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Every year on June 21, Canada celebrates National Indigenous Peoples Day. June 21 is also the summer solstice – the longest day of the year and the day that many Indigenous Peoples have traditionally celebrated their heritage.
Here in the Northwest Territories, it’s a statutory holiday jam-packed with special festivities and community events. Back in 1982, what we now refer to as the Assembly of First Nations called for a National Aboriginal Solidarity Day, and in 2001 the NWT became the first jurisdiction in Canada to make it a formal holiday.
Across the territory on this special day there are beloved celebrations consisting of cultural demonstrations, art displays, traditional food, songs and dances, all to honour and recognize the Métis, Inuit and First Nations people who've made the North their home for centuries.
Here are just some of the ways NWT communities spend their National Indigenous Peoples Day:
In Behchoko, the seat of the Tlicho Government, the festivities usually begin with a parade at the Behchoko Cultural Centre. Afterward, visitors dine at a community BBQ and take in the many live events scheduled for the rest of the afternoon, including an incredible Drum Dance. Other events often include wood chopping, tea boiling, cake decorating, bannock cooking, dryfish making and much, much more. Beautiful artwork and crafts are also available for sale.
Then there are the ever-popular Hand Games, a traditional guessing game with origins in hunting parties. The game involves one team hiding a small object in one of their hands and the other team guessing which hand it is in. Correct guesses earn the team sticks and the team with the most sticks at the end of the game wins. Traditionally, hunting parties would bet with items like weapons, tools and furs.
Fort Simpson taps into its competitive spirit on Indigenous Peoples Day as the celebrations kick off with canoe races. Canoes are an important part of the history of Indigenous Peoples across Canada, especially for those living along the ‘Big River’ or Deh Cho (AKA the Mackenzie). Canoes were crucial for hunting, fishing, trade routes and general transportation. European-style wooden boats were no match for the light and swift birchbark or moosehide canoes of the Dene.
After the races are over, the party moves on to Seven Spruce Golf Course for the Dehcho Open Golf Tournament. Even more Indigenous Peoples Day events take place at the sacred gathering site, Edhaa National Historic Site, with its world-record tallest wooden teepee, where attendees can learn more about the heritage and culture of the Dehcho Dene.
All year long, Yellowknifers look forward to the annual Indigenous Peoples Day Fish Fry at Sombe K'e Civic Plaza, hosted by the North Slave Métis Alliance. It’s a giant celebration in the heart of the city, next to the shore of Frame Lake.
In addition to eating tasty traditional foods like Whitefish and bannock – a staple for the people here – revellers get to enjoy Métis jiggers, fiddlers, Inuit throat-singers and the Yellowknives Dene Drummers. It’s also a great time to learn more about the rich traditions of the area’s Indigenous Peoples.
For those wanting to take home some incredible Indigenous crafts, local artists usually offer their beaded jewellery, birchbark baskets, moose-hair tufting, paintings, carvings and so much more.
In Hay River, the day is a celebration of South Slave Dene culture where community members learn about their role in the history of this Hub of the North. There’s also live music and other cultural events and demonstrations. At nearby Katlodeeche First Nation there are often canoe races, axe-throwing contests and, you guessed it, another tasty fish-fry.
In Norman Wells, you'll find Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations go on all weekend long! Fiddle music entertains revellers at the family dance and talent show on Friday night, which traditionally kicks off the weekend of events. Then on Saturday, there are canoe races, more celebrations, more fiddling, and more jigging.
The weekend is capped off with a feast on Sunday in the community arena, where Norman Wells comes together to celebrate the culture and heritage of the Dene and Métis of the Sahtu region.
Deline kicks off this holiday by cooking up a batch of their best bannock and entering a baking contest to see whose bannock reigns supreme in the Sahtu. Here on the shores of Great Bear Lake, Indigenous Peoples Day includes a variety of games, events and prizes. The local Cultural Centre hosts kids events all afternoon, including face-painting, races, and cultural activities. There’s also the delicious community BBQ, and to cap off the fun-filled holiday, an evening Drum Dance.
Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day within the Arctic Circle, under the midnight sun in Inuvik! Here you'll find events and activities that honour the culture and heritage of the local Métis, Gwich'in and Inuvialuit people of the North. Inside Chief Jim Koe Park there are events such as drumming and dancing, traditional foods and lots of activities.
One highlight is, of course, the famous Blanket Toss. The blanket is traditionally made from sturdy hides stitched together, and held by community members who help fling jumpers into the air. The aim is to jump higher than the other competitors.
While it's all fun and games these days, the Blanket Toss has its origin in hunting parties. With wide, flat Tundra terrain, hunters could see far and wide without any forests hindering their view. They'd toss a member of their hunting party up with the blanket so that they could spot herds of caribou or muskoxen in the distance.
No matter which community it is, Indigenous Peoples Day is an amazing day to be in the NWT. Be sure to check with the respective town or band office to find out what’s on offer at this year’s events.