Gary Sidney Johnson

From DJ to Song Knowledge Keeper: Gary Johnson Builds a Legacy of Cultural Revitalization

“My culture, it really saved me. It really changed who I became,” recalls Gary Johnson, who lives in Carcross, Yukon Canada, and works for his first nation, Carcross Tagish First Nation. They are self governing and he gets to do a lot of cool things in his work, like go on the Chilkoot Trail. They are working on a partnership with Parks Canada, making short movies of different people's stories of the Chilkoot. 

Most people think of the trail in terms of the Gold Rush but the movies talk about it from an Indigenous perspective, when it was a trade trail between Northern communities. The trail supported trade and intermarriage between communities and its stories present a perspective that has not been part of mainstream conversations over the past hundred years. 

The project came to be building on a past project when some filmmakers decided to make a short film of the story of hunting his first moose. The film included animation which was exciting but delayed the project somewhat because the animation studios only had templates of white people and hadn’t included all the skintones yet.

To address this gap, Johnson is now partners with Pixel Block Studios and they were able to order a motion capture suit with grant funding to help bring more stories and Indigenous legends to life. The suit will be able to help capture Johnson’s singing and dancing so kids can learn from his techniques and be able to manipulate what is captured and look at it from different angles. Outside of the animation work, Johnson is learning his language, having completed beginner and intermediate classes and moving onto advanced classes. 

Growing up, Johnson hid from his Indigenous heritage and was bullied a lot. He moved away wanting to be an actor or entertainer and went to DJ school in Calgary. One time he even got to set up and play a few songs for Tom Cochrane. He was involved in the music scene until he travelled back to Carcross to put on a play for tourists coming in by train. His hometown wasn’t set up for tourists but he learned a lot of traditional Indigenous songs in the process. 

Over the summer, he was roommates with Jared Leachman who translated and helped him with the lyrics and taught him so much. He sought out knowledge in his community and the project changed the direction of his life. “What was supposed to be just a summer gig ended up being my life, my career and it just really inspired me,” he beams. Before the project, he only knew three songs and now he’s a song knowledge keeper, leads a dance group and found many doors opened for him as a result.  

When he was just fourteen, his great grandfather who knew the songs and the language, a world war two veteran, passed away. His death created a disconnect between Johnson and his culture. As he was branching off into the entertainment industry and away from culture, he felt he was not the best person he could be. Reconnecting with culture changed that for him. “

His best advice to young Indigenous people is based on a quote he remembers hearing, “Your life is not your own.” What that meant for him is that people are always watching and wondering what you're saying and even when you are working hard for your community, there will be critics. That’s why being motivated for others, for the next generation, and not just self-interest is important. The other piece is that you always represent your people, clan and connections. Ultimately, Johnson says, “people should just enjoy what they're doing and have fun and just do it for the next generation… If we do it for ourselves, then we will only learn what we want to learn.” 

What he loves most about his work are the children who love his storytelling, are excited to see him and are proud of him. He taught in elementary school one year and loved seeing kids learn. When he was growing up, it wasn’t cool to be Indigenous but now kids have Indigenous TikTok and more role models to look up to like them.  “I know that when I pass, I won't be forgotten because all these things that I've taught not only just the kids, but community, all my family, it'll be remembered and talked about,” he reflects, thinking of the legacy he is trying to leave. He offers tools when people pass away so their loved ones can grieve in a traditional way, words of encouragement and different forms of ceremony that they need during those times. 

His hopes for the future include language revitalization, considering how few elders who speak his languages remain. He hopes children will pick up the languages and carry it on. He wants to make the language fun and modern through singing and dancing. To make teachings relatable, sometimes he explains it with pop culture references and he even wrote a song that anyone can sing or dance to, no matter where they are from, as many traditional songs and dances are limited to the families who hold rights to them. His music is available on Spotify and Itunes and even gets played on the radio. 

His culture saved him and changed who he became, and in creating a legacy of language and culture revitalization through film, music and animation, and so many other initiatives, Gary Johnson is changing who other people can become. In seeing themselves in cartoons, in movies, and hearing themselves in songs and stories, he creates new chances for people to become something else… proud of the way they are portrayed in the world, celebrating what makes their culture unique and excellent. Moving from DJ to song knowledge keeper, he found a beat that everyone in his community can dance to. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    Yukon Territory
  • Date
    August 1, 2023
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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