Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Call and Response - A Visit to the Chilkoot Trail

In late June, 1847, Alexander Murray of the Hudson's Bay Company camped at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers with his small party of voyageurs. In his journal he noted the arrival of a welcoming party;

late in the evening [a] salute of 5 guns were heard from the point below. I ordered none to fire, but the Indians here said it was always the custom with them when they came in peace to discharge their pieces, and if we did not return the salute they would consider us to be enemies. We then fired 5 guns in answer to theirs, which was responded to from the fleet of canoes, now close at hand, by a shout that might be heard for miles, ...they hauled up their canoes ... and formed on the bank in single file, with their Chief in front, women + Children in the rear. and danced forward by degrees until in front of my tent when they continued at it for upwards of half an hour without intercession.

Murray’s account of this meeting, the exchange of gun shots, the dance and subsequent “speechifying,” were all part of a well known Yukon River call and response ritual. A formal structure of meeting, the ritual reduced the chance of misunderstanding. Call and response allows the determination of intentions and fosters good, or at least unambiguous, relations. The call and response, as a part of dance, as a way of removing ambiguity, was, and remains, more than a diplomatic nicety, it is in fact a philosophical fundamental of northwestern Indigenous culture.

The founding myth of northwestern cultures is the voyage down the Yukon River of a hero figure known as “The Traveller.” During his journey, The Traveller closed off primordial chaos - a time of uncertain relations and unstable forms - and established an ordered world of right relations. His teachings included the assignment of responsibilities to all Creation for the maintenance of this ordered world, of right relations. Call and response is the contemporary version of ensuring that visitors know their responsibilities and are prepared to engage in right relations.

Earlier in June, I and several work colleagues, flew out to the Chilkoot Trail, a historic site in the northern coastal mountains of British Columbia. When our float plane landed at Lindeman, the main camp of the park staff on the trail, we were met by two wardens, Christine and Heather. Heather is Tlingit, her ancestors travelled the Chilkoot Trail, trading trips to the Yukon interior, exchanging fish oil and dentalia shells for moosehide clothing and dried meat. She greeted us on the beach where we landed.

She introduced herself with her Tlingit name. She reminded us of the long history of her people's, her family's, use of the trail. More than that she noted their ownership of the trail. She spoke about how important their connection with this place was, and remains. She emphasized how the Tlingit still felt responsible for visitors to the trail. This is why she is a warden on the trail. It's not a job, it's a family duty to look after travellers using their trail. Then she began to sing.

In a powerful alto she sang inTlingit, her ululations reaching out to us and eddying across the lake behind us. A song of welcome, a song of connection, a song of responsibility, a song calling on us to recognize the long history of this place and the Tlingit relationship with it. It was a song of pride, ownership, stewardship. It was a song of who she and her people were. And it was a call to us - who are you, what do you want here? Are you coming in peace or are you enemies?

She completed her song, she waited. Finally I responded. I identifed our group as helpers coming to assist her and the park staff in their stewardship of the trail. We came with good will, open hearts and a willingness to work cooperatively and with respect on a place which we all cherished, if for different reasons. With that we were welcomed into camp and began our work together.

As Canadians we need to continuously engage in call and response, a reminder of what differences we have, what values we share and how we need respect the former and work together on the latter. Only then can we continue to live in a country that allows us the freedom and peace we enjoy together.

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