Re-catching culture: why traditional salmon harvesting is a struggle for Yukon First Nations
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“Sixty-six, 66!” Dorothy Sam stopped in her tracks as she thought she heard that number blaring over her walkie-talkie on the picnic table in her small makeshift outdoor kitchen.  

She grabbed the radio and scrambled to prepare her fish cleaning station for the 66 chinook salmon her nephew Charles Waugh claimed to have in his net. 

“Sixty-six, Charles?” she asked him over the radio.

“No, no,” he responded, his voice crackling. “Six STICKS, there are six sticks in the net.” 

Sam sighed. It was the first time the family had checked their net this season. They had been patiently waiting at their family fish camp along the Yukon River for the chinook, a traditional food of the Kwanlin Dün people, to arrive.

 Charles Waugh, Sam’s nephew pulls the family’s 35-foot net from the water. There are no salmon inside, only scattered leaves and twigs. Photo by Reina Cowan

Charles Waugh, Sam’s nephew pulls the family’s 35-foot net from the water. There are no salmon inside, only scattered leaves and twigs. Photo by Reina Cowan

This is the first time in two years that Sam, 57, and her partner, Jeff Glaeser, 54, have set up nets in the fast flowing river. Sam and her nephew Waugh are the only reported members of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) trying to net chinook this summer, says the First Nation’s lands and resources manager, Brandy Mayes. 

 Dorothy Sam with her partner Jeff Glaeser at her family’s fish camp. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Dorothy Sam with her partner Jeff Glaeser at her family’s fish camp. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Traditional salmon fishing is something all Yukon First Nations have been struggling with for the last two decades. The chinook salmon population has plummeted and the reason why is a mystery. Many speculate that it’s because of commercial overfishing in Alaska, climate change causing the waters to warm, or fungus that weakens the salmon. 

Whatever the reason, the small and sometimes non-existent harvests are affecting the First Nations in a big way. By not harvesting salmon the First Nations are losing their culture and identity, many First Nations members say.

Sam and Glaeser decided to harvest this year, despite the hundreds of dollars it costs to do so. Glaeser said harvesting and smoking fish is especially hard work. You need to be attentive to the smoking tent at all times to make sure the salmon doesn’t become rotten. Plus, the price of gas, propane and food to keep their camp functioning for those few weeks is high.

 Stew boils on the stove and the smell of bannock wafts throughout Dorothy Sam’s outdoor kitchen at her family’s fish camp. Photos by Kiera Kowalski   

Stew boils on the stove and the smell of bannock wafts throughout Dorothy Sam’s outdoor kitchen at her family’s fish camp. Photos by Kiera Kowalski

 

“We could go and buy the salmon for cheaper than what we’re paying to set up camp,” he said. “You often wonder ‘why do we do this?’ Then you take a bite of that dried salmon and it’s so good.”

It’s also a good opportunity for family to get together for a few weeks. Sam’s nephew, Charles Waugh, and his wife, Charlene, help them fish, and she invites her friends and their children to participate too. “We all get together. We have a good time. The kids that are here are learning,” said Glaeser.

 Charles Waugh pushes his family’s boat off the dock. They are going out onto the Yukon River to check their net for salmon. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Charles Waugh pushes his family’s boat off the dock. They are going out onto the Yukon River to check their net for salmon. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

They make sure no part of the salmon goes to waste. They give the eggs, otherwise known as roe, and the fish heads to the elders. Fish head soup was a staple “back in the day,” says Mayes. What isn’t edible goes to the dogs, like Sam’s two-year-old bear dog Kya.

Sam says the only way to preserve traditional chinook harvesting is to get people out and learning, but she gets frustrated because youth in her community seem to have other priorities like watching television or playing video games.

She says even if the youth did show an interest in salmon harvesting, they face another major problem -- the salmon population. 

“People need to learn how to net and clean salmon, but that’s the hard thing is that the population is going down so much,” she said. 

She remembers growing up on the land when the salmon were abundant in the Yukon River.

“My grandma and my grandpa and my mom and dad were the last of the people that were on the land. We did sometimes stay in the village but not very often. We grew up on the land. We grew up here,” said Sam, motioning toward the ground. 

The small cabin that she was raised in still stands on the hill above her fish camp, located near Croucher Creek, about 10 kilometres outside of Whitehorse. Her mom, dad and four siblings would cram in the small space to sleep at night. Her grandmother’s cabin, which also remains at the fish camp, is just down the hill, and she remembers running there as a little girl to visit. 

