Keeping His Culture Strong

Daniel Tlen sang our national anthem at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The event was viewed by one of the largest television audiences ever assembled.

“There were some estimates that two-billion people were watching,” says Tlen, though he admits he is a little skeptical of that figure.

Tlen’s performance of O Canada was unlike any that the audience had heard before; the anthem was sung in Southern Tutchone, his native language.

“It was one of the highlights of my life,” says Tlen, and not only for the personal exposure he gained from the event, but because it allowed him to meet some of his musical idols. “I met Tommy Banks. I also met Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson,” Tlen says.

This love of music and culture has been a driving force in his life, both before and since the ’88 games.

For Tlen, it’s not a hobby; it’s imperative. Tlen says if native cultures lose their relevance, “it would be hard on a lot of youth because they wouldn’t have the compass that an old culture gives you.

“There is a high correlation between suicide and people with no cultural underpinnings.”

Tlen always took time to nurture such underpinnings in his own life. “Even as a little child, in preschool, I would ask the Elders for their stories. I would do chores for them so they’d be free to tell a story.”

It was also when he was young that Tlen learned many traditional native songs. This fostered his interest in music, an interest that was piqued when he discovered the guitar.

“Ever since I heard the guitar, I loved the sound of it,” he says. And although he has had decades of practice, he still believes the instrument has more to teach him.

“I’m still a student of the guitar,” he says with reverence. Right now, he is interested in the blues.

Like many musicians of his generation, Tlen’s musical evolution came of age in the ’60s. “I wanted to be a folk musician. I was really inspired by people like Lightfoot, Dylan and Credence Clearwater Revival.”

After high school, he moved to Toronto to pursue these interests, but destiny pulled him back to the Yukon. “My grandmother died,” he explains, “and I realized that with her died a lot of history, knowledge and language.”

From that point on, the revitalization of his culture became a central goal in his life. He enrolled at the University of Victoria and majored in linguistics. “I became a linguist so I could work with my own language,” says Tlen.

Since then, he has shared his knowledge in public schools – teaching Southern Tutchone (and giving cultural underpinnings) to hundreds of students. He has also been an instructor at Yukon College.

Today he is a consultant for native language curriculum and programming in the Yukon. He credits his success to an optimistic principle: “When you decide to do things, the world seems to help you out.”

This explanation is too simple for some people’s tastes – but, then again, who wants to argue with someone who has sung to one-third of the world?

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