Pearl Keenan (Geddes) Tlingit name: T’aakhu Tla, which means Mother of the Taku River
Born October 10, 1920, Twenty-four miles up the Nisutlin River, Yukon
The different things I did in my life – it amazes me that I did those things. It’s due to the people who pick you up because they believe in you. It’s just wonderful the way people helped me out. I got those places but it was never on my own. – Pearl
I drive 183 kilometres from Whitehorse to Pearl’s house on Teslin Lake on a mild November day. Fresh snow loads the spruce tree boughs and the sun breaks through broken clouds, sending shafts of golden light onto the immaculate snow. Pearl’s house is tucked on to a shelf below the Alaska Highway overlooking Teslin Lake.
Pearl, eyes sparkling, greets me with a warm smile, takes my hand in both of hers, and says, “Welcome, welcome.” I breathe in the smells of wood fire and fresh baking. Pearl has prepared a feast: smoked salmon, fish chowder, and tea and cake. It speaks to a lifetime devoted to staking her ground and exceeding expectations.
Pearl is a highly respected First Nation elder but she earned that recognition. She explains, “I was born to a Scottish father and full blooded Tlingit mother and that makes me half and half. Mother was twenty when they married and Dad was fifty but they really loved one another. My mother was somewhat put aside – not as involved with her own people – because she married a white person. Dad’s peer group was another story; they called him all kinds of names. It was a hard path to follow.
“When I was young, some white people – certainly not all and I have so much respect for those who never discriminated – but some, they called us breeds, a mixed, everything. That’s where Mom came in. She told us, ‘Never, ever profess that you are a Native or a white person. You are not; you’re different from others. Our Creator has put you like that, with one foot in each world. You have to find your own way, how to walk in both worlds. You are a spiritual person. Keep your head high.’ You couldn’t compare another woman to her; she was such a wise woman.”
A picture of Pearl’s mother hangs above the kitchen table.
Pearl went to school for a total of six weeks over two years. But now, “I can read pretty good, and write too.” She chuckles. “Only thing, I don’t have enough fingers for math – you have to lend me yours.”
Pearl married a heavy-duty equipment operator and his work took them to British Columbia from 1956-59 and 1968-1990. They had three children but when her oldest son was twenty-five, he died in a car accident. She shakes her head and says, “That took everything I had and then some. But, I survived it. The Lord was with me; I became a strong Christian three months before he died.”
Pearl’s lack of schooling did not hold her back from becoming a leader and life teacher. She worked with kids in prison for about four years as a Christian outreach worker. She was chancellor of Yukon College for seven and a half years. “I helped those youth with their outlook of life,” she states.
The appointment Pearl holds most dear is the Yukon commissioner of Expo 86. She smiles, “Being commissioner was an important thing because the whole Yukon was depending on me. To think that I could do it and that I really was there with all those eighty-six commissioners from around the whole world and the only other woman was a Chinese woman. I was right in the thick of it. India put on a social and you had to dance with this sword all around the room. They handed me the sword first and I did it. The house just came down.” Pearl enjoyed it so much she says, “I was lost when it closed down. It was fun and a great challenge. Fulfilling – just a great thing.”
After that appointment, Pearl continued her life work. She teaches the Tlingit language and always shares the message that culture and tradition are important. She sits on a number of committees, advises youth on life choices, and visits women in the correctional centre. In 2007, she became a recipient of the Order of Canada, recognized as “an invaluable source of wisdom for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the north.”
Her head high, Pearl takes a deep breath, “My work is not done yet.” She credits her success in life to others, but as she shares her stories, I see her as a bridge linking past and present, firmly joining two worlds.
Pearl Keenan’s profile was first published in Remarkable Yukon Women, Profiles by Claire Festel, Portraits by Valerie Hodgson, published under the Lost Moose imprint by Harbour Publishing. Available from Harbour Publishing
ISBN 13: 978-1-55017-523-3
ISBN 10: 1-55017-523-8, http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/RemarkableYukonWomen
And Mac’s Fireweed Books