Sharing the Tlingit culture


Many years ago, when another winter was survived and summer allowed for easier travel, the Inland and Coastal Tlingit people would gather.

Members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation would walk from the Atlin area to the shore of Teslin Lake and make camp, while a fire would be lit to alert those of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation that they were ready to be picked up.

Elders have told Sharon Shorty that there would be excitement among her people. Food would have been prepared for some time already, but cooking would begin in earnest as others found their best clothes while canoes were sent across the lake to pick up their guests.

Meanwhile, members of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation would be on their way overland.

Shorty is the overall co-ordinator of the Hà Kus Teyea Celebration, the Teslin Tlingit Council’s seven days of singing, dancing, drumming, storytelling, art and other events that welcome, once again, Tlingits from inland and the coast.

To make sure the welcoming ceremonies are true to tradition, she has hired a protocol co-ordinator to speak to the elders to determine how these events should be conducted. Each will likely include a re-enactment of their arrivals.

The result will be a genuine traditional experience that will involve all Yukoners and visitors.

To add to the excitement, the Coastal Tlingits will be joining the celebration from Juneau, Alaska. And, as per tradition, they will be bringing 900 pounds of salmon.

“When I go to the coast,” says Shorty, “I look for abalone, shells for a button blanket.

“When they [Coastal Tlingits] come here, they say, ‘Where can I get a moosehide and fur?'”

And they look for soapberries, too.

“They want to buy moccasins and mukluks; we want to buy regalia and weaving.” Fortunately, there is a lot of gift exchanges at an event like this.

The Teslin Tlingits have shot five moose to help feed the participants and visitors. The hides will be used for the workshops.

Shorty says these gatherings are all about sharing their Tlingit culture. This modern-day event, the Hà Kus Teyea Celebration, shares it with all Yukoners and visitors.

But one 10-day workshop, in particular, will help bring back the skill of cedar-hat weaving to the Inland Tlingits. Shorty says nobody here, who she knows of, is practising this art. There will also be instruction in Chilkat weaving for their robes.

Culture will also be shared through canoe events and demonstrations, an artist market, dance group performances and cultural programs.

Dancing is popular with the biannual gatherings in Juneau. Shorty says that of the 6,000 people attending on the even-numbered years, 2,000 are dancers.

It is this gathering of the Coastal Tlingits in Juneau, over the past 25 years, that inspired the Inland Tlingits to create their own celebration. Shorty says it is hoped the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation will take turns with the Teslin Tlingit Council by hosting celebrations on even-numbered years.

One event, the Traditional Salmon Welcoming Ceremony, is anticipated because it is believed the salmon have not been honoured in a long time. With dwindling salmon stock, this may encourage their return.

Shorty says she is looking forward to the storytelling circles. She says the Elders’ stories may explain why some families split up with some remaining on the coast and others travelling inland to begin new lives.

“How come you guys didn’t come look for us?” asks Shorty. “Maybe there was an avalanche.

“And why did we never go back? Maybe it’s because they now had eight children.”

Historically – and probably today, too – these celebrations had a romantic element. Shorty reminds that Tlingits are discouraged from marrying within their own clan. So, she says, “They’d say, ‘Bring lots of Ravens!’ and we’d say, ‘Bring lots of Wolves!'”

One purpose of this celebration is to “reclaim what was taken away when international borders were imposed on us,” says Shorty. With Coastal Tlingit on the American side, there was a concern that passports would be needed. It has been resolved to the point that Status Cards will now suffice, but spouses of First Nation members still need a passport.

There is also an element of fun: Shorty says each night there will be a Blanket Collecting Dance to honour your father’s people. (She explains that Tlingits follow their mothers and they are always honoured.)

This is a chance for everyone to dance up to the blanket and donate money that will be used to help pay for the all-free event.


“If you want to donate and you want to honour your father, then you will have to dance,” says Shorty. “Besides, it’s fun.”

The various events happen in the Village of Teslin and begin Wednesday, July 22. Shorty recommends that visitors bring their “potlatch dishes” (plate, bowl and cutlery).

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