Episode 4 - "She got up and went"
This episode follows the development of the College from the Vocational School down by the river to its move up the hill to become Yukon College, and its growth throughout the Yukon to 13 campuses throughout the Yukon.
Welcome to Walking our Path Together, a series of audio stories exploring Yukon College’s reconciliation journey.
Over the course of the series, we’ll hear from people who are connected with the College, and from people throughout the Yukon – Elders, educators, community leaders, and youth.
This is Episode 4: Ayamdigut ‘The one that got up and went’
We’ll look at three stories from people who were involved with Yukon College in its early days and explore its development from vocational school to College and its future as Yukon University.
We’ll hear from Han Elder Gerald Isaac, then we’ll go to Carcross and speak with former Carcross/Tagish Chief Mark Wedge, and finally we’ll go to Teslin and speak with Ingrid Johnson, an instructor/coordinator and the unofficial Elder on Campus at Yukon College in Teslin.
In 1963, the Whitehorse Vocational Training School was established as the first post-secondary institution in Yukon, and in 1965 it evolved into the Yukon Vocational and Technical Training Centre to meet growing demand throughout the territory.
At that time it was located on the banks of the Yukon River in the Whitehorse neighbourhood of Riverdale.
A large number of its first students were Yukon First Nation adults, and in the following decades they would go on to become leaders in their communities and in positions where they could contribute to negotiating and implementing self-government agreements.
Gerald Isaac was one of the first graduates from the vocational school.
Gerald Isaac: Yes, good morning. My name is Gerald Isaac, I am a Han Hwech’in First Nation elder and citizen. I was born and raised in Dawson City and my early formative years were in village of Moosehide, three miles below Dawson City. I was raised and adopted by my grandmother. Her name is Eliza Isaac. My first language is Han Hwech’in, of course. When we went to public school and we relocated from the village to Dawson City, we enrolled in the public school and we’re required to learn and speak English.
When the Yukon College first started up, it wasn’t referred to as Yukon College. It was called the Whitehorse Training and Technical Centre. They had built a building in Whitehorse and there was a move afoot from the Whitehorse Technical Training Centre staff to advertise to the communities and recruit students from the outlying communities. A number of the staff came up to Dawson city and gave a presentation and told the story about the technical training centre and the courses that they offered for students who wanted to leave the school atmosphere.
At that time I was in Grade 10 and there was a whole slew of students in Dawson City who are interested in the trades, and I certainly because of my arts background and an interest in painting and drawing and that sort of thing, decided to, it would be beneficial for me to enroll in the drafting course, and so I did. The other students and like myself and same age, registered for courses in electricity, electrical training and plumbing and heating and mechanical for fixing cars and heavy duty mechanic for heavy equipment. There was courses for, cooking and hairdressing and nursing. Oh Man. Then there is selection of interest was just so vast and great that there must have been about 20 of us who just did a mass exodus from Dawson City and came into Whitehorse and we were so tickled to have been enrolled in these courses.
I know I enjoyed my course. It took me two years to get my certification and then I went to work for governments in the different fields of drafting. I worked for Yukon government and the architectural field, drafting and designing buildings and drafting and drawing architectural renderings and doing designs for a competing in the buildings and all kinds of architectural stuff that along with my highway experience. We did the highway drawings as well. The other students, for most part, became the first graduates of the class when the Whitehorse technical school first started and was introduced into the Yukon.
I worked in the field of drafting for I think, oh, but 15, 20 years before I moved on and I went back to school in Vancouver at Langara College and I not only went to school there, but I worked for different engineering companies and then stayed down there for eight years before I decided to come home to become a part of the land-claims negotiating interests.
Yeah, that’s an interesting story because it ... there was a group of elders who were traveling around the country, including the Yukon Territory and all the Northwest Territories. That was a part of the Berger Inquiry, Thomas Berger’s Inquiry. That’s how the Berger Inquiry was established in 1977 to solicit the views of First Nations peoples across the north country and Yukon and Northwest Territories, and then eventually the views of Canadians all across Canada.
