The First Nations tradition of passing stories down from generation to generation is alive and well at Grey Mountain Primary School.

This week, the school will host its sixth annual Thai’ May Dhäl (Southern Tuchone for “Grey Mountain”) Storytelling Festival.

The 70 students from kindergarten to Grade 3 will repeat the performance for the general public next Wednesday as part of the Arts in the Park series at LePage Park.

The idea of a storytelling festival for primary students was the brainchild of First Nation artist Rhoda Merkel, who has spent several years offering arts programming in Yukon schools.

It began when a teacher asked Merkel to do a potlatch with her students. The result was a play called Raven’s Light, about how Raven brought light to the world.

“That was really the beginning, because what I saw that day, what we created, was really the inspiration of a teacher that I had worked with in Grade 4 at Elijah Smith,” Merkel says.

Later, when she approached Grey Mountain’s principal, Gloria Coxford, with the idea of coordinating at storytelling festival, she met with an immediate, positive response.

“At that time it was called a potlatch, but we’ve changed it now to storytelling festival, because that’s more what it is.”

Grade 2 students Cadence Milford (l) and Jennifer Tuton work on mini button blankets that will be on display during the Thai’ May Dhäl Storytelling Festival PHOTO: Ken Bolton

In keeping with the potlatch tradition, the students made gifts for each other the first year. The next year, they gave gifts to everyone in the room. Two years ago, they created story blankets to give to daycares.

“Part of it was the idea that we give. We’re part of a community in giving,” Merkel explains.

On a warm afternoon last week, 17 students in Grade 2 were bent to the task of sewing mini button blankets that will be on display as part of this year’s festival.

From time to time, Merkel or one of the teaching staff would be called upon to help unsnarl a length of thread.

“I had to thread 70 needles,” Merkel laughs. It was just part of the preparation involved in pulling together such an elaborate event on a compressed schedule each May.

“After year six, I’ve got more props, I’ve got more costumes, I’ve written out the scripts better, I’ve got a better formula,” she says.

In the gymnasium down the hall, a group of Grade 1 students in elaborate costumes—– including a very colourful polka-dot worm—was rehearsing Rachel Dawson’s Northern Tuchone story about the first potlatch.

On performance day, the 19 kindergarten kids will join them for the song, “Listen to the Water”, by Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Bob Snider, which local musician Andrea McColeman is teaching them.

“The whole program is a challenge—for those little kids to read, and to work together,” Merkel says.

“But they always come through, and that’s the beauty of it. You know, it might look like chaos at the beginning, but when they are performing, they always make it happen, and it always is cute.”

In all, Merkel has gathered 12 traditional stories from various Yukon First Nation sources and from her own Tahltan heritage. These are cycled each year in groups of three, so the students always have new story material to present during their four years at Grey Mountain.

This year, the Grade 2 class will present “Raven’s Light”, while Grade 3 will offer a story called “Salmon Boy”.

A special feature of the Grade 3 presentation is that it will include the “Salmon Song” written two years ago by Grey Mountain students themselves, with help from Whitehorse singer-songwriter Steve Slade.

Students at Grey Mountain come from many cultural backgrounds besides First Nations. Some of the countries represented tin this year’s student body include Korea, China, Mexico and India.

“There’s all kinds of nations represented there. And I know you could do the same process with any stories,” Merkel acknowledges.

“I grew up in a Yukon where quirky was cool. Where miners walked around with grubby clothes, and everyone had a story. They were quirky, but they were cool.”

At that time, she says, Rendezvous was the thing.

“I had a mother who could sew, and I wore the most beautiful dresses you could ever imagine. The whole school dressed up, and we made a big deal of Rendezvous.”

It wasn’t until her teens that she began to develop an awareness of her First Nation heritage.

That’s one reason she’s keen to encourage a new crop of youngsters to appreciate and experience the oral traditions of the first peoples of the territory.

“I don’t even think First Nation kids get very much of it,” she says.

But the traditional stories she’s teaching aren’t just cultural artifacts. They also have a lot of practical teaching, relating to everything from the environment to governance and dispute resolution.

“Any story, you can add science, social studies, different layers to it,” she says.

The Thai’ May Dhäl Storytelling Festival takes place Friday, June 1 at Grey Mountain Primary School, beginning at 11:45 a.m.

The students will perform at Arts in the Park at noon on Wednesday, June 6.