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At Moosehide, one tribe reunites across border to reclaim traditions

Mike Dunham
James Afcan, in the blue kuspuk, leader of the Yup'ik Miracle Dancers and Drummers of Wasilla, dances with the Han Dancers of Dawson at the Moosehide Gathering July 26. A major purpose of the biennial festival held in the village of Moosehide, Yukon territory, is to celebrate the unity of Native people on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border. The Moosehide Gathering is a festival held in Moosehide, Yukon territory, every other year.
Mike Dunham / Alaska Dispatch News
Passengers line up to board a skiff shuttling guests from Dawson to the village of Moosehide, two miles down the Yukon River, for the 2010 Moosehide Gathering. The Moosehide Gathering is a festival held in Moosehide, Yukon territory every other year.
Mike Dunham / Alaska Dispatch
St. Barnabas Anglican Church, built in 1908, is the first thing visitors see when they arrive in Moosehide. The Moosehide Gathering is a festival held in Moosehide, Yukon territory, every other year.
Mike Dunham / Alaska Dispatch News
A skiff shuttling visitors from Dawson arrives in Moosehide on the Yukon River for the 2014 Moosehide Gathering, while a paddlewheeler with sightseers goes by. The Moosehide Gathering is a festival held in Moosehide, Yukon territory, every other year.
Mike Dunham / Alaska Dispatch News
Georgette McLeod, Tr'ondek Hwech'in language coordinator, (left) embraces Daisy Northway of Tok, Alaska, at a ceremony in Moosehide, Yukon territory, July 26, 2014. The ceremony was to honor Northway's aunt, the late Laura Sanford of Tanacross. Sanford, seen in the framed photograph, was the "main leader" in an effort to recover songs and dances that had been forgotten by her Native relatives in Canada, said Tr'ondek Hwech'in elder Doris Roberts. The Moosehide Gathering is a festival held in Moosehide, Yukon territory, every other year.
Mike Dunham / Alaska Dispatch News

Every other summer, the village of Moosehide in the Yukon takes on the look of a medieval fair. Colorful tents and pavilions fill the space between old log cabins, dotting the grassy field that runs from the hilltop cemetery down to the big bank overlooking the river.

Music, planned and impromptu, comes from all corners. Wood smoke and the smell of cooking food wafts through the air. Buyers and vendors haggle over handcrafts. Shouting children with painted faces run freely. Senior citizens sit and chat with old friends. For four days, Yukoners and travelers from across Canada meet, swap stories, camp out and dance together all the way to midnight as the setting summer sun turns the Yukon pink and gold.

Four banners fly over the site: the tribal flag of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the hosts of the event; the Canadian flag; the Yukon flag -- and the Alaska flag.

Few Alaskans know about Moosehide. But the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are keenly aware of their place, a few miles east of the line that cuts through the wilderness, marking the border between the U.S. and Canada. They have friends and relatives on the other side of that line, citizens of a different country -- Alaskans who played a crucial role in helping them resurrect their traditions and culture.

“The Moosehide Gathering is a time to have fun,” said Fran Morberg-Green, a member of the Hän Dancers, a traditional performance group based in Dawson. “But it’s also a celebration of the return of our songs by the people who were keeping them for us.”

This year, one Alaska elder in particular, the late Laura Sanford of Tanacross, was honored for her role in returning songs and dances to the people of Moosehide when they were all but lost.

Songs lost and found

The confluence of the Klondike -- an Anglicized version of Tr’ondëk -- and Yukon rivers was a fish camp when gold was discovered in 1896. The ensuing stampede brought 100,000 frantic fortune-seekers into the area.

Chief Isaac, the leader of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, quickly saw that his small tribe would be overwhelmed by the gold rush. He worked with the Anglican church to acquire 40 acres two miles away from the wild city of Dawson.

“Chief Isaac was a visionary man who did everything he could to preserve traditional culture,” Morberg-Green said. “He was a peacekeeper, guiding our transition to a new way of life.”

Named for the shape of a large slide area north of the city, Moosehide is located downriver from Dawson. There’s a steep trail between the settlements, but no road. A high rock cliff going into the river makes casual travel between the two places difficult. It provided a buffer from the worst elements of the frontier town.

By 1900, 100 people lived in Moosehide. They built the elegant St. Barnabas Anglican Church, a small copy of the big St. Paul's Anglican Church in Dawson. In 1932, the same year that Chief Isaac died, they moved the old two-story log hospital from Dawson and turned it into their school building.

But the population declined. As the gold rush wound down, people moved permanently to Dawson or Whitehorse for jobs. Families were spread out and cut off from one another.

Sue Parsons, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in collections manager, was at the informational Heritage Tent during the gathering. “There was hurting when the border went in,” she said. “It disconnected people who share the same family, the same cultural heritage.”

The government instituted a policy of taking Native children from their villages to be raised in boarding schools. In 1957 the Moosehide school closed. With no children, the settlement was almost entirely deserted, aside from a few people who maintained cabins for seasonal use.

Moosehide languished until 1991, when a language conference was held with the objective of revitalizing Native history and traditions. People put up tents at the old Moosehide site and talked about how they might learn the old songs and dances.