I met the group at the airport in Vancouver when I was working down there and I met an elder there and I spoke with him in my language and he did a jig dance right at the Vancouver International Airport, and he says, “Holy moly, my grandson,” he said: “What the hell are you doing down here in this concrete jungle?" He said, "Get the hell back home and help your people.”
Finally, I got my cue from this elder who said get the “hell” home. I got on a plane and before you know it, I was working for the CYFN [CYI] in mapping and research because of my background in engineering and drafting, I became a director of the program, and then after a year another opportunity arose for me to become involved in the leadership and I came back with a view to going home to Dawson City to take up my hereditary chieftain role with the Trondëk Hwëch'in, but that wasn’t meant to be in my stars.
I was talked into running for office of the Yukon Native Brotherhood, an organization that represented all the status Indians in the Yukon territory. Next thing I become the vice president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood.
Oh my God. That assignment meant I was involved in the leadership and the rights and interests and titles of first nations and the land claims in negotiations. I came after the production of the report Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, which was the first negotiated attempt put together by the Yukon Native Brotherhood for all the Indians in the territory. That was 1973 and then that report was refined into the modern day treaties that we see initiated today.
It was quite an experience. We were working for the land claims and the rights of first nations people.
Narrator: Over the years the school grew. And in 1988, it outgrew its location and moved away from the river and up the hill to a new facility in the Takhini area of Whitehorse. The new space was officially opened with a potlatch where Elder Ms. Angela Sidney named the new campus Ayamdigut, meaning “she got up and went”. The name references a Tlingit story about the Killer Whale Clan House which had to be moved because it was too close to a riverbank.
The name Ayamdigut was chosen for an additional meaning as well – that the school would work to educate the students of the Yukon, and they would move the Yukon forward.
Next we’ll head to the Learning Centre in Carcross to speak with former Carcross/Tagish First Nation Chief Mark Wedge.
Mark Wedge: The best way to describe myself with a story. My mother never drove, so she would always drag me to these potlatches saying I need a ride to Teslin, there’s a potlatch down there.
One time we went down to Teslin and Jack Smarch was down there and he was greeting people traditionally, he would stand at the door, and people coming in he would talk to them and introduce himself. My mother went in and her and Jack were clan brother and sister, because it was Deisheetaan also. They talked away in Tlingit, she went in then Jack talked to me in Tlingit, and I don’t know to speak the language. The only word I know is [Tlingit language] which means: “I don’t know.” I was trying to say, “I don’t know how to speak the language.” I didn’t know how to say that.
I just said [Tlingit language], and he looked at me and he went in ... anyway we were sitting traditionally, the hosting clan doesn’t sit at the table. They’re hosting their guests, so Jack and mum were sitting beside each other around the edge of the hall and I was standing beside mum and I get her coffee and sort of things. Finally Jack said to her, "Who’s this young man?" and mum said, "Oh that’s, that’s my son, that’s my baby.” She described to him who I was and he said when I came in he asked, "Who are you?" And I had said, ‘I don’t know.’ [laughter] I am still try to figure out who I am. That’s who I am.
I know I’m Deisheetaan. I know I’m the son of Dora Wedge, I know that ... yeah, but I’ve had a lot of experiences over the years over the years, mostly with economic development. In order for us to develop the capacity for Yukon first nation citizens to move forward in economic development. They needed training. Nobody likes training. They’re not going to go to school. Back in those days, as soon as you turned 15 especially for a guy, you were out of school. You went out to work. School is not the place to be and certainly further knowledge. Higher learning was absolutely out there.
It started with the vocational school. The vocational school was interesting because that’s when a lot of, our male counterparts, not only male, but a lot of females, but a lot of the males actually started reengaging with learning processes at the vocational school, learning some of the stuff.
