Ainu and Tlingit Cultural Exchange in Japan

January 26, 2013 at 7:14 am


Hoo Haaa!

What an adventurous trip we had in Japan!

From October 6 to October 13, some of the Tlingit people from Teslin, Yukon and Atlin, BC went to Japan for a reunion with the indigenous Ainu people.  Last year five Ainu people came across the Pacific Ocean to join the Haa Kus Teyea Tlingit Celebration in Teslin.  This year, Tlingit people crossed the ocean to join the traditional Ainu festival in Hokkaido, Japan. Despite the challenges with funding, the Ainu elders’ wishes as well as ours to make this happen were strong and became real.

The trip was organized by the daughters of Ainu elder Saki Toyama. There were so many people and places we visited in only a week! The group went to Urakawa, Lake Akan, and Sapporo, in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. Everywhere they went they were welcomed by heart warming Ainu traditional meals, performances, stories, prayers and hospitality.

The Tlingit group shared traditional Tlingit dancing and drumming with Ainu and Japanese people. Storyteller Sharon Shorty from the Teslin Tlingit Council shared Tlingit myths. The stories by “Grandma Susie” (Sharon Shorty) grabbed the audience, young and old, everywhere she went. Wayne Carlick, the Master Carver, Dance Leader, and Crow Clan Director from Taku River Tlingit First Nation demonstrated his carving and painting with local Ainu people. One of them, Toko Nupuri, carved the Ainu totems on Burnaby Mountain in BC. Those totems are facing the ones that were also carved by Toko standing in Akan, Hokkaido. It is very interesting when we just imagine that those totems are looking at each other across the Pacific Ocean. How mythical is that? Another visual artist from Teslin Tlingit Council, Heather Callaghan, also shared her paintings and other artwork. Her willingness and humbleness to learn the knowledge of other indigenous people moved them also. A weaver, Debbie Michel from Atlin, spent hours with Ainu families to finish some cedar weavings. Along with all these talented artists, Peter Kirby, Derek Yap, and I joined in many performances to sing and dance. It was an honour to be part of the group.

In Akan, the group also participated in a ceremony and the night torch parade at the Marimo Festival. The Marimo Festival is one of the Ainu traditional festivals that have been held every year for 63 years. Marimo is a green plant formed like a ball in the lake Akan. The marimo has been a protected species and defined as a natural treasure in Japan. This festival is one of the Ainu people’s efforts to save nature for Mother Earth. Every Marimo Festival they celebrate the existence of these beautiful lake balls and they send them back to the lake with prayers.


The group members were totally impressed by all the Ainu people, their regalia, and their traditional performance and ceremonies, just as if we were at one of the potlatches we have in Tlingit culture.

Elder Saki is an 84-year-old woman, humble, quiet, and funny but a strong Ainu Elder who believes in the rights and title of Ainu and the importance of passing on their language and culture for their future. Some Ainu people told me that among the Ainu, she is one of the few Elders who have passed on their traditions down the generations in her family. Her daughters are all involved with Ainu cultural activities, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are also following their path. Elder Saki told me that they have kept their profiles low for many years. Their children have been discriminated against; therefore, they hated to be Ainu. Even as she talks about this, her innocent smile and gentle voice never accuse anyone. She knows that is not the answer, rather she has gratitude for the freedom they have now to share their traditions with others. She simply knows what she needs to do right now for the Ainu future in her limited life. Although she may not be able to change the whole society, the people who are touched by her inner prayers and strength are moved by her.

I was born and raised in Japan; however, my knowledge about the Ainu was very poor, and I probably would not have paid too much attention if I had not married into the Tlingit culture. Shamefully, I didn’t know much about the history of North American Indigenous people either.

Elder Saki reminds me of so many strong and warm Tlingit elders I have met in the past, and I feel that their wishes and prayers are the same for their future generations. It is our responsibility to pass on the truth and to acknowledge their history and the path they walked on.

Lastly, Gunalchéesh ho, ho, to all these Tlingit travelers for being patient, giving lots of laughs, and sticking together during this amazingly busy trip. I am so glad that I didn’t lose anyone or leave anyone behind in crazy busy Tokyo! This is just a beginning, and I hope there will be many more reunion gatherings with North American Indigenous people and Ainu, or with other indigenous people in the world to share their culture for our future generations.

Midori Kirby was born in Fukui, Japan and has lived in Canada for about 21 years, most recently in Atlin, BC and Whitehorse, Yukon. She is married to Peter Kirby, a member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.