No one was sure if they remembered any, but they thought their relatives in Alaska might. Some traveled to Eagle, which shares the Hän dialect of Athabascan with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Tanacross, which has a similar dialect. They hoped to adopt some of the dances still remembered by the Alaskans.

They got much more.

Chief Isaac himself had contacted the old Tanacross village of Lake Mansfield in the early 1900s, they were told. He told the Alaskans that, in the face of overwhelming change, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were forgetting their own songs and dances. He could not stop it, he said, and the trend would not be reversed in his lifetime. So he asked his extended family in Alaska to learn the songs from him and remember them until the day came when his descendants were ready to perform them again.

The first attempts to learn the songs came back empty. Elder Edward Roberts was frustrated. “I told my sister, ‘We have to do something. We have to get these songs back,’” he said. With his sister Doris, he organized a trip to Tanacross for themselves and seven students.

On that trip they met Laura Sanford.

‘A grand lady’

“She was a real grand lady, that one,” said Doris Roberts, smiling at the memory. “So patient with the kids. I liked the way she’d say, ‘You keeds.’ She fed us well, even though we had food vouchers and she didn’t have to do that.”

Sanford, who had been a language mentor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, shared the songs that Chief Isaac had sent to her village so many years before. The students learned the songs and brought them home. Elders heard the students sing and began to remember more bits and pieces, second verses, dance moves, ceremonial actions and the meanings behind them.

Today, the Hän Dancers open and close the biennial Moosehide Gathering with the songs and dances that were preserved in Alaska for most of a century. The cross-border connection was further emphasized at this year’s festivities, held July 24-27, by Athabascan dancers from Tanacross and Northway and the Miracle Drummers and Dancers of Wasilla, who presented Yup’ik dances from the mouth of the Yukon, 1,200 miles downstream from Moosehide.

Canadian performers included groups representing the Inland Tlingit of the far west to Baffin Island off the country’s eastern coast. Traditional performances tended to happen during the day, with pop, country and even hip-hop taking the open-air stage after the evening feast. The Jerry Cans, a high-energy rock band from Nunavut, was a big hit. Experimental cellist Cris Derksen from Vancouver improvised with the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers from Whitehorse.

Fairbanks fiddler Bill Stevens, backed up by Anchorage guitarist Richard Gelardin, played jigs with Canadian fiddlers and pickers like Boyd Benjamin from Old Crow and Ed Peekeekoot of Saskatchewan. The show moved into a big building called The Arbour as evening rain pounded the roof and dancers pounded the floor. “The band couldn’t even hear ourselves,” said Gelardin.

A fleet of skiffs manned by volunteers shuttled visitors to and from Moosehide throughout the day. Food for the feasts was provided free of charge by the Dawson City General Store, one of several local businesses that helped cover costs of the event. A concession stand stood ready to serve up burgers and salads between the communal feeds. Local youth from Dawson washed the dishes for a crowd that exceeded 1,000.

‘We will never be divided'

The Hän language is now taught in local schools, not just to Natives but to any student wanting to learn it. With recordings, scholarship and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department, it will not become extinct. But its survival has been by a thread. Although the tribe has about 1,100 citizens, only two fluent speakers are said to be alive.

One man fluent enough to have a conversation in Hän is Percy Henry. “Mahsi Cho,” used for “thank you” repeatedly at Moosehide, isn’t really a Hän word, he said as he cut up a beaver in the Moosehide cook house. “It’s French,” he said. “From ‘merci.’”

He pronounced the old word for “thanks” as a single-syllable version of “ha-yee,” a near rhyme with the Alaska ghost town of Dyea.

Henry is one of several names often mentioned as key figures in the revival of Hän songs and traditions, along with Julia Morberg and the late Archie Roberts.

But the special honor at this celebration was reserved for Laura Sanford, who died in 2010. On Saturday, a special plaque was unveiled that tells the story of how she kept Chief Isaac’s songs until his heirs were ready to reclaim them.

“Until now, no one has recognized these students,” said Doris Roberts. “I think they deserve it. And Laura was the main leader, an inspiration to all of us.”

An old recording of Sanford singing the “Eagle-Moosehide Song” was played. An emotional highlight came when a gift bag was given to her niece, Daisy Northway, who had traveled from Tok for the occasion, and she was embraced by the students, now adults.

On Sunday an Anglican church service took place in the Arbour. “Amazing Grace” and “Jesus Loves Me” were sung and the Lord’s Prayer recited, all in Hän.

As the celebration drew to a conclusion, practical gifts for visitors -- coffee pots, coolers -- were laid out on a large blue tarp. People tossed tobacco into the Sacred Fire, which had been kept burning day and night, rain or sun, for all four days. The flags were lowered.

“Flags are important to our people,” said Madeline deRepentigny, who leads the Hän Dancers. “We didn’t have cloth flags, of course, but we had things like flags that served the same purpose.”

That purpose was not to designate national identity, she said, but “to help you find your way.”

One of the Hän songs is “The Flag Song,” which mentions both the Canadian and Yukon flags specifically.

Also among the closing dances was a reprise of the “Eagle-Moosehide Song.” DeRepentigny said it was originally composed for a potlatch held between the two villages when they learned that an international border would run between their villages and feared they would not see one another again.

She explained its meaning thus:

“The Hän people are one. We will never be divided by an imaginary line.”