 The walls of Dorothy Sam’s cabin sit atop a bed of delicate blooms and greenery. This was the place she and her family called home during her childhood. Sam has many fond memories growing up here. Photos by Kiera Kowalski

The walls of Dorothy Sam’s cabin sit atop a bed of delicate blooms and greenery. This was the place she and her family called home during her childhood. Sam has many fond memories growing up here. Photos by Kiera Kowalski

When she was five, Sam attended residential school in Whitehorse at Yukon Hall, a day school for First Nations students in the North. At the age of seven, her sister Lynn, who was 10 years older, pulled her out because their mother had died. Together they learned how to net, clean, filet and smoke the salmon. 

“It was a staple of our diets,” said Sam. She figures they caught around 100 every salmon season, which lasted from the end of July to the middle of August. This salmon fed them through the fall and winter. 

 Dorothy Sam stands in a small clearing in the wooded area surrounding her fish camp. The path that she stands on links the different locations throughout the camp — from her kitchen, to the salmon drying racks to the dock where her family’s boat sits. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Dorothy Sam stands in a small clearing in the wooded area surrounding her fish camp. The path that she stands on links the different locations throughout the camp — from her kitchen, to the salmon drying racks to the dock where her family’s boat sits. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Sam only attended residential school for three years. Other students were taken away from their culture for their whole childhood, from five to 18. This contributed to a profound loss of culture, identity and traditional practices like harvesting chinook, says Mayes. 

“We weren’t allowed to practice our culture or language,” she said. “There’s been a loss of identity for a while and there’s not many people that have had the chance to get it back, but it’s coming back now because we’re allowed to practice.” 

More luck in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory

Five hundred and thirty-two kilometres north of Whitehorse, down the Yukon River, lies Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in traditional territory. The self-governing First Nation is having more luck getting its youth involved with traditional chinook harvesting while still struggling with the dip in the salmon population. 

At Moosehide Village, three kilometres downstream from Dawson City, they held a first fish camp in mid-July, the first since 2013. Youth learned everything from setting, pulling and fixing nets, to cleaning, fileting and making the salmon into strips to smoke.

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph said the youth harvested seven chinook salmon, fewer than the 20 they fished in 2013. But Joseph is happy they are harvesting again because the chinook also mean a lot to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people.     

 Roberta Joseph is chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation. She says salmon holds high spiritual value for her people. Photo by Reina Cowan

Roberta Joseph is chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation. She says salmon holds high spiritual value for her people. Photo by Reina Cowan

“For us, for our people, it’s about our culture, it's about our traditions, it's about our identity,” said Joseph. “Without our traditional foods we don’t feel whole. When we are able to harvest or use our traditional foods we feel stronger spiritually. It’s important that we go out on the land and are able to eat our traditional foods.”

Joseph, who used to work in fish and wildlife for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government before becoming chief, has noticed the declining population of salmon in the waters surrounding her traditional territory. 

In the early 2000s, the youth of First Fish would harvest 70 chinook in about five days, said Joseph. Then five years passed and they had to limit the catch to 35. Another five years went by and they capped the limit at 20 chinook. Then in 2013 the general assembly at Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in volunteered not to harvest in order to conserve the population, despite their rights as First Nations people in the Yukon. 

Joseph said throughout those years they taught the youth about the importance of conservation and alternative subsistence foods, such as the chum salmon.

“We have to look at alternative methods for traditional foods because we need the salmon to maintain our good health,” she said. 

Chum salmon are fattier than the chinook but are still a good substitute, said Joseph. As they travel down river the fish become leaner. During the years they weren’t harvesting chinook they would catch the chum, usually in the fall, to teach the youth the traditional practices of netting, cleaning, fileting and smoking fish.

“It’s a lot more than just going out and harvesting salmon,” said Joseph. “You take everything away, spiritually, mentally, and physically if you take away the salmon. You take our laws and traditions too.”

Salmon are very connected to First Nations in the Yukon because they have been a key food source for thousands of years. Many First Nations in the Yukon lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the game and moving with the seasons to where they knew main sources of food were. 

Salmon was the largest source of food they followed, besides the caribou and moose. Large groups of people gathered in the summer to catch the spawning salmon and preserve it for the long, harsh Yukon winters, according to the Council of Yukon First Nations. Because they relied so heavily on the fish, they built an intense relationship linked to their spiritual respect for the salmon and environment. 

Getting back to culture

On July 24 the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee (YSSC) released a public announcement stating that due to low numbers of fish entering Yukon from Alaska there would be no retention of chinook salmon for fisheries along the Yukon River. An exception was First Nations subsistence fishing, but even then the YSSC figured their needs would not be met.

As of July 16, 158,500 salmon entered the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska, heading for Canada. It’s estimated that between 62,000 and 84,000 will make it to the Yukon. This is better than last year's run of between 42,500 to 55,000. However, it’s still significantly lower than the long-term historical average of 150,000, according to the YSSC.

