Yukon News

Northern Tutchone artist says Yukon First Nations art isn’t what it used to be

Maura Forrest Friday January 13, 2017

Joel Krahn/Yukon News

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Ukjese van Kampen, a Northern Tutchone artist and art historian, says tradtional Yukon First Nations differed greatly from the Northwest Coast style that’s prominent today.

You know about totem poles.

You’ve seen the ravens, bears and thunderbirds on drums and button blankets. You’ve seen them depicted in red, black and blue-green, always using those rounded, bulging, oval-rectangular shapes called ovoids.

This is Northwest Coast art, among the most distinctive First Nation art forms. It’s commonly used in the Yukon — the artwork on the exterior of the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse is a good example.

But Ukjese van Kampen says Northwest Coast art isn’t the traditional art form of Yukon First Nations. The Northern Tutchone artist believes it was imported as recently as 30 years ago, in an attempt to revive First Nations culture in the territory.

Van Kampen, a member of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, will discuss the history of Indigenous art in the Yukon as part of the Long Ago Yukon lecture series at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse on Saturday, Jan. 14.

He wants people to know that, generations ago, Yukon First Nations created their own, unique art.

“The importance, I think, for Yukon First Nations people is to say, ‘Okay, who are we and what did we do?’” he said. “Right now, I think there’s still a deep sense of feeling that we’re not too sure who we are.”

Van Kampen published a thesis on the history of Yukon First Nations art as part of his doctoral degree in 2012.

He said the earliest evidence of Yukon art dates back thousands of years, and is characterized by repeating geometric shapes, like crosses, dots and cones. He refers to this as the geometric period. He said those repeating patterns have been found on arrow quivers, knives, spoons and other tools, and were used all over the Yukon and into eastern Alaska, northern British Columbia and the western Northwest Territories.

He believes that geometric art form would have stayed largely unchanged until the 1800s, because Indigenous people maintained a similar lifestyle to that of their ancestors thousands of years earlier.

“Your main task would have been out hunting animals. You would have used hide clothing,” he said. “Essentially all that technology would have been the same.”

But in the mid-19th century, all that began to change, van Kampen said. And it wasn’t because of the Gold Rush.

Traditionally, the Athapaskan-speaking people of the southwest Yukon — a language group that includes the Northern and Southern Tutchone, Dene, Kaska and Gwich’in — traded extensively with the coastal Tlingit. As the Tlingit began dealing with European fur traders, European goods began making their way into the Yukon.

“By the 1880s, we were pretty well mostly wearing Western clothing, even though there were no white people in the Yukon,” van Kampen said.

An artistic transformation accompanied that cultural shift, he said. When glass beads showed up in the Yukon, Indigenous people began to use them instead of porcupine quills to decorate clothing.

Gradually, beaded floral designs replaced the traditional geometric shapes. Van Kampen calls this the beaded period.

But the most significant change, he said, happened during the Second World War, when the Alaska Highway was built and it became easier to move around the territory. Until then, van Kampen said, most First Nations people still lived traditional lifestyles and spoke their own languages.

But after the war, it became much easier to send First Nations children to residential school.

“World War II plays a major role in the destruction of the original culture here,” he said. “Now (after the war), there’s no language, no spirituality… no art.”

Van Kampen believes Yukon First Nations adopted Northwest Coast art in recent decades as an attempt to revive Indigenous artistic culture. Northwest Coast art was an obvious choice, he said, because distinctive elements like totem poles survived the cultural destruction that took place elsewhere.

He suspects most First Nations people in the Yukon don’t know that their ancestors produced an entirely different type of artwork.

“There’s really no information available for them to find it, so there’s nobody telling them, ‘Okay, this is what they did.’”

He said little is known about traditional art in the territory, because there was little interest in the region’s Indigenous culture generations ago, and few artifacts were collected.

“The official opinion … is we were the most backward of all people, the most backward of all Native Americans, and there was nothing of interest that we had.”

He said there’s not much incentive to teach traditional Yukon art today, either, because it wouldn’t sell as well as the more recognizable Northwest Coast art.

Van Kampen claims he’s not on a mission to change the way Indigenous art is taught in the Yukon, because he doesn’t believe anything will change. His Long Ago Yukon talk, he said, is just an analysis of the history of Yukon art — nothing more.

“I’ve been going on about this for years. There’s been no changes,” he said. “If I cared, I would be driven bonkers, so I have to not care.”

But at times, it seems, frustration still bubbles to the surface. “There’s a lot of talk in the Yukon about the importance of heritage and culture and it’s mostly talk,” he said. “It’s not going to change.”

Van Kampen’s talk is scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Beringia Centre on Saturday, Jan. 14. His own artwork has been featured in exhibits around the world, including in Germany, the United States and Australia.

Contact Maura Forrest at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

8 Comments

Dennis Allen wrote:
11:24am Tuesday January 24, 2017

This is what we call, an invasive species.

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mark preston wrote:
8:08pm Monday January 16, 2017

as a born yukoner, i too have wondered about the other peoples of the north..what their art forms were and what traditions did they practice.  i didn’t discover my mothers lineage until much later in my youth…curiosity got the better of me so i went on a search of self discovery.  to find out as much as i could about the art and the culture.  i have had many of these conversations over the years about what was the art and culture of the first people of the north.
i enjoyed the many discussions with Mr Van Kampen over coffee…sharing his thoughts and questioning what has happened over many years with art and culture.  i feel better informed and look forward to see the artists from many of the communities take their own cultural backgrounds and historical art forms more seriously and to step forward in their presentation to the world.

Heiko Nyland wrote:
7:31pm Saturday January 14, 2017

Donald: You exhibit a thoughtless mindset that a little research would have avoided a dismissal of your comment.  Mr Van Kampen iterated what many long time Yukoners, Native and Others, have known for a long time. But coming from a Northern Tutchone artist, the article is given more credibility than if a non-native person wrote it. Having lived in different communities in The Yukon for over 45 years, I have observed this evolution first hand. And it has been known and discussed for as long as I can remember. Just not condensed in one recent article.  Heiko Nyland, Tagish Yukon

Duane Gastant' Aucoin wrote:
9:27am Saturday January 14, 2017

As a Tlingit I really enjoy seeing my peoples art being produced. But I’m also concerned with non-Tlingits producing our art forms. There are protocols on who can do what & how it’s done but I’m not sure are always being followed or even taught. I do believe that people should be creating the art forms of their peoples & that this needs to be promoted! Yes, Tlingits played an important role here in the Yukon but so did all the other nations. We need to celebrate everyones songs, dances, stories & art…gunalcheesh Ukjese for reminding us of this! smile

moose101 wrote:
8:01am Saturday January 14, 2017

Good point, been a Yukoner for over 40 years and always wondered why the major Yukon art work resembled west coast art work.

Donald wrote:
6:20pm Friday January 13, 2017

Van Kampen has a vivid imagination and much speculation but most of what he says is nonsense.

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