Angela Sidney (née Johns), (Stóow Ch’óonehte’ Máa), CM, Elder, storyteller, author (born 4 January 1902 near Carcross, YT; died 17 July 1991 in Whitehorse, YT). Of Tagish and Tlingit descent, Sidney was one of the last fluent speakers of the Tagish language. A storyteller, Sidney recorded and preserved the stories, traditions, languages, place names and genealogies of her people. She was the first Indigenous woman from Yukon to be appointed to the Order of Canada.
Angela Johns was born on 4 January 1902, near Carcross, in Southern Yukon. At birth, she was given three names: a Tlingit name, Stóow; a Tagish name, Ch’óonehte’ Máa; and an English name, Angela. Sidney was part of her mother, Ła.oos Tláa Ḵaax’anshée’s (also known as Maria), Tagish Deisheetaan (Crow) clan. Her father, Ḵaajinéek’ Haandeyéił (also known as Tagish John), was from the Daḵl’aweidí clan (Wolf moiety). Her parents had lost their first four children in a series of epidemics before her birth, and Sidney and her siblings were the couple’s second set of children. The family grew up travelling across the land in Southern Yukon. They stayed in the Tagish and Carcross communities while they were travelling for the purposes of trapping, camping and work.
As the eldest surviving daughter, Sidney often looked after her mother, who experienced recurring illness after contracting measles in 1898. Sidney briefly attended Chooutla residential school, but her father pulled her and her brother out after their sister died at the school. (See also Residential Schools in Canada.) She learned about traditional healing from her mother and Western medicine from a medical textbook her brother gave her. She used this knowledge later in her life to act as a nurse during epidemics that ravaged her community. (See also Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
As a child, Sidney learned about the traditions and stories of her Tagish and Tlingit ancestors from her parents, aunts and uncles, spoken to her in their native languages. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.) Throughout her life, she had to balance the expectations she had of these old ways of life with the reality of the changing present, such as not receiving a potlatch name.
Marriage and Family Life
At age 14, Angela Johns married George Sidney (also known as Keshduk Gweix Tleixteen), a Tlingit man of the Yanyedi clan, who was twice her age. George was a section worker for the White Pass and Yukon Railway and later served as the Chief of Carcross for three years. They were married in their traditional manner, but members of the Anglican Church persuaded them to have a second ceremony in the church the following year. The couple lived with Angela’s parents for some time after their marriage, and she continued to help manage the household and raise her younger siblings. Their first child was born in 1917. Of their seven children, only three survived childhood. Sidney spoke Tlingit with her husband and children, as George didn’t speak Tagish. She strove to raise her children with a balance of the old ways and new.
Angela Sidney was fluent in Tagish, Tlingit and English, and knew some Tahltan, Southern Tutchone and Kaska. She heard and spoke Tagish until around age five, but used Tlingit and English thereafter. She was one of the last people to be able to speak the Tagish language fluently. Later in her life, she lamented that she was losing her fluency as there was no one she could speak the language with.
The Tagish language is used in the southern lakes area of Yukon. When Sidney was born, Tagish was spoken by a few hundred people, but this declined with an influx of Tlingit- and English-speakers in the area. Language loss was also worsened by the removal of children to residential schools, where they were forbidden from speaking their native languages. Today, only a few people remain who are able to speak parts of the language.
“I have no money to leave to my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.” — Angela Sidney
After George’s death in 1971, Angela Sidney travelled around Southeastern Alaska, visiting the homeland of her Tlingit ancestors. She didn’t want the culture and traditions of her people to disappear and began teaching their stories in schools. Sidney’s stories were rooted in clan histories, and an understanding of kinship ties was necessary to understand the stories — and vice versa. Some of her stories recounted the events and histories of her family and people, such as the Klondike Gold Rush discovery of her relatives Keish (Skookum Jim), Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack) and Káa Goox (Dawson Charlie). With others, she used traditional narratives to connect meaning to present events. She used stories to explain to children why things were done a certain way and to impart lessons on them. For Sidney, these stories portrayed values to strive for, saying: “I’ve tried to live my life right, just like a story.”
Angela Sidney worked with linguists and anthropologists to preserve the languages and cultures of the Tagish and Tlingit peoples. She worked especially closely with anthropologist Julie Cruikshank on several projects. In 1980, Sidney and Cruikshank travelled through Southern Yukon, recording place names in Tagish and Tlingit. They recorded 230 names of 130 locations. In some cases, Sidney had not returned to the locations for several decades. The visits also brought up stories of people associated with the locations, which were used to create clan lists and genealogies. Her stories were recorded on tape and transcribed, and she published works on Tagish stories, her family history and place names.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1985, Angela Sidney spoke at the Toronto Festival of Storytelling. Her trip to Toronto, and the fact that she had to travel so far to speak in front of a large audience, inspired the creation of the Yukon International Storytelling Festival, which provided an opportunity in Northern Canada. The first festival took place in 1988, with storytellers presenting in 23 different languages, and ran until 2010.
In 1985, Sidney was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for her work preserving and teaching Tagish and Tlingit languages, cultures and traditions. She was the first Indigenous woman from Yukon to receive this honour.
Sidney died on 17 July 1991 in Whitehorse. She is remembered for her significant contribution to the preservation of Tagish language and culture. After her death, Carcross Elder Lucy Wren continued her work of language preservation by teaching Tagish and Tlingit. Sidney’s life and work is commemorated by a bust and plaque erected in Whitehorse in 1997. In 2017, her bust was moved to a more prominent location, on Main St. in Whitehorse.