In the heart of the Yukon, a group of women is doing their best to learn and share Northern Tutchone songs. Their community has approximately five hundred people - half being members of the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun. Like other communities throughout Canada, Indigenous people from this area were forced to go to residential schools where their language and ceremonies were banned. Government policies like the Indian Act left generations of Indigenous people afraid, ashamed, or unable to pass on traditional practices, including drumming. Before colonial systems disrupted their lives, they enjoyed a traditional way of life in places like Old Village, where ceremonial dancing and drumming provided a spiritual connection to Creator. The drum symbolized the heartbeat and circle of life - each song carried special meaning and stories.
For a period, the drum went silent in Mayo. People eventually learned about the effects of colonial systems on Indigenous communities and recognized it was up to them to help begin the healing process. Healing comes in many forms - this group of women chose to start a traditional drumming group. Remi Elin is the name they chose for their group, it translates to “Dancing Northern Lights” in Northern Tutchone. Their group started meeting each month to learn songs and drum - honouring their ancestors and healing in the process. The group has grown to about ten members and invites anyone interested to join.
Members Millie Olsen, Melody Hutton, Irene Johnny, Joella Hogan, Bobbie-Lee Melancon, Annabelle Lattie, Teresa Samson, and Deanna Profeit of Remi Elin share their experiences joining the group,
“Drumming and singing have been very healing activities for all of us. The power of the drum and songs gives us an incredible feeling in our hearts and souls. If we are having a bad day or week, drumming washes away any negativity or anxiety we have been feeling. We can feel our ancestors' approval and we are blessed to have such a wonderful Elder, Irene Johnny as part of our group. She creates songs in Northern Tutchone to teach us. We love to see our Elders shine with happiness as we perform these songs. Remi Elin allows us to connect spiritually, share, and give thanks for all that Creator has blessed us with. Drumming connects us to something more powerful than ourselves and the drum gives us the strength to move forward in a good way. We are hopeful that we can find recordings of our songs by Elders like Lil Dave and Alice to keep their traditions alive. Since starting Remi Elin, we have grown stronger and our voices are getting louder because we are more confident women. We all agree that drumming has had a significant impact on our confidence. Through our laughter and our tears, we feel blessed to be surrounded and supported by each other. We have created a bond with a deep connection. "
Photo: Women's Drumming Group in Mayo
Starting this drumming group has not come without challenges. Some believe women shouldn’t drum, but this group challenges that sentiment. Many traditional drumming groups in the Yukon were started by strong women leaders who are unwilling to lose their identity as Indigenous people. Cultural revitalization is a significant part of healing and they believe people should put their differences behind them to move forward as a healthy community. Many people in the community still suffer from alcohol and drug addictions, but reconnecting with culture has helped many stay sober and healthy. Remi Elin also believes it is their gift and responsibility to share these songs and dances in hopes that they will be passed on to the community’s children- the next generation of drummers and dancers.
Photo: Nacho Nyak Dun Elder, Alice Buyck during an Interview on Haa Shagoon
Another challenge facing the group is learning the Northern Tutchone language. They recognize that there are only a handful of fluent speakers left and feel that it is critical to learn what they can now. Once the language is gone, a big piece of their identity will go with it. This truth gives them the strength to keep trying and learning. They say it isn’t easy but learning a language through songs helps. They do their best by holding up Northern Tutchone values of sharing, caring, respect, and teaching.
Photo: Joella Hogan, Norma Germaine, Irene Johnny, Bobbie-Lee Melancon, Annabelle Lattie, Teresa Samson, Melody Hutton, Millie Olsen
The group has been gaining recognition throughout the Yukon. They have been honoured to be invited to perform for Residential School Survivors at an event in Whitehorse as well as the CYFN Women and Water Ceremony where they were gifted a Water Song by Mary Jane Jim of Champagne and Aishihik First Nation. They have also been asked to sing and drum for events in Mayo such as the Fashion Show held for the graduates of the Yukon University Garment Making Program. They practice each day leading up to big events at the First Nation’s meeting room or on the bluff overlooking the town. They have been told by community members that they can be heard drumming and singing in town when they practice on the bluff. This fills their hearts with happiness.
Despite having culture and language ripped away from Indigenous communities, people continue to find ways to reconnect. Remi Elin shows that strength, healing, and hope can be found in the beat of the drum. They hope to see their Elders and Youth singing, dancing, learning, and growing together. They also hope to see the men in their community start a men's drumming group to make their voices stronger.
Remi Elin shares their hopes moving forward,
"Let's keep that heartbeat of the drum going and continue to learn our language. It is so powerful and it is what will bring people together. Go forward in a good way. Enán ts'in inná."