Adäka Cultural Festival

Meet the Host: We sit down with Adäka Co-founders Charlene Alexander and Katie Johnson to discuss their plans for the 2022 Arctic Arts Summit.

ch’i cha jų̃ kwa’ch’e Nänkai akändür dän äłek’e ädesedèyè uts’an kwäts’eden-ji
Large group of dancers performing on stage at a festival.

With the 10th Adäka Cultural Festival on the horizon just days after the 2022 Arctic Arts Summit, Yukon First Nations Culture & Tourism Association (YFNCT) will play host to two major events back-to-back this year. We spoke with YFNCT Executive Director Charlene Alexander and Director of Programming Katie Johnson about their plans for the summit and the festival days, and what visitors can expect to experience once they arrive.

Arctic Arts Summit: To start, can you each introduce yourself and your role at the organization?

Katie Johnson: I’m Katie Johnson, and I’m a member of Kluane First Nation here in the Yukon. I am the Director of Programs and Partnerships with YFNCT. I’ve had the honour to work with Charlene for the last 11 years because we’re co-founders of Adäka Cultural Festival.

Charlene Alexander: And I am Charlene Alexander, Executive Director of Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism and co-founder of Adäka.

AAS: As co-founders, what is your vision for the organization?

CA: Our vision for YFNCT is to work with Yukon Indigenous artists, entrepreneurs and communities to help build vibrant and sustainable arts, cultural and tourism sectors.

YFNCT has a dual sector mandate, so we work in both the tourism and culture sectors. Our signature event is the Adäka Cultural Festival which we founded in 2011.

In 2009, Katie and I came together with the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and created a very special project for the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. After spending 15 months preparing our delegation, in March 2010 we took 70 Yukon First Nations artists, elders and youth to Vancouver to take part in a week of programming that included live performances, art exhibitions, artists markets, and much more.  

All along we hoped that this project would have far reaching legacy, that it would act as a springboard and contribute to the reclamation and revitalization of Indigenous arts in Yukon. When we returned [to Whitehorse], we jumped right into planning the Adaka Cultural Festival with the aim to maintain the momentum that the Olympic experience had created. The inaugural festival was a huge success and set the stage for so many amazing new partnerships and opportunities.  

In 2012 we joined forces with Yukon First Nations Tourism Association (YFNTA). Bringing the cultural mandate into a tourism organization created a umbrella organization able to benefit from the symbiotic relationship between culture and tourism. In 2012, YFNTA become YFNCT with the addition of culture to the organization and the rest is history.

Adäka has been hugely successful, and our audience is growing—I think when we started the festival, our audience was 2,000 and at the last festival we were up to 10,000. We now see people are travelling from other parts of the world specifically to attend the festival. It’s really contributed to the growth of the whole sector, and it’s really brought the artists and the sector into the light. One of the Elders said it’s like we took the lid off the box and the light was all of a sudden coming out.

That idea is very much related to the name, which came from a very important gathering hosted in 1998 by the Yukon Heritage Resources Board. The Adäka Conference brought communities together post land claim settlements to focus on heritage preservation and revitalization. Katie’s father Joe Johnson was one of the board members responsible for this vision. The word Adaka is Southern Tutchone, and it means coming into the light. And that’s how it all began.

Large group of dancers performing on stage at a festival.
The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers perform at the 2019 Adäka Cultural Festival. COURTESY ADÄKA CULTURAL FESTIVAL / PHOTO BY ALISTAIR MAITLAND PHOTOGRAPHY
“Our vision for YFNCT is to work with Yukon Indigenous artists, entrepreneurs and communities to help build vibrant and sustainable arts, cultural and tourism sectors.”
Charlene Alexander, Executive Director of YFNCT and Co-founder of Adäka Cultural Festival
Image of a woman holding a large poll-like instrument, tanning hides outdoors in the sun at the Adäka cultural festival.
Ashley Cummings hide tanning at the 2019 Adäka Cultural Festival. COURTESY ADÄKA CULTURAL FESTIVAL / PHOTO BY ALISTAIR MAITLAND PHOTOGRAPHY.

KJ: It’s a long history, and we’re just carrying the torch forward. We think about all our ancestors and our past leaders and the work that they’ve done. It’s that responsibility and commitment to moving that forward for the next generation of artists.

The festival is committed to shining light on the creative spirit of Yukon First Nations people and history, and it’s also a platform to preserve and vitalize our art and our culture, an amazing opportunity for artists and youth to take pride in who they are.

CA: It gives people a chance to come together on an annual basis and become inspired, for artists to be working alongside other artists — it’s like a springboard once a year. And then we have young people at the festival for the first time and they decide they want to try dancing or beading or [other traditional skills].

I think the other impact it’s had is around reconciliation. It took us a long time to grow the non-Indigenous audience, as they thought it was a festival for Indigenous people only. They weren’t sure if they were welcome. That has really changed over the years — once non-Indigenous Yukoners come to the festival and they experience it, they always return.

AAS: How did Adäka get involved with the Arctic Arts Summit? What is your role as a host going to involve?