Because of their self-government agreements and their right to the land and resources on it, the people of Kwanlin Dün and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are allowed to harvest as much salmon as they want for subsistence. Joseph knew the fish camp should only take enough to teach. Sam and Glaeser also know the importance of respecting limits. Two summers ago they only harvested 39 out of the river. This summer they will probably take fewer.

Glaeser said traditional chinook harvesting isn’t even about subsistence for him anymore.

“It’s just trying to keep this alive,” he said, “because no one else does this but us. That’s it, that’s all there is, just us.” 

 Jeff Glaeser sits in the tent where he dries and smokes the salmon they catch at the fish camp. The former British Columbian moved to the Yukon to live with his partner Dorothy Sam. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Jeff Glaeser sits in the tent where he dries and smokes the salmon they catch at the fish camp. The former British Columbian moved to the Yukon to live with his partner Dorothy Sam. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Mayes, however, is confident there will be more Kwanlin Dün people out on the land and waters in the near future. As lands and resources operations manager at KDFN she helps administer the traditional territory outlined in their land claims agreement. She says that building government and administering land is a long and evolving process. She says her community wants to do it right so that the members of KDFN can get back to their traditional land.
 

 Brandy Mayes, lands operations manager at Kwanlin Dun First Nation, checks her GPS with hopes of locating Dorothy Sam’s fish camp. The camp stands along the Yukon River in a secluded area deep in the woods. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

Brandy Mayes, lands operations manager at Kwanlin Dun First Nation, checks her GPS with hopes of locating Dorothy Sam’s fish camp. The camp stands along the Yukon River in a secluded area deep in the woods. Photo by Kiera Kowalski

“Hopefully we can get it done soon and do it right so that we can have people on the land,” Mayes said. After developing the land, they plan to have more funds flowing in to help develop culture camps for youth. These camps will teach them everything from drying fish and netting fish, to hunting, skinning and processing moose.

“It’s not very long since we’ve signed our land claims in 2005. So people are just starting to get back out and starting to get back to their culture,” she said.

 

Chinook Salmon Migration: 

The chinook salmon’s life cycle starts in fresh water, like that of the Yukon River, where chinook lay their eggs, which turn into young, or “alevins.” These alevins grow for a year or two in fresh water and then begin their swim towards the sea, eventually settling into the Pacific Ocean to grow to adulthood.
When the chinook reach maturity, at around four to six years, they will return from the North Pacific Ocean, near the Bering Sea region, to travel 3,000 km upstream down the Yukon River, through Alaska and back into the Yukon territory. Eventually, they will reach the regions where they were originally spawned.
This two-month trip can be dangerous. The chinook often fall prey to bigger animals, overfishing or warming waters due to climate change. Since the chinook don’t eat during their long swim, instead relying on fat stores for energy, they are sometimes in rough shape after their journey.
This run is the world’s largest salmon migration by numbers. According to the Department of Oceans and Fisheries, the long-term historical average return is 150,000 salmon. Since the late 1990s, however, actual return numbers now fall far below this average. This year’s return is expected to be between 62,000 and 84,000, according to the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee. Out of many spawn that begin the journey, far fewer actually survive the entire trip.
In the late 1950s, the Whitehorse Rapids hydroelectric facility was built to accommodate the growing Whitehorse community. To do this, the city built a dam, helping with power, but making it more difficult for the fish to perform their natural migration. The Fish Ladder was built in 1959 to help salmon pass around the dam. A nearby hatchery came about in the early 1980s to also help replenish salmon stocks and promote conservation, allowing the natural cycle to continue. 
Here is the Whitehorse Fish Ladder’s “fish cam,” where people can watch the fish enter the ladder in real time. 
All information from the Whitehorse Fish Ladder                              

 

Náakw: herbalism in bloom
 Donna Wolfe has been harvesting northern plants since she was a child, but her hobby recently turned into a profession. She turns them into teas, salves, ointments and other medicines

Donna Wolfe has been harvesting northern plants since she was a child, but her hobby recently turned into a profession. She turns them into teas, salves, ointments and other medicines

Barreling down a southern Yukon highway in her bright blue Ford F-150, Donna Wolfe spots a large cluster of yellow and pink fluttering in the wind. Hitting the brakes, she throws her truck into reverse, keeping her gaze on the cluster of colour without taking a moment to look into the rear-view mirror.

Wolfe is searching for plants. Specific ones. Today, it’s goldenrod, strawberry bushes and red elder: traditional herbal medicines for treating skin ailments.

Pulling over, Wolfe jumps out of the truck and heads straight for the bushes, determined. Her stern expression quickly lightens into a smile. Just before the tall grass tapers off into thick boreal forest, there’s a gathering of bright yellow flowers. She’s found a batch of goldenrod.

