A Selective Honour
On one of the hottest days in the Yukon’s short summer, a child travels down the Alaska Highway in a truck, towards a date with destiny. Jett Rudyk, a three-year-old Tlingit-Southern Tutchone child, listens as his mother tells him, “we’re having a party for you!”
The Rudyk family’s destination is Klukshu Village, a historical fishing site of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. For thousands of years the Southern Tutchone have been harvesting salmon from the small creek that begins at Klukshu Lake; flows to the Alsek River; then into the Tatshenshini River which finally meets the northern Pacific Ocean. Located within a stone’s throw of the Kluane National Park, Klukshu is surrounded by mountains and valleys carved by ancient glaciers that once towered more than 3 kilometers thick.
Jett’s father, Mike Rudyk, spent a great deal of his youth at the fishing village under the guidance of Francis Joe, an aunt that raised him and his brothers. On this blistering day, they are on their way to the headstone raising potlatch for his aunt who passed away the previous year. He too tries to make his young son understand what is in store for him once they arrive.
“We’re going to have a party and everyone will be there to see you Jett!”
According to Southern Tutchone Elders, Klukshu was accidentally discovered when one of their hunters was chasing a moose. Armed with a bow and arrow he crossed the small creek and noticed a fish swimming upstream. It was a Coho salmon and it was a fish the man had never seen before. However, he knew this fish was a good thing and he returned to camp to tell his mother about it.
Before long everyone in camp knows about the new fish and they all return with the man. Using spears made from bone they follow the stream to an eddy where they discover the fish all swimming together. They spear out the salmon and take them back to cook and eat. Not long after they return to build the fishing village.
Klukshu has become a reliable food source and a village site stamped into their historical memory. The easy living there and at other hunting village sites allowed the Southern Tutchone to further develop their cultural traditions. One of those is to bestow or pass on special names to children at a potlatch celebration.
“We’re here to do our family business,” said Cherish Rudyk.
The headstone potlatch is a celebratory event. In addition, as a salute to Francis Joe’s life, it’s also an opportunity for members of the same clan to receive their traditional names. For Cherish who is the matriarch of her Rudyk nuclear family she’s tasked to make sure all members of her family have one.
“A headstone potlatch is really meant to lift the grief,” she said. “So, people are usually in mourning for a year and at the headstone potlatch they finalize the memorial.”
“It’s really a celebratory potlatch where people are happy and they get together.”
No matter where you go this day in Klukshu there are vehicles of all sorts all over the ancient village roadways. License plates announce people from Alaska, British Columbia and Yukon have gathered. Francis Joe must have been a very special woman for so many people to travel from so many places. Off the shore of Klukshu Lake a gathering house is alive with singing and drumming from Southern Tutchone and Inland Tlingit dance groups. You can feel the heartbeat of the drums resonating from the gathering house. It speaks to the indigenous blood within my veins.
The Wolf Clan of the Southern Tutchone have fed the assembled Crow Clan members. It’s part of the protocol of honouring the opposite clan for witnessing their potlatch business. There’s about 200 people packed into the main room of the gathering house. Cooks and servers are busy making sure everyone gets fed. It’s a tradition that predates first contact in North America.
One after the other people step up to the microphone to tell a favoured memory of Francis Joe. Everyone is feeling good about this woman and the memories she inspired. The memorial goes on for some time and then the event agenda changes.
Former Chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, James Allen, is the master of ceremonies. He announces that the potlatch is ready to bestow names among Southern Tutchone children. I’m recording the event on my video camera and I have live mic’ed Cherish Rudyk so I can hear her clearly through my headphones.
“Come on Jett. Yeah in a minute. Come on we’re going to go get your name,” she said.
“The next name we’re giving is to Jett Rudyk,” states James Allen.
Holding his mother’s hand little Jett is accompanied by his father, his older sister Mariella and Cherish’s family from Atlin, BC. Dave Joe, Mike’s uncle, is also part of the party as they wind their way through the seated audience to the front of the gathering house. James Allen turns control of the microphone over to Dave Joe.
“Isn’t he a cute little devil,” he said. Joe points to little Jett who is being held by his father. I cannot help but be reminded of the scene from the Lion King when newborn Simba is being presented to the assembled animals on the African plain. There’s something majestic about the naming ceremony unfolding before the gathered witnesses.
“He’s about to inherit an old strong wolf name,” adds Dave Joe. He goes on to explain that the name was first held by Dave Hume who passed it onto to him. Now the name is moving on from his shoulders to little Jett, who is busy playing with his father’s hair.
“It’s a very high name of the wolf clan,” he said. “Now we get to share it with Jett as well.”
Dave Joe instructs the gathered that he will announce Jett’s new Southern Tutchone name. He wants the assembled to repeat the name after him.
“Dà Ké.” The crowd repeats the name and the room resonates with the power of all their voices.
“Dà Ké.” Once more the crowd repeats the name and an energy seems to ripple out to the forest, the lake and the stream that is Klukshu.
“Dà Ké.” The name is repeated by the crowd a final time and a hush descends over the crowd.
“There you go. The new Dà Ké,” said Dave Joe, as the room erupts into applause and cheering.
Jett’s mother Cherish steps up to the microphone to formally introduce her family from Atlin and to give thanks to all who have witnessed the ceremony.
“I am so grateful to Dave Joe, Mike’s uncle, that Jett now has his Southern Tutchone name. It’s a great honour to our family and I am so grateful to my Joe family.”
Later on, I ask Jett’s father Mike why he needs his son to have a traditional Southern Tutchone name. I’m trying to find the importance behind the naming ceremony. I’m amazed by the logical simplicity of his response.
“Because it brings him back to his roots and his ancestry,” he said.
“Since colonization we were given names that sometimes were made up of first names like Billy Bob or John Jack. Having our own traditional name means we are separate and distinct as a people with our own values and principles.”
So, there you have it. A name within a name that sets Jett Rudyk apart from the crowd. A name with high honour among his father’s people. A name the three-year-old boy will come to learn and perhaps become one day for his people. You’re probably wondering what Dà Ké means in Southern Tutchone? Well like Dave Joe who became the chief negotiator for the Yukon land claims process perhaps Jett Rudyk will one day become “the Speaker” for a new generation of Southern Tutchone people.
The potlatch business has been taken care of. Southern Tutchone people once more take the opportunity to visit each other and to keep alive the traditions of their homeland. The name Dà Ké lives on in a new generation. The final Rudyk family member who still needs a traditional name is Jett’s father Mike. But that is another story for another time…