Marilyn Jensen was inspired to start a dance group after finishing her master’s degree at the University of Victoria. She studied Indigenous governance, and said she was surrounded bypeople who were connecting with their culture, language, traditions, and old ways of life; this propelled her.
She returned to her hometown of Carcross, and in the summer of 2007, with five other people, started a group to dance for tourists. They performed traditional Inland Tlingit dances, and no one came out to watch, at first. But it wasn’t about who saw them dance, it was “a spiritual thing, a connection thing, a grounded thing.”
The dancing became bigger than the dancers, and Jensen couldn’t stop. Now, “it’s one of the biggest, most important parts of our lives.”
The dance group is called Dakhká Khwáan, and it is composed of 25 to 30 active members. If people are going to be part of the group, they have to be committed. Jensen laughs when people say they want to join but are too busy.
“We’re all busy.”
But the dancing is important.
“It’s meaningful. We’re all at this place where we can’t live without it.”
Along with Dakhká Khwáan, which is a “semi-professional group, and too rigorous for younger dancers,” Jensen started a junior group, “which has exploded.”
Forty to 50 kids dance in the junior group. Jensen realized the older dancers had to pass the knowledge and things they were learning to the next generation, and the Dakhká Khwáan snatches up the dancers once they turn 15.
The ‘knowledge and things they learn’ is more than dance steps, drum beats, and words to songs. The traditional songs are “literally the songs of our ancestors. Some of them are 10,000 years old. They go back to the ice age.”
These songs connect the dancers to the land; they reinforce connections to ancestors, and to each other in the present day. They teach of the Wolf and Raven – clans into which the Inland Tlingit are split. The dances show the relationship between the clans, the reciprocity and balance.
There’s more — “we can’t do this without focusing on language.”
Jensen says they have a long way to go to revitalize and reclaim their language; for most of them, the songs are the only access they have to Indigenous languages, and “that’s a spiritual thing as well.”
There’s more to the dancing. Jensen says the popularity of the dance troupes, despite everybody’s busy lives, is testimony to First Nations’ need to identify with who they are.
“It’s still not the coolest thing to be Indigenous in Canada.”
She talks about the myth of being Indigenous, how it’s been written by colonization, residential schools, and dependency. People think, when they hear “First Nation”, “oh, you guys don’t work, everyone gives everything to you.”
Jensen says dancing is a way for the kids to see that they “come from noble people. Beautiful, strong, self-determining people.”
The dancing helps break the myth of negativity. Jensen says with the trend of cultural tourism, of the desire to see the authentic Yukon, the Dakhká Khwáan is a powerful thing to be a part of.
The dance group recently won a national heritage cultural tourism award; Jensen says that in Ottawa she got all dressed up like an “Indian movie star”, wearing an Arctic fox fur her uncle trapped in the ‘40s, and copper earrings. When she got to the gala, she thought, “What are we doing here? We’re not going to win.”
They were up against the train that travels through the Rocky Mountains, among other grand enterprises. But they did win.
Jensen says they couldn’t have done it without support from the community, which is why they’re hosting a concert. It’s to say thanks. She says they’re going to rock the stage off.
The concert is free. It starts at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan 11 at the Old Fire Hall. Jensen recommends coming early because seating is limited. She thinks they may have to have two shows, to accommodate everyone who’ll likely want to come.