 While picking goldenrod and strawberry bushes, Wolfe spots arnica flowers - something she usually goes over the Alaskan border to collect.

While picking goldenrod and strawberry bushes, Wolfe spots arnica flowers - something she usually goes over the Alaskan border to collect.

Infused with oil or crushed into a poultice, the small plant covered in thin yellow spore-like petals can be used to treat broken and wounded skin. Wolfe hopes to use the plant to make a skin salve for a nine-year-old boy in Carcross with severe eczema and psoriasis.

“It’s all over. Since he was a baby, he’s had eczema,” Wolfe says, looking up to fend off oncoming tears. “When I see that little boy, everyday he’s itching everywhere. They have to put stuff on his hands at nine years old because he’s constantly itching; he even takes off his shoes and scratches the bottom of his foot.”

Wolfe doesn’t know the boy’s name or his family, but she wants to help. And the 52-year-old medicine-maker wants nothing in return. She picks herbs day in and day out to help people both in and outside her community of Carcross, in southern Yukon. Wolfe and her colleagues at the Carcross/Tagish First Nation Learning Centre have started collecting lists of medicines requested by community elders and she sends caribou-leaf tea to a girl in Prince George, B.C., to help treat her symptoms of lupus. Wolfe says that people come to her from across the country and the world, and she happily send her products anywhere they’re needed -- without charging a dime. 

“It just irks me bad. And just to see people suffer. I’ve watched people suffer long enough and it’s just so self-satisfying to help them,” says Wolfe. “That’s the thing, it’s to help people, not to make money.” 

 As an environmental monitor, Wolfe wants to protect the plants around her from people who may harvest unsustainably or damage them.

As an environmental monitor, Wolfe wants to protect the plants around her from people who may harvest unsustainably or damage them.

Officially, Wolfe is an environmental monitor for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, a protector of the land and the water. Her job is to make sure no one is harming the land, lakes and rivers she and her community hunts, fishes and lives on. Harvesting and making herbal medicines became part of her work only over the last couple of years, when she continued getting caught picking plants as a hobby while out on patrols.

“I’ve been doing it since I was a kid and it was just my passion,” explains Wolfe. “They said ‘well do you want to just keep doing it and do workshops?’ and I just said ‘OK.’”

Donna Wolfe and Donna Johns - affectionately called the Double Ds - collect arnica flowers and infuse them in olive oil. They turn the jar over every 24 hours, to make sure nothing dries up. Johns swears by arnica-infused oil for aching muscles, something she experiences every year doing the Yukon Quest.

For Indigenous and non-Indigenous herbalists alike, interest in the age-old healing practice of making and taking herbal medicines is common in the North. For medicine-makers like Wolfe, the popularity of their work hints that the traditional cultural practice is blooming. 

Wolfe says community members want natural and locally sourced remedies. 

“It’s been a huge revival, you wouldn’t believe. There are people who come up to us and say, ‘I’m sick of taking pills, can you do something for me?’” says Wolfe. “Everyone’s coming and bugging me for something.”

 Wolfe plans to use the strawberry bushes she collected as part of a plant bundle for a young boy suffering from eczema. Alongside goldenrod and red elder, the roots from the strawberry bush is meant to soothe the condition.

Wolfe plans to use the strawberry bushes she collected as part of a plant bundle for a young boy suffering from eczema. Alongside goldenrod and red elder, the roots from the strawberry bush is meant to soothe the condition.

In the flower patch on the side of road, Wolfe pulls out a cigarette and rubs out tobacco from the end, scattering it over the plants. She always says a short prayer thanking the creator for providing the medicine she’s about to harvest and asking for help for those who need it. 

Then she draws a pair of bright purple craft scissors.

Wolfe says that a tobacco offering is a way to show respect to the land before plants are taken away from it. Once the tobacco settles, Wolfe and Johns snip a few stems of goldenrod, pick arnica flowers and assess strawberry bushes.

Wolfe is from the Teslin Tlingit First Nation in southeast Yukon. But for nearly four decades home has been Carcross, the small community straddling the shores of Nares and Bennett lakes.

“I just came here for the weekend 37 years ago,” Wolfe says with a laugh. “The people here are way nicer than anywhere else I’ve ever been.”

In addition to being a medicine-maker and environmental monitor, Wolfe is a hunter, trapper, fisherwoman, sewer and hairstylist. She jokes that she’s done just about every job for the First Nation other than becoming chief.

Every Thursday, Wolfe and her colleague Donna Johns, 42, host medicine-making workshops at the learning centre. There, they teach community members and anyone who would like to learn – including each other – how to harvest and prepare different types of herbal medicines and plant-based products.

