Moosehide – shining a light across the North

The 2018 Moosehide Gathering in Dawson City was, once again, a smashing success. The local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in relocated to Moosehide, two miles north of Dawson City on the Yukon River, during the gold rush of 1898, to escape the insanity of thirty-thousand lousy, drunken gold-hungry stampeders. It is a refuge for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and the biennial gathering is a symbol of their resilience. But, more than that, it is a shining light for all nations from across the North, beckoning us to celebrate together today for our children tomorrow.

Moosehide, a scattering of small cabins on the low-sloping Yukon River, wakes from a slumber into a hive of nonstop activity. Kids run amuck with no regard for time or order. Elders settle into cabin stoops, coffee cups in hand, and watch as the festival unfolds, the majestic Yukon River lulling them as they rock back in time, when life was pure and simple. Tourists and locals mingle like old neighbours. The mayor of Moosehide, an unassuming man in a mackinaw and baseball cap, named Ronald Johnson, smiles in delight. He’s lived another year to see his beloved village come to life.

I set my tent and send my kids off with their friends for an impromptu game of soccer. I find an old friend and plop down beside him without a word. We embrace and laugh. After a brief silence, we catch up between sips of tea. We’ve known one another so long, that silence, too, is an old chum. Two hip hop artists are onstage, working a group of kids into a frenzy. We look at one another and shrug our shoulders in acceptance. We’re both old enough to be comfortable with tear-jerking country and western music, but young enough to remember our folks putting up with our classic rock albums. After my second cup of tea, I ramble toward the river to where I know I’ll find a couple more “fixtures” of Moosehide, brothers Victor and William Henry (a.k.a. Waldo). Sure enough, they’re holding up the cookshack and making the girls giggle with their smart aleck one-liners.

I haven’t seen either of them for six wrinkles, and I’m happy to see them both in fine form. I recognize more friends and I make my way toward them, stopping to shake hands with an old filmmaker friend. What I love about Moosehide, or any other cultural gathering for that matter, is the feeling that you are home and you are welcomed, and missed.

The weekend rolls on with music, food, crafters, music lessons and dancing. The Ross River Dené Drummers gather around the microphone and begin their hypnotic chanting. I want to dance but I’m shy. I recruit someone to my left and we both push one another toward the dance floor. I concede and take the lead. My heart is proud to hear the drums, and even prouder to dance. The floor soon fills, and shouts of joy compete with the drums. There is something about the drum that is both primal and spiritual. The beat calls you to your feet, but the feeling goes through your heart, straight to your smile.

Later that night, the fiddles come out and people gather in the arbour for an evening of spectacular dancing by the Old Crow Dancers. I join fiddling sensation, Boyd Benjamin, and the Governor of the Yukon, Mr. Kevin Barr, onstage. I play bass while Kevin plays guitar. Boyd’s bow slides across the strings like a ball bearing, and the dancers answer his call, their beaded slippers becoming a blur as they dance to the “Red River Jig.” After the Old Crow Dancers finish their routine, we open the floor. This is my favourite part of the evening. We work the crowded dance floor into a blitz. An Elder holds her mouth as a barefoot hippie flops around the dance floor like a rag doll. I can’t help but yell into the microphone, “Hippies and Indians!” Everyone laughs. A gust of wind blows through the arbour. I can’t help but think that the ghosts of our ancestors have come to join us on the dancefloor.

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