Established in 2011, Adäka Cultural Festival is an annual celebration of Yukon First Nation culture held in the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre on the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse. The weeklong summer arts festival has quickly become a signature northern event that hosts hundreds of visual artists, performers, musicians and storytellers and attracts thousands of visitors.
For many festival participants the journey to Adäka is hard-won and deeply personal. Being a visual or performing artist is not an easy path. Most are juggling artistic pursuits with jobs, school, and family. Practice and performance schedules are rigorous, and a few must leave home to tour, train, and reach new audiences. But if they can make it to the festival, these talented artists find joy, support and inspiration, and they are fueling a cultural revival.
This story is playing out in communities across the country, as Canada’s indigenous people are coming together in unprecedented numbers at festivals, events, marches and rallies to celebrate their culture and traditions.
Dennis Shorty | Drumming belongs to everyone
Dennis Shorty is a Kaska Dena sculptor who has spent most of his life near Ross River, Yukon. Dennis has overcome addictions and abuse to become one of the Yukon’s most accomplished carvers. His works are in collections around the world, and his successes take him to Europe and across North America. A skilled woodsman and hunter, Dennis spends much time out on the land and remains connected to his traditional ways.
Dennis is also a drummer and singer. He speaks and writes songs in the Kaska language, which connects him with his past and provides inspiration for his music. Dennis teaches and leads drum circles and often drums with the Kaska Dena Drummers. Dennis is also in a band, Dena Zagi, with his German-born wife Jenny. She is at Dennis’ side through everything, including the painful process of reconciliation as a victim of residential school. Their band plays original songs written in the Kaska language about things that are very important to Dennis: his ancestors, his traditional ways, animals, Mother Earth, healing.
Carmen Baker | We are fighting hard to bring it back
Carmen Baker is the indefatigable leader of the Selkirk Spirit Dancers, a Northern Tutchone dance group comprised mostly of children and youth numbering close to 40 dancers. Carmen is Northern Tutchone and Tlingit from the Crow clan and a member of Selkirk First Nation from Pelly Crossing in central Yukon.
Dance troupe leader, community organizer and mother of six, Carmen personifies the leadership and commitment that forms the core of cultural revitalization in many small indigenous communities. The Selkirk Spirit Dancers rehearse weekly in the recreation centre in their village, and they fill several vans for the long journeys to perform at festivals across the North. In just a decade the group has built a dedicated following and recently performed in Alaska and Oregon.
Gary Sidney Johnson | A decision that culture is my life
A young Tagish and Inland Tlingit man from the Carcross area, Gary Sidney Johnson is helping to revive cultural traditions in his community. A member of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Gary is a drummer, singer, performer and native language teacher. He teaches dancing and Tlingit to adults and children, and he is a regular presence at community events.
Gary is part of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers, a troupe of semi-professional Inland Tlingit performers from Southern Yukon. The dancers have performed at the Olympics, in New Zealand, at the Smithsonian, at the Pan-Am Games, and across Canada. They won Canada’s national cultural tourism award. The DKD have a punishing schedule of practices and performances, and Gary has additional responsibilities as a song leader. The DKD also have a junior group of youth dancers.
Diyet van Lieshout | When I let that voice out
Born in a tent and raised in the Southern Tutchone village of Burwash Landing, Diyet is an accomplished songwriter and singer. Diyet has had to dig deep, first finding her voice as a child, leaving home to pursue her dreams, building a hard-scrabble career, and eventually choosing to come back to Burwash Landing where she found fulfilment and success as a recording artist.
A member of Kluane First Nation, Diyet is blending old and new in music and life. She juggles traditional activities and a young family with touring and the demands of a career in music. She writes and sings in English and Southern Tutchone. Her debut album, The Breaking Point, was nominated for “Best New Artist” and “Songwriter of the Year” at the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards in 2010 and 2011, “Album of the Year” at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and remained on the Canadian Aboriginal Music Countdown for 24 weeks. She released her second album, When You Were King, in 2013, and a new album is in the works for 2017.