“If someone asks for a certain workshop or a certain thing and I don’t know how to do it, I’ll haul somebody in here,” says Wolfe. “And then I’m learning.” 

She’s also taking a year-long online course to advance her knowledge in herbal medicine.  

“I can’t wait. In one year I’ll know a whole of a lot more than I know right now,” Wolfe says with a laugh. 

 Since Wolfe’s medicines are in demand, she jokes that she is never able to use any of it for herself: “I’ve got an aching back right now, but I never use my own stuff."

Since Wolfe’s medicines are in demand, she jokes that she is never able to use any of it for herself: “I’ve got an aching back right now, but I never use my own stuff."

 Johns says that when her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer, the doctors gave him six months to live. Hoping it would ease his pain, she sent him caribou leaves, devil’s club, willow and balsam. "Can’t stop it as far as we found,” says Johns. “But it can help it.” He died two years later.

Johns says that when her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer, the doctors gave him six months to live. Hoping it would ease his pain, she sent him caribou leaves, devil’s club, willow and balsam. "Can’t stop it as far as we found,” says Johns. “But it can help it.” He died two years later.

For Johns, working with herbal medicines has always been a goal, but there has never been a real incentive until now.

“I’ve been interested in medicine forever,” says Johns as she flips through a book featuring the various wild medicinal herbs that grow in the Pacific Northwest. “My grandma taught me a bunch of stuff, but now to get this in-depth, like a job, that was so cool.”

Wolfe shows how the red elder tree gets its name. She slices a small fragment of the branch, and in a matter of minutes, the pristine white interior starts turning a blood red.

Wolfe is also getting First Nations youth involved in the cultural practice. Rae-Anne Collings started working with the First Nation in an environmental monitor training position. Now, she’s working full time with both Wolfe and Johns.

“It feels really good, I like it. Just being able to go out and get stuff for people and help them for when they’re sick,” says the 24-year-old from Carcross. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, just kind of on and off, and now I’m really getting back into it.”

For First Nations, the use of plants for medicines has been passed down through oral tradition for millenia. Wolfe learned most of what she knows from her great aunt, Virginia Smarch. 

“She taught me how to farm and how to do medicines and how to hunt and fish and trap.”

 What Wolfe collects during her patrols, she brings back to the Learning Centre in Carcross. Her floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with jars of red elder, caribou leaves, rose petals, Hudson's Bay tea and more. 

What Wolfe collects during her patrols, she brings back to the Learning Centre in Carcross. Her floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with jars of red elder, caribou leaves, rose petals, Hudson's Bay tea and more. 

For non-First Nations herbalists, there are a number of resources available to explore traditional medicine harvesting and making. Books like The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North have become popular among Yukon herbal enthusiasts. Beverley Gray, the book’s author and owner of a small herb shop in downtown Whitehorse, hosts walk and talks with community members to teach about the medicinal plants growing in the North. 

Gray gently plucks a stem of yarrow from a little bush peering out of a sidewalk. She passes it around a small group of keeners, all out in the misting rain to learn about herbal medicines. Before launching into the health benefits of the plant, Gray urges each person to feel the texture of the crushed leaves and smell their citrus-like scent.

 Gray is only steps away from her shop, Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse. She explains that yarrow is often used to stimulate the immune system; when someone catches a cold, dried yarrow tea can help soothe the symptoms. Gray also mentions that yarrow can be applied topically to stop bleeding. By pressing a bundle of its leaves to a cut or a wound, the yarrow can actually act as a coagulant.

Gray is only steps away from her shop, Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse. She explains that yarrow is often used to stimulate the immune system; when someone catches a cold, dried yarrow tea can help soothe the symptoms. Gray also mentions that yarrow can be applied topically to stop bleeding. By pressing a bundle of its leaves to a cut or a wound, the yarrow can actually act as a coagulant.

 Gray says that you don’t have to look far to find plants with medicinal properties, and yarrow is a perfect example of that. When it comes to the Yukon, it can be found everywhere.

Gray says that you don’t have to look far to find plants with medicinal properties, and yarrow is a perfect example of that. When it comes to the Yukon, it can be found everywhere.

Another step, another plant. This time, it’s birch. Before listing the tree’s health benefits, Gray starts shuffling through her handbag and eventually produces a narrow glass bottle. Once the cap is off, she dabs a thimble of thick amber liquid into her palm and tastes it before passing the bottle of birch syrup around.

The syrup is a sweet treat, but it’s the leaves, bark and mushrooms that carry the benefits. A rich source of vitamin C, Gray says that birch can be used internally for pain relief, and externally for aging skin.

