Thirty kilometers away from Teetl’it Zheh-Fort McPherson along the Dempster Highway near the Yukon border and surrounded by wafts of forest fire smoke, the Gwich’in hosted their 36th Midway Lake Music Festival.
“It’s good to see everybody again,” said Jenelle Vaneltsï, lead of the Teetl’it Gwich’in Dancers featured over the weekend.
The first week of August long weekend is more of a gathering of families with cabins along the lake. This year bringing a special guest – the King of the North, Ernest Monias from Cross Lake, Man.
“All the live music, it’s pretty good,” said Teetl’it Gwich’in Dancer lead Donavyn Koe. “No service. Everybody likes to stay in camps. Everybody stays out at night. It’s pretty fun…especially jigging all night.”
Starting in 1986 as an alcohol and drug-free event, local musicians play late into the night so people can jig and square dance, while families cookout at their cabins or play games on picnic tables.
“It’s different from other music, no lyrics, just straight up catchy beats, everybody just wants to get moving…you just want to jig,” said Koe. “It’s pretty fun.”
And when you’re dancing when you hear the audience that’s the best part.”
This year representatives of the Muslim Welfare Canada’s Arctic Food Bank were there handing out backpacks of supplies including with Senator Salma Ataullahjan.
“We thought we’d come and take in the festival because it’s such a big festival,” said Ataullahjan, who for the last days were with a team in Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik where a food bank is located attached to the community’s most norther mosque.
“The fill-a-backpack is one of my favorite events because of the look of delight when you hand the children the backpack, and they see they’ve gotten something,” she said. “And what made me really smile today was to see all these young kids wearing their backpacks, some of them dancing around.”
“We felt so welcomed and it showed us that really, we’re all the same, with the same hope and aspirations,” she said. “We really felt the love today and for that we’re grateful.”
At 90 years old, Thomas Manual has been coming to the festival every year by boat. A fiddler, and grandfather of the Fort Good Hope Drummers who played throughout the week, he says it’s a place to love and appreciate music, no matter where you’re from.
“McPherson people, they always welcome everybody,” he said. “They feed people; they’ve got food from the land.”
“I really enjoy it here.”
He reflects on when the gatherings first started in 1986, the importance of passing on the healing power of music, and how the festival is helping bring back drum dancing.
“When I first came to Midway, it was just is open,” he said and with only a few cabins. “ I asked them how come you guys were in drum dance and hand games and how come you guys don’t have it here anymore… like Christmas, New Year, and Easter we used to gather in Fort McPherson.”
“They said that the first priests that came to McPherson and the priests went and told us ‘you’re doing this for the devil’, so we quit.”
“After years goes by and I come down here with my boys and they enjoy drum dancing, square dance, jigging,” he said. “I myself I love square dance, jigging.I just love it. “
“If you have happiness in your body, we should pass it on to the young people what means happiness.”
Sunday ended with canoe races and jiggling contests for all ages.