SYANA’s first annual Yukon First Nations Arts Festival will have a strong visual arts and crafts focus.

That’s what the society’s members asked for.

Executive Director Sonny Voyageur had SYANA members fill out a questionnaire. Most said they would like to see the society’s activities focus on visual arts and crafts.

Voyageur finds that arts and crafts workshops provide a valuable context for First Nations people to develop personal relationships. The visiting and chatting that takes place around the workshop are as important as its content. Older artists “want to share knowledge with the younger generation and are hungry for the social interaction as well.

“Usually when we get together it’s either for political reasons or for a death. This is for the love of art. It’s a celebration. It’s going to be something really special.”

At the Yukon First Nations Arts Festival, Voyageur intends to create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for everyone, including visitors and non-Native Yukoners. He hopes that the event will promote education in the sense of breaking down stereotypes. “We’ll have a really good shared experience together, within a First Nations context.”

The idea for the festival emanated from Canada Winter Games Gathering of Nations Pavilion that was organized by the Yukon First Nations Tourism Association. “We wanted a similar gathering to happen again,” says Voyageur.

After the Gathering of Nations, Voyageur met Charlene Alexander. She is coordinating the festival. Alexander co-founded the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik 20 years ago. She ran it for nine years and has returned to take part every year since, managing the artists’ gallery.

Since Alexander moved to Whitehorse 10 years ago she has felt that Yukon First Nations artists and craftspeople could benefit from festival like GNAF.

“There are so many First Nations arts and craftspeople you never see or hear of.” The Yukon has a lot of arts events but they’re not tailored with First Nations artists in mind.

The Great Northern Arts Festival was designed with First Nations artists in mind. As a result, they feel very comfortable there: “It’s their festival.”

Right before Alexander left the Yukon last fall for a six month tour of Asia and Australia, Voyageur approached her about running this festival. “He was the one who drove this process.

“While I was away he got the funding and hired people to develop a plan.”

“We mobilized ourselves the end of October,” reflects Voyageur. “We were fortunate to get brilliant proposal writers.” They were notified that they got the funding about a month ago.

This is a short time line, but Voyageur sees this first year as “a wonderful challenge”.

“All the elements are in place: there is a need for this festival, an amazing team of coordinators and all these very excited Yukon First Nations artists. And the government has stepped up with funding. We’re very thankful that they’re supportive.”

Alexander is also grateful for her team. She’s working beside Katie Johnston who masterminded the Canada Winter Games Gathering of Northern Nations.

The group will fill the Old Fire Hall with an exhibition of art and craft produced by the approximately 35 artists who will be doing demonstrations in a large tent nearby.

“We tried hard to get artists from every community,” says Alexander, and they’re still trying. A final list of demonstrating artists has not been finalized yet. They will include established artists who have left the territory like Mark Preston and Richard Shorty, as well as artists whose work you may not have seen before.

Artists in the show will show how their work is made in the demonstration tent, open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

They will also offer about 15 workshops over the week, beginning at 10 a.m or 1 p.m. First dibs on registration will go to the demonstrating artists, with the remaining spots open for the public. These will be listed in the newspaper.

Workshops will include quillwork, tufting, beading, moccasin making, drum making, carving and so on.

In addition, every night performances will take place in Jubilee Park, right behind the Visitors’ Information Centre, overlooking the Yukon River. These will include storytelling, a comedy night, an aboriginal film night in cooperation with the Yukon Film Society and “lots of drumming and dancing.”

For National Aboriginal Day on June 21, there will be a full day of activities in Jubilee Park, including fiddling, dancing, drumming, bannock and salmon. A final concert by George Leach will round out the day.

The festival’s slogan – “sharing our spirit” – sums up what Alexander hopes will happen at the festival.

“That’s what I feel about Inuvik as well. When you’re there you just feel like you’ve been invited into a community celebration, that you’re part of a family somehow.”

The festival opens on June 21 and closes June 27, with a 5 p.m. closing ceremony and artists awards.