Brian Walker | It’s the culture that makes you full
Copper artist Brian Walker and his wife, the artist Ann Smith, are at the centre of their large family and are respected Elders in the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. At twelve years old, Brian met Bill Reid when the celebrated Haida artist was working on a commission at UBC. Over two years young Brian spent his spare time at the studio, learning about Northwest coast art and traditions. In 1969 Brian moved to the Yukon, where he met Ann, and he’s spent the decades since immersed in a wide range of artistic pursuits.
During this time, he worked and studied with artists including Dempsey Bob, Keith Wolfe Smarch, Philip Janze, Mark Porter and many others who were involved in the revival of First Nations carving in Yukon. During this time Brian became interested in copper, and his copper masks, bowls and ceremonial pieces are held in many collections.
Ann Smith | The children teach us how to be good teachers
Watch this short film about renowned ravenstail weaver, former chief, respected elder and great-grandmother Ann Smith. A member of Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Ann is one of the busiest people in her community. Her schedule is determined by the activities of 11 grandchildren and a slate of volunteer commitments. Ann steals hours to sit at her loom, where she weaves ravenstail dancing blankets. A fine craft revived after being lost for a century, Ravenstail weaving is painstakingly slow. Regalia created by Ann are held in collections and galleries around the world.
Ann’s husband Brian Walker is a master copper artist. Their community has seen more than its share of tragedy, and Ann and Brian use traditional craft, ceremony and reconnecting with the past to offer support. They live next to the Yukon River near downtown Whitehorse.
Adäka Cultural Festival teaser
Get inspired to come to Adäka
At the height of northern summer, artists and visitors gather in Whitehorse for the annual week-long Adäka Cultural Festival. This celebration of Yukon First Nations culture honours the revitalization of lost traditions and the emergence of new ones. Adäka is a vibrant gathering place where artists and performers bring their heritage and passions…into the light.
Many thanks to the artists, performers and visitors who shared their art and experiences.
Chilkoot Entrance Song
The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers is a semi-professional Inland Tlingit performance group based in Whitehorse. Known as one of the Yukon’s premier artistic acts, the group numbers 25 dancers, 86 songs, and a junior group.
The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers are well-known for their energetic, spine-tingling performances that incorporate traditional songs, drumming, dance and storytelling and spectacular regalia. The group performed Chilkoot Entrance Song out on the land in the traditional territory of the Inland Tlingit. The song was recorded at Old Crow Recording Studio
Wood | Keith Wolfe Smarch
Meet Carcross artist KEITH WOLFE SMARCH
Keith Wolfe Smarch is a full-time carver who works in the Tlingit style. He carves panels, masks, dance screens and totem poles and designs regalia. Keith belongs to the generation of Yukon artists who established the use of Tlingit art forms, sometimes with a considerable amount of effort. When Keith first became interested in Tlingit art in the early 1980s, he found nothing of the like in the Yukon, in terms of neither art nor expertise. Consequently, he traveled to British Columbia, where he studied under Dempsey Bob and Freda Diesing.
Many years ago, as Carcross-Tagish First Nation struggled to create a vision for the future, they built a carving shed in the middle of the community. As a master carver, Keith chose to take a role at the heart of Carcross’s revitalization. He is passionate about teaching and has overseen dozens of artistic and cultural projects: Murals, totems, ceremonial objects, hats and carvings, youth mentorship, trapping education. In addition, Keith welcomes visitors to the carving shed on the Carcross waterfront where he shares stories about his community, his culture and his artwork. Keith is a member of the Daklaweidi clan.
DÀ ZE TSÀN From Our Hearts Fashion Show
High fashion from the North
A biennial highlight of Adäka Cultural Festival is the DÀ ZE TSÀN fashion show showcasing the north’s top indigenous fashion talents. Produced by Chantal Rondeau, the show focuses on traditional and contemporary fashions of Yukon First Nations, with collections from special guests across the North and beyond. This show featured contemporary designers Sho Sho Esquiro, Brenda Asp and Alano Edzerza, with spectacular traditional robes by Ann Smith and Clarissa Rizal. Special thanks to the many women from across the Yukon for sharing their traditional designs on the runway.