tour was now over. We headed over to the Westminster Tavern and Lounge for a celebratory drink and disco dance at the Pit, which was filmed by Willie on his phone to much laughter. It was also cool to see some photos of Willie Gordon at the bar, a celebrated local musician and old friend of Willie’s from Aklavik who passed away in 2012. Stepping out into the cold, clean air, we cast our gaze to the sky in search of the magical Aurora Borealis, but to no avail. Hidden on previous trips with Willie and Linda across the Northwest Territories, the elusive lights had escaped us on yet another northern journey. We will clearly have to return.

Love and much appreciation to the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture for making these Native North America events possible. And to all of the inspiring people that we met along the way... Thanks for the support!



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