That was interesting because that was another step in the evolution of the education of indigenous people in the Yukon -- when they started re-engaging with the educational system. So when the vocational school, became the College that’s when Aunty Angela was asked to give it a name and to do a ceremony.
And that’s when she came up with a name, Ayamdigut, because Ayamdigut was the name of that potlatch house at Tagish where the river was eroding. There used to be two potlatch houses, a Daklaweidi and a Deisheetaan potlatch house. Potlatch house wasn’t like this. It was more log frames and people from around, they would gather at spring gatherings.
And so that Daklaweidi one was washing away, and they had to move it back and they named it Ayamdigut because it’s the one that got up and moved back. When Aunty Angela saw the College moving from where the vocational school was to up on top of the hill. That’s where the Ayamdigut came from: The one that got up and moved.
I think it has two meanings. First meaning is a physical thing where it’s moving. The other one, is the educational meaning, it’s a reconciliation process, you’re talking about. What you guys are doing now. How do we get past this hurt? From the truth part to the reconciliation part? and to me that reconciliation part, is what we’re talking about. How do we understand colonization? We’ve had these discussions and I know that some of the courses that you’re offering are talking about this. But we have to look at it again through the medicine wheel. Most of us get hung up on the emotional piece, the hurt that was caused, the trauma, but there’s a whole intellectual piece. We don’t understand colonization intellectually, is that, what are the tools? How we’ve centralized power in learning, in healing, in governance, and all of these things? Colonial structures centralize that power.
Narrator: And finally, we’ll head to Yukon College’s Teslin Campus to speak with Instructor/Coordinator Ingrid Johnson.
Ingrid Johnson: My name is Ingrid Johnson. I am Inland Tlingit from Teslin. I’m a member of the Kùkhhittàn Clan, which is a raven clan. I was born here in Teslin. I’m probably one of the few people now that can still say that. Most people of course nowadays are born often the hospital. I grew up here and then went off to F.H. [Collins Secondary School] after I finished with the little grade school here in Teslin and then sort of ended up living on in Whitehorse.
I went to the fore runner of a Yukon College, which was called Yukon Vocational Technical Training Centre. I wanted to take a course and it turned out that probably the most appropriate one for girls back then would have been Office Admin, so that was the course that I took. Then I went on to work in a number of jobs within the federal government and territorial eventually Council for Yukon Indians and worked there for a few years. And then at some point in time, I decided to go back to school.
I had taken night courses at Yukon College and in that process they moved up the hill, so it was actually up there taking courses as well. I took a whole round of first-year and second-year courses. Got to the point where I decided I should do something more and then enrolled at UBC and finished my undergrad. I did go back a year or so later and worked on my masters throughout that time. I think that was probably my original wish, was to actually become a College prof at Yukon College. That was the thing that inspired me, I guess.
During that time, I stayed close to the College. I worked a bit in the administration for a couple of summers. I also later on taught in the Band Management Program, and then eventually took on doing some courses and been home here for almost four years working away as a half-time instructor/coordinator here at the College. I enjoy it.
Back in those days we were really looking to have a university in the Yukon. There were a few people, I was one of them, that really wanted to be able to have that option of having postsecondary education right in our community. It hadn’t really happened and now it’s happening. That’s one thing that I really found was pretty awesome.
As an organization, we don’t always know just what it is that we have to do, but it is like, I think like anything else, it’s a journey and we work our way through it. I really think that, I like that we’re putting effort into that. I really like that because I have been, as I was telling you, in and out of the College for many years as a student and also as an instructor. There’s still a lot more work that we need to do and there’s a lot more support that we need to have in place, whether it’s for our students or our instructors who are charged with talking about in Indigenous matters and our history. We’re going to do good things.
We are humbled and grateful to the knowledgeable Yukoners who took their time to be a part of this project, and to help tell this story.
This audio story was produced by Leighann Chalykoff for Yukon College.
Original music is by Jona Barr.
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