CA: We were invited by the Yukon Government and Canada Council to team up with the Yukon Art Center to be a part of the planning committee. The Arctic Arts Summit was intentionally scheduled so that once the Summit ends Adäka will begin, and we’re working to program all the artists, performers and speakers that are coming to the Summit into Adäka.

We know that the Summit only has so many seats: there are a lot of people that may not be able to go into the conference, but they will be able to take part in Adäka. Adäka is eight days long, and we’re going to have our gallery opened during the Summit. I’m looking at it like 10 days of programming, with Adäka as a continuation of the cultural part of the Summit.

We’re working to secure funding from the pan-northern governments to help bring additional artists to the festival, and we will welcome international artists as well if circumpolar nations have artists to send and they’re willing to spend extra money to keep them in Whitehorse for Adäka. We’re going to have to remain really flexible over the next four months [as we learn which artists are coming] to try to include as many people as we can.

KJ: In terms of the overall arching theme this year, we want to create opportunities for collaboration to happen between Yukon First Nation artists and artists from across the circumpolar world, to celebrate the Canadian northern region and to find opportunities to share commonalities between our art, language, landscape, environment, history and cultures. We’re going to be weaving that in throughout the programming.

AAS: Would you say that that connective tissue between the artists from all different regions is the thing you’re most excited to get to experience or is—[vigorous nodding on the video call]—yes? I’ll take that as a yes.

CA: I’m excited to see it while it’s happening, and I’m excited to see what’s going to happen in the coming years as that cross-pollination happens — the new networks, the new artwork, it’s going to be really exciting to see the long term effects of it.

“The festival is committed to shining light on the creative spirit of Yukon First Nations people and history, and it’s also a platform to preserve and vitalize our art and our culture.”
Katie Johnson, Director of Programs at YFNCT and Co-founder of Adäka Cultural Festival
Dancer in motion performing at the Adäka Cultural Festival.
AAS: Adäka is hosting its 10th festival this year, right?

CA: It would have been 12 if it wasn’t for COVID.

KJ: We had to cancel two festivals. We were hopeful in 2021, but a week out had to cancel due to a COVID outbreak. We’ve always said health and safety comes first.

So this coming year, 2022, will be our 10th year of celebrating. We are exploring what the next 10 years might look like. The Arctic Art Summit is a great time for us to have a coming-out party [to say] let’s continue this.

The festival is hosted annually at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in downtown Whitehorse. The festival includes our world class Adäka Gallery, where the participating visual artists have their work showcased and for sale in a professional gallery setting. One of the highlights of the festival is our amazing riverside studio tents, where artists come together to network, sew together, carve together, learn and knowledge-share. Throughout the day we present a long list of cultural presentations, traditional knowledge sharing with our Elders and knowledge keepers. We’ve also partnered with the Yukon Film Society to present Indigenous films across Canada and beyond. One of our most popular events is our biennial fashion show—the tickets usually sell within a day.

The Adaka main stage is an opportunity for both traditional and contemporary performing artists to shine their light and share their songs, their dances. Every evening we have a showcase of different artists, visiting artists alongside Yukon Indigenous performers: it could be a theme of language or storytelling, or new generations, where it’s an opportunity for artists to collaborate.

CA: Each year we host collaborations and special projects that bring artists together from different genres or different regions. We’ve had boat builders, master carvers, master beaders and sewers. One year we hosted a culinary event where elders from Old Crow cooked moose noses on an open fire and shared this delicacy with visitors.

The Festival gets bigger every year and we now have up to 200 artists from across Yukon First Nation communities along with national and international artists from across Canada and beyond.

KJ: Before we had to set things down [due to COVID], we wanted to create a platform for language speakers and artists to explore songs in their language and so we supported artists through mentorship and rehearsals. We had these beautiful gala events with singers from across the Yukon singing in their traditional language.

We strive to create these opportunities for artists to explore and create in a safe space and present their work to their family and their communities.

A group of Dene and Tilcho dummers performing on stage at the Adäka Cultural Festival.
Kaska Dene Drummers and Tlicho Drummers at the 2019 Adäka Cultural Festival. COURTESY ADÄKA CULTURAL FESTIVAL / PHOTO BY ALISTAIR MAITLAND PHOTOGRAPHY.
AAS: What do you want audiences to see and feel at Adäka and the Arctic Art Summit this year?

CA: Adäka is very interactive, immersive and welcoming — it’s more like going to a big community celebration where you’re a part of the celebration, rather than being an audience member. For example, the artist’s studio: we have this massive tent next to the Yukon River where all the artists are working. The public can walk in and through that tent, and sit down and have conversations with artists at work. I think that opportunity for person-to-person connection is one of the highlights for the visitors.

KJ: This year, because of the pandemic, we’re really wanting to show resilience. It’s been two years now where we haven’t been able to gather safely, so how can we create that space for coming into the light again? It has been really challenging, especially for artists because there hasn’t been any opportunities for that to happen.

We want to show the diversity of our communities—and what an amazing opportunity with the Arctic Art Summit coming and having cultural leaders and Elders participating from different countries—to show who we are as Yukon First Nation people in our communities, welcome them with open arms and feel the strength of our communities, our artists and our people.

This interview was conducted by video call in November 2021. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.