Katie Johnson and the Adaka Cultural Festival
Written by Ashwin Freyne
Photograph courtesy of Bella Elite Consulting
I met with Katie Johnson just 4 days after the final day of the Adaka Festival, and it was clear things were not really slowing down. She had just gotten out of an interview with CKRW radio in Whitehorse and was working in the Whitepass building when I came in to chat with her. Sitting at a conference table overlooking the Yukon River, Johnson filled me in on what she’s been working on, and what is next for First Nations Arts and Culture in the Yukon.
Calling Johnson an events coordinator feels like an understatement. During July, for the past 9 years, she is most well known as the Director of Arts for the Adaka festival, but she also runs her own events management company, works with Reconciliation Canada, formed the Young Indigenous Emerging Leaders group and is working on a book documenting First Nation elders from Burwash Landing. She studied tourism in Vancouver, and began working in events planning 14 years ago. When I asked what one of the first events she remembered coordinating was, she immediately recalled a big one; the 2007 Canada Winter Games. “I remember coming back from University, trying to reconnect to my culture but also just realizing that there wasn’t a lot of Yukon First Nation Gatherings.” said Johnson, “So when the Canada Winter Games announced that they’re going to come to Whitehorse, I saw it as an opportunity to bring our communities together.”
The first Adaka Festival took place in 2011. Johnson had just co-produced the Yukon First Nations Showcase at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and it acted as a catalyst for showcasing more First Nations arts and culture talent. She realized that even though the Olympics had passed, there remained tonnes of amazing artists in the Yukon and she felt she needed to create more space for those artists, and that is how Adaka came to be. Since that first festival, the event has continued to grow every single year. This year, over 8,000 people attended over the seven days of the festival, with an increase in out-of-territory and international visitors as well.
One of Johnson’s goals with Adaka has always been to create space for different First Nations voices present in the territory. She has a strong stake in Yukon youth, and one of the projects at this year’s festival aimed to honor indigenous youth. By partnering with Stories North, they were able to recreate the stories of young people through digital media. “I feel like that project was a huge success,” said Johnson, “because it’s just a way of creating space for young people to tell their stories, but in their way”. She points out that there is a collective of very strong young indigenous leaders looking to affect positive change within the communities, and she feels optimistic about what is to come, so long as spaces for youth to express themselves continue to exist.
Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the festival and Johnson has a lot of pride in what has already been done, and a lot of excitement about the opportunities that Adaka will continue to provide. “Where I see it in the future is continuing as a platform for the nurturing and growth of our young people for creating collaborative projects for performing visual artist to work together.” said Johnson. Growing the visitors, year to year is important, and specifically increasing the amount of community involvement as a way to include all peoples in the festival. She is proud of the diversity of the programming that already exists, from story-telling, to electronic music, to a moose hide camp, the range of events in 2019 was broad.
Adaka is Tlingit for ‘coming into the light’ and Johnson’s goal has always been to cast her artists and performers in the brightest light possible. “This work is so powerful because it’s like it shines the light so bright on all of us,” she says, “it’s not just for indigenous people. It’s for its for the community.” The last thing she tells me before I go speaks to the mission she has taken on, not only in her organization of Adaka, but in all the work that she does. “It started with our elders before us. It’s a real honor to carry that work forward.”