Tlingit artist creates massive snowshoe art piece on frozen Yukon lake

Published: April 16, 2021

Tlingit Art Piece Photo Courtesy of Travel Yukon

From above, stamped into the snow, is the depiction of a raven carrying the sun in its beak. But below, on the surface of the frozen Yukon lake, all you can see is thousands of snowshoe imprints —15,400 imprints, to be exact. The piece took Tlingit Formline artist Guná (Megan Jensen) 11 hours to create and spans 1.62 acres.

“This whole project is bigger than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life,” she said.

Guná, who is of Dakhká Tlingit and Tagish Khwáan ancestry and is a graduate of Emily Carr University, created the art piece as part of a short film for Travel Yukon in collaboration with filmmakers from TSU North and Vancouver-based creative agency Cossette. The piece, designed on a frozen lake within the traditional territories of the Carcross Tagish and Kwanlin Dün First Nations and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, represents the Tlingit story of how raven brought light to the world.

Tlingit Art Piece
Photo Courtesy of Travel Yukon

“It’s a story that I’ve been listening to since I was really young,” Guná said. “When you’ve been listening to a story your entire life, you build a strong relationship to it and you know it by heart. I have a lot of memories of hearing it from my grandmother and other respected elders in the community.”

It was Guná’s mother, a Knowledge Keeper in the territory, who first suggested the story. “Shaunoh, [the director], reached out to her and was asking what would be an appropriate story to tell that could authentically represent Indigenous people in the Yukon,” Guná said. “And my mother told him about the raven story.”

Throughout the film, Guná recites the story of how raven brought light to the world in her native language, a performance she was nervous about getting right. “When Shaunoh told me that he was thinking of having me tell this story, I told him, woah, I’ve only been learning my language for seven months or so. Going from nothing to telling a whole story is huge,” she said.

According to Guná, less than 100 people still speak the Tlingit language, with only about 20 being fully fluent. “It’s a situation where if my generation doesn’t do anything about it, it will be gone forever,” she said, “and that’s extremely scary.” The film includes English subtitles, which Guná worked closely with her First Nation’s language keeper to translate.

The process of creating the raven’s design was a collaborative effort that required four test builds, 60 drone flights, and seven weather holds. “The weather wasn’t always forgiving,” Guná said. The film also benefited from a lot of family and community help.

In fact, part of the film takes place on traditional territory in Guná’s grandmother’s cabin. “My family has really strong roots there and you can just feel it when you’re there. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think Shaunoh and everyone could feel it as well,” Guná said. “It brings this nostalgic feeling. Something that’s old but authentic.”

The style of the raven is Tlingit Formline, a northwest coast design that exists within a number of First Nation communities. According to Guná, the style can vary by Nation, but the foundation of Formline is always the same. “You’d typically see it on masks and totem poles and chests, long houses, many different things,” she said. “Formline was produced to compliment carving. So, the more you learn about the artform, the more you realize that the negative space in Formline represents where you would carve into the wood.”

Tlingit Art Piece
Photo Courtesy of Travel Yukon

Despite the meticulous hours and painstaking effort that went into creating both the film and the raven, Guná said she’s proud to have helped create something so meaningful to her culture. “When [the film] came out, I think the thing that made me most happy was that people from either neighbouring communities or my own community said that this is the first time they’ve felt accurately represented by Travel Yukon or the Yukon government or the Yukon in general,” she said.

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