One Foot in a Moccasin, and One in a Sneaker

Culture has been described as the immune system of a people, and in a world where so many distractions are coming at us on a regular basis, Yukoners can take comfort in knowing that we are home to a beautiful and thriving culture.

Last year, Yukon First Nations celebrated the 40-year anniversary of the document, “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow,” which was presented in Ottawa by Elijah Smith and a delegation of Yukon chiefs. The children Elijah Smith felt compelled to take those actions for are here today, and the work that this visionary man accomplished is bearing fruit.

First Nations in the Yukon have been going through a period of cultural revitalization. We are now observing culture being introduced as part of the school curriculum; awards are being given to people recognized for preserving traditional knowledge; culture camps and gatherings, drumming and dance groups are on the rise; and nearly every community has a cultural centre.

At the same time, statistics tell us that Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Two recent conferences — the National Conference on Indigenous Self- Government in Inuvik, and the Assembly of First Nations 4th National Youth Summit in Saskatoon — brought to light the unique situation that the youth are facing.

Across the Yukon, and across Canada, First Nations youth are struggling to find a balance between living a successful life in the contemporary world, while staying grounded in a traditional way of life.

Education was at the heart of both these conferences. It was made clear that the pursuit of post-secondary education is essential for First Nations, moving forward. What makes First Nations youth unique is the added desire for them to learn and practice traditional knowledge.

One young woman who is meeting the challenge head-on is Marissa Mills, a member of the Kluane First Nation. She is an example of what First Nations youth can achieve if they find the courage to follow their dreams and stay true to who they are as Indigenous people.

Mills is 22 years old and part of the Khajet clan (“Khajet” is the word for Crow in Southern Tutchone). Currently, she is in her first-year at the University of Ottawa, where she is enrolled in Indigenous Studies.

“I have been living (in Ottawa) for a year; I initially came down last January to take a program called Aboriginal Cultural Ambassador Training, with Aboriginal Experiences, Culture and Tourism,” Mills says. “The program has opened doors for me to Indigenous cultural teachings from across the country. It has also boosted my confidence in being a young leader and role model in our Indigenous community.”

Several years ago Mills had a moment in Whitehorse when she realized the sense of pride that she and other members of the First Nations community have in their own culture. It was at the Adäka Cultural Festival in 2011 – an annual event showcasing First Nations drumming, singing, dancing, and more.

“This was my first glimpse at the true talent that our Yukon First Nations people hold,” Mills says. “It made me feel good to see the pride in everyone, and made me realize that I needed to help bring that pride back to our community.

“Growing up in my hometown of Burwash Landing the drumbeat was very silent in our community and I would only hear it during funerals or headstone potlatches. I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we ever celebrate with singing and drumming?'”

Bolstered by the pride she experienced at the Adaka festival, Mills gathered the courage to shift from observer to performer.

“Last summer, during the Health and Wellness Symposium in Burwash Landing, my cousins and I got up to sing a song, and as we did, our grandmothers in the room all jumped up from their seats and began to dance,” Mills says. “It was such an amazing feeling to witness such joy and, in an instant, all of my nervousness went away. I knew right then and there that we were doing the right thing.”

Although many youth are graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education, the generational effects of residential schools trickle down to today’s youth, and many need guidance and encouragement to further their education.

Mills offers some advice for those who want to go to university.

“Seek advice and guidance from those who support you, or even those who are going to school in other provinces or territories,” Mills says. “Don’t be afraid to fail, either. Time passes regardless, so why not make the best of it? Education is your key to a better future. I heard a quote many times, and it goes like this, ‘One foot in a moccasin, and one in a sneaker.’ Our people have to find a balance between Indigenous culture and the mainstream education system, but many are doing so and that is my biggest inspiration.”

In addition to pursuing a degree in Indigenous studies, Mills is developing her traditional arts and skills. She does beading, traditional dancing, and singing. She also tans hides with her aunties, gathers wild foods and medicines, sets fishnets, and cuts moose meat.

It’s also important to her to continue learning the Southern Tutchone and Cree languages.

Mills describes how she handles the constant barrage of media images that are placed on women – many of them failing to show Indigenous people at all.

“The idea that mainstream society holds for young women is unrealistic and unattainable,” Mills says. “I look up to those women who are real and true to their values. I try to surround myself with people who practice their Indigenous culture and who are keen on passing that knowledge down to the youth.”

One woman who is working hard to pass that knowledge on is Diane Strand of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation.

Elijah Smith said, “We should have a museum of our own,” and that is exactly what Strand helped to accomplish.

Smith’s statement sparked the extensive process of developing the Da Ku Cultural Centre in Haines Junction, which Strand now manages.

She says that culture was not present in school in the past the way it is today.

Today, in schools all across the Yukon, there are many different cultural experiences and teachings being introduced to the children.

Whether you are in Dawson City, leaving the classroom and going out onto the land and earning credits for your “first hunt,” or in Whitehorse having the thrilling experience of stick gambling; each community is working hard to ensure traditional knowledge is maintained.

Strand attributes her connection with culture to her family.

“I was blessed to have had the teachings I did from my aunt and uncle, and a woman who I lived with,” she says. “These people made me feel important and loved. My grandmother Annie Ned taught my family to dance and sing in a very public manner. Many people did not want to do this, but I loved it.”

With the strength and feelings of pride that her family was able to provide, Strand took on a leadership role and accomplished things that a lot of people at the time might have either been afraid or ashamed to do.

“When I ran for Rendezvous Queen in 1984, I was Miss CYI,” Strand says. “I knew what my sponsor stood for and I was quite adamant that I would not wear any period costume; instead I wore my own regalia. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable because I was the only one who did. I knew that it wasn’t completely acceptable by all of the people.”

Years later, Strand is still working hard to ensure that Yukon First Nations culture lives on. She travels to various gatherings with her dance group and is happy to see a renewed interest in the art.

“When my sisters and I started the Dakwakada Dancers in 1988/89, this was when I noticed the swing into revitalization,” Strand says. “It grew slow momentum after that, but I would say the signing of the UFA (Umbrella Final Agreement, asserting aboriginal rights, titles and interests with respect to their Traditional Territories) was the catalyst – it gave many First Nations the opportunity to start focusing on themselves and what was important. I feel very proud with what is happening across the Yukon. I still think we are in revitalization mode, but we are also in exciting times.”

The ability of the youth to walk with one foot in both worlds is what will truly bring Elijah Smith’s dream to life:

“If we are successful, the day will come when all Yukoners will be proud of our heritage and culture, and will respect our Indian Identity.”

Those are prophetic words from a man with a vision that is blossoming before our eyes.

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