Chatting her way through Teegatha’OH Zheh Park, she pauses near fireweed, a balsam poplar, a spruce tree, a willow, an aspen, and rose bushes before wrapping up her tour at a patch of northern bedstraw.

Gray speaks of teas, salves, tinctures and creams and how natural products can cool inflammation, improve the respiratory system, cleanse the blood or act as a sunscreen.

 (Left to right) Fireweed, willow, rose and aspen. Gray says fireweed is the talk of the town at the moment when it comes to medicinal plants. It has anti-inflammatory properties. 

(Left to right) Fireweed, willow, rose and aspen. Gray says fireweed is the talk of the town at the moment when it comes to medicinal plants. It has anti-inflammatory properties. 

Although she arrived in the Yukon with her own know-how over 20 years ago, Gray says that meeting with First Nations elders is what firmly put her on the herbalist path.  

“They know the berries inside out, they know the food on the land because they’re hunting, they’re trapping, they’re fishing. They know their trees and medicines,” says Gray.

But Gray is not opposed to the alternative. “A lot of people may assume that because you’re a herbalist, you’re anti-medical and anti-pharmaceutical – and I’m not,” she says. “We can work hand in hand, and I think that’s really beautiful.”

Laura Salmon, the director of the First Nations Health programs at Whitehorse General Hospital, is on the same page.

“We wanted to make sure that there was something for First Nations that’s traditional, comforting, and healing,” says Salmon.

 Salmon says the program doesn’t conduct studies that compare the effects of herbal medicine to modern medicine; they rely on patient reports instead. “If someone feels better after taking traditional medicine, then we’re here to support that." 

Salmon says the program doesn’t conduct studies that compare the effects of herbal medicine to modern medicine; they rely on patient reports instead. “If someone feels better after taking traditional medicine, then we’re here to support that." 

When it comes to herbal medicine, the hospital lets patients bring in what they need or calls on elders to help with preparation of medicinal plants. 

“We don’t necessarily consider ourselves the healers,” says Salmon. “We really rely on the traditional knowledge that we have from elders.”

When patients request specific medicines or ceremonies like smudges, the program notifies the patient’s physician and ensures that the hospital staff are aware of the request. Salmon says they are not seeking permission. Instead, the hospital staff puts patients at the centre of the decision-making process.

“We certainly don’t want to do any harm to patients by something that could be an interaction, but we also don’t feel that it’s up to the western medicine practitioner to actually decide what someone should have or shouldn’t have that’s based on traditional values and knowledge,” says Salmon.

Wolfe also believes people should be able to make their own decisions about what kind of treatment they would like to receive. 

“They should have the right to put whatever they want inside themselves,” she says.

Even if the decision is out of their hands, Salmon says the doctors at the hospital have supported the program since Day 1. She says herbal medicine is a low-risk yet powerful healer, and helps the patients feel like themselves.

 The kitchen in the healing space at Whitehorse General Hospital is equipped for medicine-making to a degree. “Elders prefer us to have a little less on hand, because some of the power and the healing properties in the medicine have to do with the harvesting for a specific person based on what their needs are,” says Salmon. "The healing energy from the person goes into the medicine.” 

The kitchen in the healing space at Whitehorse General Hospital is equipped for medicine-making to a degree. “Elders prefer us to have a little less on hand, because some of the power and the healing properties in the medicine have to do with the harvesting for a specific person based on what their needs are,” says Salmon. "The healing energy from the person goes into the medicine.” 

The hospital’s healing room facilitates that. In addition to a lounge area for family members and friends and a kitchen equipped for medicine-making, the healing room is designed with tradition in mind. Spacious enough to fit more than 30 people, the circular healing room is built with stones on the outside and wood on the inside. In the corner stands a small fireplace, and the walls are adorned with handmade wooden plaques that show painted illustrations of the medicinal herbs found in the North. 

“There’s definitely those sentiments of comfort, home, and identity – and being allowed to practice their traditions as part of who they are,” says Salmon.

Meanwhile, striding from balsam tree to balsam tree, Wolfe is comfortable in the thick bush. Armed with a tin mug and a sharp-pointed stick, she’s collecting the trees’ pitch with her small team of volunteers. Donna Johns jokes about how her and her friends used to combine the gooey resin and pitch from the trees to chew on like gum when they were young. 

Balsam pitch can be used as an antiseptic for cuts, bruises or infections, and Wolfe says that if the bark is stripped properly, it can be boiled into a tea for relieving respiratory issues. “When you’re sick, you drink the tea of the bark and it takes all the poisons out of the body.”

Wolfe is in less of a jovial mood. She points out where someone had started a fire directly under a tree and burnt its trunk, then another spot where people had trampled and urinated all over growing plants. And what makes her face drop into a sombre grimace are the chunks of wood sliced out of the balsams like meat butchered off a dead animal.

