Louie Smith, a Kwanlin Dün First Nation elder with a knack for storytelling, remembered

·3 min read
Louie Smith, an elder of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, died over the weekend. (Submitted by Linda Johnson - image credit)
Louie Smith, an elder of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, died over the weekend. (Submitted by Linda Johnson - image credit)

One cold morning, sitting way up on the bluff overlooking Lake Laberge, Yukon, elder Louie Smith was bundled in blankets and supplied with hot coffee. He told stories of the region going back before the gold rush, while a camera recording in front of him rolled on.

It's one of the fondest memories Linda Johnson has of Smith, an elder who helped document the region's history through oral storytelling. He was also a dear friend to many. Smith died over the weekend at age 89.

"Louis never stopped talking [despite the cold], and that's one of my very favourite memories of him," Johnson said.

"Pointing out places all around Lake Laberge and telling the stories to go with those places going back before the gold rush, then through the gold rush, then the steamboats, then the highways and on to the present day with land claims."

Submitted by Linda Johnson
Submitted by Linda Johnson

Smith is being remembered as a well respected elder of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. He was raised in a traditional lifestyle living off the land. His father taught him to speak Southern Tutchone and Northern Tutchone; English is his third language.

In 2019, Smith was among the recipients of the Council of the Federation Literacy Award, which marked his achievement of learning how to read English at age 86.

Smith was also considered a go-to resource to learn about First Nations history in and around Whitehorse, and he was integral in research projects and a recently released book on the Kwanlin Dün.

'He just observed everything'

Johnson, a researcher, worked closely with Smith over the years.

She said it seemed like he "was related to everybody," and those he wasn't related to he made a friend out of.

"Even for people like me as newcomers to the territory; he was so generous in welcoming us, and making sure that we learned important things that we needed to know to live here," Johnson said.

Smith was one of 20 elders interviewed for a booklet produced by the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

"He just observed everything and had a great sense for storytelling," Johnson said.

Submitted by Linda Johnson
Submitted by Linda Johnson

"We spent three or four hours at that time, with him telling stories about his family, growing up on the Teslin River … how he and his parents would come by dog team into Whitehorse, to trade their furs and pick up supplies," Johnson said.

"He must have been a very, very keen listener, because he recalled stories from his father and his grandfather, from going way back."

Johnson said Smith was "one of our key resources" on life in the region before the gold rush.

Submitted by Linda Johnson
Submitted by Linda Johnson

"He had a great memory for detail — he wasn't just casually telling stories, but he would recount many, many important details that we really didn't hear from many other people," she said.

Smith also had a knack for telling stories with humour.

"You never sat down with Louie [and] didn't have a really good laugh many times during an interview," she said.

She also said that Smith's gift of friendship was "truly appreciated," though "he definitely encountered many difficult times and prejudice and all of the other aspects of colonialism that were problems throughout the decades of his life."

"There was a warm, warm friendship that he extended to everybody," she said.

'We're gonna miss Louie very much'

Bill Webber, a former chair of the Kwanlin Dün Elders' council when Smith was also a member, was also a friend.

"He always could find the humorous side of things too and, you know, he could tell you a story about the old ways," Webber said.

"It's a tremendous loss because you know, that's another elder gone that really had a storehouse of memory … for the community and was able to pass on his language and culture to the youth."

Webber said Smith was also a musician and enjoyed playing the fiddle.

"We're gonna miss Louie very much."

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