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The beat of 14 different drummers

Fourteen drums representing each Yukon First Nation hang in the foyer of the Yukon Arts Centre. Above are the Kwanlin Dün and Vuntut Gwitchin drums.

By Amy Kenny

You have to have a drum. That’s what Joe Migwans says. It’s maybe the most important thing. 

“The first sound we hear is the heartbeat of our mother,” he says over the phone from his home in Whitehorse. “That is what is represented in a drum, is the heartbeat of a mother. We hear that for nine months … the drum is the centre of everything. We need it because it represents who we are and it represents life in general.”

That’s one of the reasons Migwans, who is Ojibway and has been adopted into the Wolf Clan in Champagne Aishihik, was excited to get a chance to refurbish some of a collection of 14 drums for the Yukon Arts Centre this year.

It was the first time in more than a decade since he’s seen them. Back around the time YAC first opened in 1992, Migwans apprenticed with Johnson Edwards, who was raised in the traditional Northern Tutchone lifestyle, from Selkirk First Nation in Pelly Crossing, to make them.

Migwans says he remembers showing up to start working and was surprised to see Edwards, an experienced maker of drums, snowshoes and toboggans, only had a hand planer, some rope, some blocks and, maybe, an axe with him. The experience had a huge influence on Migwans as they worked to create something that could serve as a symbol of cultural resilience.

“I think the idea was that we really wanted to have First Nations feel at home at YAC and so the idea we came up with at that time was to have their presence (on the drums) with their logos,” he says.

The drums, crafted from birch and caribou hide, were painted with the logos of each of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations. Painting was originally done by Vernon Asp, who was raised in Mayo, Northern Tutchone by tradition, of Tahltan ancestry and a member of the Cheona (Wolf) Clan, and Ken Anderson, who was born and raised in the Yukon, and is of Tlingit and Scandinavian ancestry.

Whether painted in black and white, or vibrant colours, each drum has an image representing its First Nation. The Vuntut Gwitchin drum features a black caribou against a mountain range. Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation shows an eagle with a salmon in its beak. The drum of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation features the sun reflected on water.

“Those logos totally represent who they are and where they came from,” Migwans says of the paintings, which his wife, Nyla Klugie-Migwans, refurbished. “By having them up there, Yukon First Nations come walking in the Yukon Arts Centre, they see their logo up there, they’re being represented. We feel more of a sense of belonging with the place … to see some of who we are reflected back to us when we go there.” 

It’s important, he says, for Yukon First Nations to feel seen and shown in a central location that does them justice.  

The drums can be viewed on the Yukon Arts Centre website.