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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Inner Healing Through Cultural Connection

The Indigenous Program at MOA was developed by six Indigenous partners: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the Haida Gwaii Museum, the U’mista Cultural Society, the Nlaka’pamux Nation, the Coqualeetza Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The program provides training opportunities for Indigenous people working in museums or Indigenous people who would like to do this kind of work. Funding for the Indigenous Internship Program is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Our latest series of MOA Stories feature the fascinating research conducted by members of the Fall 2023 cohort during their internship.

Inner Healing Through Cultural Connection

By Cat Blanchard (Northern Tutchone/Tlingit)

Inyę dóhúch’i, Dlųą úuzhi

Hello! My name is Dlųą and my English name is Cat Blanchard. I’m a Northern Tutchone/Tlingit artist on the path of inner discovery and cultural connection.

My father, two older sisters and I in our ancestral Yukon Territory home.  Photo by Blanchard family member.

I was born in the Yukon and am very proud to have such a strong ancestral line that has survived for many centuries in that wild subarctic environment. Eventually my mother, sisters and I moved, and unfortunately my Indigenous father ended up passing away shortly after. Being away from my culture and having my father die at such a young age had a profound effect on me and my cultural identity. As I grew up, I healed some of this pain but I still had a deep yearning to connect back with my Indigenous family. I ended up reaching out to my Uncle Ralph and we developed a very special relationship. My father was his baby brother, so our connection was not only important to me but for him as well.

My Uncle Ralph and I. My heart is so full! Photo by Cat Blanchard.

As my internship progressed along, I was told about the museum’s Collections Access Program that supports Indigenous family, community, and artists visits. This includes a family member coming to spend time with belongings in the gallery or storage. I was instantly interested as I felt it would be extremely meaningful for my Uncle and I to see one another and be amongst some beautiful Northern Tutchone pieces. The first thing I had to do was look online at the Reciprocal Research Network, which is a research website that combines 29 different museum databases for the purpose of connecting Indigenous communities and museums with belongings.

My Uncle Ralph and I were so happy to visit these Northern Tutchone belongings together. Photo by Sarah Holland.

I ended up finding six amazing Tutchone pieces, all of which were at MOA. The items included a pair of beautiful moose-hide gloves, a vest, a gun case, a shell bag, a baby belt and a pair of moccasins. All of the items were created by Gertie Tom, an extremely talented Elder. Northern Tutchone regalia is predominantly made of hide with occasional fur trimming and minimal beading. It gives you a very primal, northern feel when you see its beauty and simplicity. Once I chose everything that I wanted, I got to pull these belongings from the storage.

It is important to take precautions to make sure these items are properly handled and cared for. For example, carrying them gently with plastic gloves and making sure to keep track of what was pulled from storage were all necessary steps to having a breezy family visit. Once all the pieces were laid out and I sat there gazing at them, I could almost feel the cold subarctic air on my cheeks. Again, I had feelings of deep honor in having ancestors that dwelt for centuries in that harsh climate. What wisdom they had (and that our people still have!) to coexist with the elements and the fauna for more than 12,000 years!

Uncle Ralph looking at some moose hide gloves and telling us about his beading skills. Photo by Sarah Holland.

December 1st was the day that my Uncle Ralph ended up coming for the family visit. We spent our time in the Museum’s Community Lounge at first, and he shared with me some memories about my father that I had never heard before! I discovered that he was a musician who played the guitar and sang. I also play the guitar and sing, so that was really special for me to hear. Uncle also talked about them growing up in the Yukon bush, and what it was like coexisting with grizzly bears. He told me about my great grandpa who was a special man with strong prayers. This made me swell with pride at my Indigenous lineage. If I ever have a child I’m going to tell them those powerful words as well.

Northern Tutchone Moose hide gloves made by Gertie Tom. Gertie has been a big inspiration for me as a new beading artist. MOA Collection 1636/1 a-b.   

After that we spent some time with the Tutchone items. As my Uncle examined all the fine beadwork stitched upon the moose hide he declared that he, too had created a beadwork bag, a vest and a pair of mittens! I didn’t even know that he beaded! The family visit with the belongings really helped me on my healing journey. I feel like a little missing piece of my heart came back home. I could also feel the spirit of my father watching that sacred moment. I could feel the joy, love and pride radiating from him. I will forever cherish this special moment.    

I hope reading this was inspiring to you, and will encourage people to reach out to family members and connect to their culture. We only have one life, so let’s spend it doing memorable things that we will cherish forever.

Thank you to the Museum of Anthropology, my loving Uncle Ralph and my beloved father Kenneth. ❤️