With every beat, drums swing up and down in a powerful arc, their reverberating skins bearing Tlingit family insignias in black, red and white. In front of the drum-bearers, button blankets and feathered wings swish as masked dancers gently sway, twist and step, side to side, arms raised, palms lifted in prayer. Drummers call and dancers respond, singing songs both ancient and new.
Dakhká Khwáan, meaning “inland people,” a Yukon dance group of nearly 30 members from 11-year-olds to elders, nabbed the National Cultural Tourism Award for 2014. But their art does far more than entertain, or even preserve tradition. To founder Marilyn Jensen and dedicated member Kluane Adamek, drum dancing is about personal growth.
Up Here: Some of your songs and dances go back thousands of years. Where do the new ones come from?
Marilyn Jensen: There are only three or four people in the group who are actually composers. One of our biggest composers in our group, it always happens to him when he’s on the land, in our traditional territory, and he’ll just start hearing it. And then he’ll start singing it. And then he’ll grab his iPhone and record himself.
The thing that is so exciting is that it’s happening, because our culture’s alive, we’re not just mimicking something that’s ancient and old that doesn’t exist anymore. It still exists.
My mom and other elders, they’ll sometimes tell us, “Don’t forget, we were not allowed to do that. We were not allowed to sing our songs.” So it’s a tremendous responsibility as well as a gift to be able to dance and sing, and really at the end of the day that’s what it’s about, it’s about perpetuating our culture and revitalizing a lot of things that went by the wayside through colonization and mission schools and stuff like that.
UH: How were you able to revive the art?
MJ: Because it still survived and endured. It was underground. So our elders were able to carry it. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve had to relearn. A lot of that comes from our relationship with people on the coast. Because the Tlingit nation is partly inland in the Yukon and Northern B.C., but a big majority of our people are in coastal Alaska, so there’s been that kind of reconnection and revitalization.
UH: What does it take to be part of Dakhká Khwáan?
MJ: We already have a lot of traditional protocols we have to follow, but we have our own that we developed as well. You have to be there. You have to come to practices, you have to be at performances, you have to be dedicated and committed.
Kluane Adamek: I’m a newer member of the dance group—three or so years now.
MJ: She totally stalked me for a year to get in.
KA: I did, because it was important. There’s a process, you know, pre-conversations, knowing what the commitment level is.
MJ: For example, you can’t be out there partying around and being an absolute idiot, and then show up the next day to do a performance and talk about traditional values.
KA: You learn leadership skills as part of the group. What are the choices that you make? And it’s no longer about you, but everything you represent. I have learned that people are always watching, both professionally and in other roles I’ve held, and it’s tuned me in to choices that I make.
MJ: We take a real strong lead in that form on the drum. We don’t just drum, we drum with authority. We take that drum and we own it. We make it a part of us. It’s a heartbeat.
UH: What’s the story behind your regalia?
KA: The regalia process is a really interesting part of it. I started and I had nothing. People like Marilyn and her family were able to say, “Use this for now. It’s really special to me. Please take good care. You can use it until you can make your own.”
In our group, everyone makes their own stuff, or it’s gifted, or you make it for someone else, or someone makes something for you. I think everyone started in a place where they didn’t have anything. Whereas now we travel around with suitcases.
UH: So can you improvise with your regalia, adding a personal touch?
MJ: Well it has to be within the spectrum of our culture.
KA: In different people’s button blankets, people put beads in different places. I did a little bit of a zig zag design on my button blanket. Cultures change and grow, so you kind of have to be open to that too.
The clasp I made for my button blanket was a hairpiece I had—it belonged to an elder in my community—that I took and sewed on a piece of stroud and put abalone on the outside. My grandmother gave me—you know those hankies elders wear—she gave me one so I can wear it when I dance.
And this year I was gifted a cedar hat by my mom. My mom is not First Nations. But she has really been so supportive of me in all of this revitalization and reconnecting, because my dad’s First Nations. First Nations heritage is matrilineal in Tlingit and Tagish cultures, but it was my mom who connected with Marilyn, who then told her where to get the cedar hat. Quite often it is our moms that do that for us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.