“This tree, with its root system, it’s going to fall over,” Wolfe says as she runs her hand over the dry trunk as if to comfort the dying plant. “They killed the whole tree.” 

As she looks out to the crystalline lake at the edge of where the balsam trees grow, one of her favourites, Wolfe sighs. 

“I feel so sorry for some of the people who can’t help themselves. So it gives me satisfaction to help them. That’s my thank you, is to know that they’re better.”

‘What ties us together’: finding family across decades of separation
 The last time Karrie Wurmann visited Carcross was in 1994, when she visited her biological family for the first time.

The last time Karrie Wurmann visited Carcross was in 1994, when she visited her biological family for the first time.

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When Karrie Wurmann visited Carcross, Yukon, for the first time in more than two decades earlier this summer, it was a moment that she says filled her with “nervous anticipation.” 

The last time she visited the small town about an hour south of Whitehorse was in 1994. That was the first time she visited since she was a child, and also the first time she met her biological family.

Karrie’s biological family is from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, an inland Tlingit and Tagish community whose traditional territory surrounds the town of Carcross. But she was never raised in Carcross — she was adopted when she was only 10 months old.

Karrie is also my aunt. It was my German-Canadian grandparents who adopted her when they were living in Whitehorse in the 1960s. They lived in the Yukon until Karrie was six years old before moving to Germany and later settling in Alberta. 

My aunt has a very close relationship with her adoptive family. In fact, she says she doesn’t even think of herself as being adopted. “I see myself as a member of this family,” she tells me. “The only difference between me and everyone else is that I have brown skin.” 

This is why Karrie had a difficult time when she last visited Carcross. “I remember being so stressed and so anxious that I couldn’t eat,” she says, recalling how overwhelming it was to meet her entire biological family.  

One moment that stands out in particular is when she met her biological grandfather.

“I remember his first words quite clearly were, ‘You’re home. You’re back home with your family,'" Karrie says. “And I just remember kind of stiffening up a bit and going, ‘I don’t know you, and this isn’t my home.'"

 Karrie’s brother Danny is a leader of the Ishkahittaan clan, which is represented by the frog emblem. Karrie and Danny have kept in touch since Karrie’s visit in 1994, although most of that communication has been over social media. 

Karrie’s brother Danny is a leader of the Ishkahittaan clan, which is represented by the frog emblem. Karrie and Danny have kept in touch since Karrie’s visit in 1994, although most of that communication has been over social media. 

Although she was supposed to stay in Carcross for two weeks, Karrie cut her visit short after only a few days. 

A lot has changed between then and now. In 1994, Karrie had no idea that she was part of a pattern of Indigenous children who were adopted out of their community and into non-Indigenous families. Today, she has heard the stories of other Indigenous adoptees like her and recognizes that she was part of what is known as the Sixties Scoop. 

More than 11,000 Indigenous children were adopted between 1960 and the mid-1980s, according to statistics from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, although some say that number is much higher. 

There are reports of children being physically taken from their families, and some survivor advocates connect the Sixties Scoop with other policies such as the Indian residential schools system as part of an attempt at cultural genocide. 

Learning about this history was one factor that encouraged Karrie to return to Carcross after all these years. 

“It’s about reconnecting with my heritage,” she says. “I would love to learn the Tlingit language. I would love to learn more about the ceremonies, the potlatches, the totem pole raisings.” 

 When the story pole is raised, the entire community helps pull the ropes to lift the pole off the ground. 

When the story pole is raised, the entire community helps pull the ropes to lift the pole off the ground. 

Karrie and I were always close. When I was younger she gave me picture books with Tlingit folk tales for Christmas and birthday gifts, and when I visited her she would take me fishing near her home in the Okanagan. 

I tagged along when my aunt returned to Carcross this past July. I told her I wanted to make a radio documentary about her experiences reconnecting with the community, but I was also there to support her. 

 Karrie’s brother Danny is a leader of the Ishkahittaan clan, which is represented by the frog emblem. 

Karrie’s brother Danny is a leader of the Ishkahittaan clan, which is represented by the frog emblem. 

“If you weren’t there, I probably would never do this,” she told me before the visit. “I don’t think I’m brave enough to go up there again by myself.” 

This time, Karrie kept her visit short. She only had three days to spend in the community, starting with a totem pole raising ceremony in Carcross. For the rest of her time in the Yukon she reconnected with family she hadn’t seen in years and visited the gravesite of her biological mother, who died in 2014. 

I had been in the Yukon for nearly a month before Karrie arrived at the end of July. I was in the territory with Stories North, learning about how to respectfully and responsibly report about issues affecting Indigenous communities in the area. 

