"Our Rich First Nations Culture"
by Dr. Ukjese van Kampen

When I walk downtown I see many Aboriginal people hanging around doing what appears to be nothing. Some of these people I have gone to school with. I wonder, do these people see themselves as having a rich culture? I say this because I often hear and see in the media, governments and other organizations statements about Yukon First Nations having a "rich" culture. And from my observations I have to ask "Where is this 'rich' culture?"

I have noticed that we as a people have lost much of our culture. Our language is almost gone. We no longer practice our spirituality to its full extent or forms of spirituality are practiced that are influenced by pan-Indianism. Although there are exceptions, we no longer live off the land as we once did…many say they can but I am not so sure. We no longer use or even know about our old laws. Our traditional art is all but vanished. So how have we responded to these drastic changes?

Maybe the lifestyle of the people depicted in this exhibition is to a certain extent a "normal" reaction to having their culture torn away from them. Maybe these people are more cultural than the 'successful' First Nations people. They have not adopted the Whiteman's way and carry on with a behaviour that is more traditional for our people. How so?

In the past we lived a hunter-gather lifestyle and there were a number of traits that would now seem lazy and indeed is responsible for some people thinking of us as lazy. Let me illustrate this with an example: our winter camps. When white people first started joining us in the winter wilderness for hunts or other purposes they saw us stop for the night and erect a simple shelter, gather firewood and then settle in for the night. The white person would state that the shelter was too simple and that a much better one could be built. The conclusion was drawn: the Indians must be lazy and simple. What they did not understand is that the First Nations winter clothing was such a superior garment that a person could curl up in a snow bank in the middle of the winter, get a good night's sleep and next morning brush the snow off and carry on their journey. You cannot even do that with today's winter clothing. We wore our house and the shelter was more of a convenience than a necessity. In the harsh environment that we lived in the waste of energy was reduced to the bare minimal.

This brings us to the concept of work. Work was done as the need arose and this often meant many days of walking and times of intense efforts such as during hunting. If there was no work to do, relax!. Relaxation was a big part of our culture. Next was the importance of gatherings, from potlatches to more informal get-togethers. This was a meaningful but also fun part of our society and formed the highlights of the year. Further, my people were semi-nomadic in order to follow the food sources like caribou and fish. We would never stay in one place for the full year.

Although there are many negative reasons why people end up "on the streets" one aspect is that a true necessity to work is absent in present day society. In a certain sense, work is a waste of energy. With the free time people gather in public places, just like in the old days. People also walk from place to place, or move from community to community. Intense periods of work affected by need, importance of rest and relaxation, gatherings and being on the move. This begs the question: are these people in fact maintaining more of our traditional lifestyle traits by not totally assimilating into the dominant society's culture? Is it closer to tradition than working in an office from 9 to 5?
I feel that the people portrayed in these pictures are in fact reflecting aspects of our traditional culture. Although problematic and sometimes tragic, their life also has a "rich" aspect to it in light of how it reflects our traditional ways.