In the weeks leading up to Karrie’s arrival I tried to spend as much time as possible in Carcross. I spoke with many Carcross residents, including members of my aunt’s biological family. It was important for me to make connections in the community before waltzing in with my recorder and microphone. 

Carcross is a small community, so everyone I met knew Karrie’s biological family and many knew about Karrie too, either from stories or from meeting her during her last visit. After learning about my connection to Karrie, people were happy to sit down and speak with me, and in some cases I was even welcomed as a friend or as a member of their extended family. Reflecting on this experience weeks later, I still feel overwhelmed by this warm reception, and I am endlessly grateful for their openness and kindness. 

  Although Karrie’s mother Mary Ann died in 2014, her grandmother Winnie Atlin still lives in Carcross. After the pole raising, Karrie met with Winnie, who taught her granddaughter some words in Tlingit. 

 Although Karrie’s mother Mary Ann died in 2014, her grandmother Winnie Atlin still lives in Carcross. After the pole raising, Karrie met with Winnie, who taught her granddaughter some words in Tlingit. 

In these conversations it became clear that no family in Carcross has been untouched by policies such as the Sixties Scoop that separated Indigenous children and their families. Every person I spoke to knew someone with a story similar to Karrie’s, and the trauma caused by these policies, from the residential school system to the foster care system today, is felt deeply in the community. 

There are also many stories of hope. I heard about people who were adopted or taken away from Carcross as children returning in adulthood to make positive contributions to their community. 

 Eileen Wally works as a support worker for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and is also the cousin of Karrie’s mother Mary Ann. 

Eileen Wally works as a support worker for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and is also the cousin of Karrie’s mother Mary Ann. 

I was touched by my experiences with Karrie in Carcross, and I know my aunt was affected as well. Although she had previously said she would never return to the community, she’s now open to the possibility of returning again in the future. 

“This experience was really very life changing for me,” she told me on her last day in the Yukon. “It was more profound than when I came in ’94. It meant more.”  

Isaac Würmaan
Handing down traditions
 

In Southern Tutchone, Adäka translates to "coming into the light." This photo essay aims to shine a light on the workmanship of the arts of Yukon First Nations people by photographing the hands of participants at the annual festival.

Näts'ay dihch'e Creations: Melanie Bennett begins every morning by beading, a tradition taught to her by her grandmother. For Bennett, beading is a way to honour her family and meditate. "For me, it's like a prayer," she says. "I just think about the person I'm beading for and sew good wishes into every piece. If I do that in the morning then I know I'll have a good day, too.”

Photo 2 - At nine .jpg

At nine years old, Ella Johnston is the youngest participant at this year's Adäka festival. She makes moccasin and doll-shaped jewelry from clay.

Her father, Peter Johnston, is Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations. He makes fur earrings beside her.

Photo 4 Gerald Etzerza.jpg

Gerald Etzerza fiddles traditional folk songs in the elders’ tent for those young and old who stop by.

Photo 5 Lorraine Wolfe.jpg

Lorraine Wolfe, a Tlingit carver, shaves a block of wood into an eagle icon. Wolfe, who learned how to carve only two years ago, says she decided to learn the craft "because we can now."

Photo 6- After.jpg

After learning to carve at a workshop, Duran Henry now gives his time to the Northern Cultural Expression Society to teach others the craft. In the photo above, he uses sandpaper to smooth the dish spoon he made earlier in the day.

Festival-goer Gwen Piwowar uses some of the tools available to recycle rusted spikes for a canoe he is building from scratch.

Lena Moon travelled from the Yukon community of Teslin to attend the festival. She says she learned how to sew from her mother, who taught her how to survive off the land from a young age.

Photo 9 Rosalind Mercredi.jpg

Rosalind Mercredi is a glass artist from the Northwest Territories. She's shaping cut pieces of glass into an igloo while helping other participants of the festival add their own design to the mural. At the end of the festival, the mural will be grouted and gifted to the community centre.

Gertie Tom makes baby moccasins and smiles at anyone who stops by her booth. Crafting has been a lifelong passion for Tom. "I've been beading since I was seven, and I'll be beading till I can't see no more."

 
Cat Kelly
Remembering in red

Red dresses blew in the wind along the Alaska Highway into Atlin B.C. and lined the roads in the northern town. Shauna Yeomans-Lindstrom of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation hung the gowns to draw a subtle but stunningly powerful message about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

Quiet connections

Festival attendees taking a pause from the bustle of the festival’s events. Wes, Leslie, Audrey, Nora, and Kat shared their stories. Winner of the 60 Second Film Festival part of Atlin Arts & Music Festival.