WE HOLD EACH OTHER UP
Kluane Adamek is a leader—and so are you.
by Kylie Adair
Kluane Adamek steps outside to answer my phone call and describes the view to me as vast and beautiful. Adamek is in Old Crow, the remote, northernmost community in the Yukon. She’s travelled there from her home base in Whitehorse for Caribou Days, a community event the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation holds each year to celebrate the connection between the Gwitchin people and the Porcupine caribou herd. For tens of thousands of years, Adamek tells me, the Gwitchin people have depended solely on caribou for food, and the locations of the Nation’s villages mirror the herd’s migration patterns. “It’s really powerful,” she says.
I start our conversation with an admittedly cliche question—I ask her what a typical day in the life of the Yukon Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, the role she took on last year, looks like. She tells me there isn’t one. “Some days I’m finding myself in these really unique and special places and spaces with community,” like this celebration in Old Crow, she says; other days she’s sitting around a boardroom table in Ottawa with the Prime Minister, other federal ministers and her colleagues at the AFN.
The latter is a big, important part of her job, which is to advocate for the needs and interests of First Nations in the Yukon at the federal level. But it’s the former—spending time with First Nations people, listening to elders, learning about what each community needs from her—that’s the most meaningful to her, Adamek says. And it’s what feels the most like true leadership. “I’ve been able to grow into a space where I’m comfortable leading from the front, and that means being the voice, but certainly always working beside all our people and our leaders.”
Leading from the front comes with a certain level of visibility, both to her community and those outside of it. For the first time in the history of the AFN (and what was before called the National Indian Brotherhood) there are three women sitting on the executive committee. The 32-year-old is also one of the youngest national chiefs in the organization’s history, which is something she says she’s had to grapple with. “I had thoughts of, was I prepared? Could I do this? Why me? I’m young. I haven’t been elected before, but I’ve worked for so many politicians,” she says. “I did have to talk to some of my elders through it, and to have them remind me that in our communities—I look at some of our former chiefs who are now elders at the table and they started really early, too.”
Adamek has also learned that real leadership needs to come from a deep sense of purpose and connection. After spending a few years working with First Nations in the Yukon at the beginning of her career, she had the opportunity to join then-AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo’s small advisory team, and she took it. She spent two years doing that work, advocating for First Nations people from the organization’s national headquarters in Ottawa, but felt like something was missing.
“The whole time I was in Ottawa I did feel that disconnect, from home and from community,” she says. “I started to think, what is it that’s really important to me? And how am I contributing in the work that I’m doing? Where do you get that fire in your belly? Where do you get that sense of passion and excitement and drive? And that answer is different for everyone.”
For Adamek, the answer was to go back home, to work directly with her community and her people, to whom she feels a deep connection. “The north has always been home for me, and I think a lot of northerners will share the same feelings and experiences. You do always get pulled back—that never changes. So when you come back here, it fills your heart, it fills your spirit. And that’s what I needed,” she says. The strong sense of community is a big part of what pulls her back, she tells me. “There’s a gesture that we have where you put your hands up, palms in the air, and [it signals] holding somebody up—you’re giving them the most high degree of acknowledgement. You see a lot people on the Northwest coast do this. It means, we hold each other up.”
Adamek says returning home has reinforced for her the inclusivity of Indigenous leadership, which was also the focus of her recently-completed MBA. “There’s no difference between our most vulnerable people and me. We are a community together, and that, I think, is very different—whereas people in Western colonial way might say, ‘Oh, that’s a social issue.’” But this kind of leadership also comes with unique challenges: “I look at chiefs from home and you’re getting calls at 3am because someone needs a ride to the hospital to see someone in their family, or maybe there’s something violent happening in the community and they need the chief there to support the reconciliation conversation,” Adamek says. “That’s where, from an Indigenous perspective, leadership is very different. You become someone who your people go to for everything. It’s not limited to the policy issues of the day; it’s everything.”
It’s clear to me throughout our conversation that Adamek cares deeply about her work and has immense respect for the position of power she’s stepped into. But it’s also clear that she doesn’t see her work as inherently more important or impactful than others’ work.
“When I think about our teachers, when I think about nurses, when I think about people who are working on our land healing programs, people who are working through addiction, or showing up every day for school when you’re seven years old and you don’t have a lunch—everybody has really unique and special abilities and that’s coming from a very traditional, perhaps even Indigenous, perspective that everyone has really special gifts and it’s about what figuring out what those are and honouring them and welcoming them.” Basically, says Adamek, the term ‘leader’ does not describe one type of person doing one type of work. Instead, it’s a trait, one all of us have the potential to exemplify.
Throughout our conversation, Adamek offered many similarly poignant pieces of wisdom on what it means to be a good leader. Here are a few:
Embrace softness • “To be a strong leader, you need to be really aggressive and really loud and predominantly you see this patriarchal leadership style—or that’s what we accept as leadership,” she says. “For me and my cultural background, that’s not reflective of me at all. In fact, showing vulnerability and being a strong leader who may not speak often, or may speak gently, that’s a good thing.”
Stay true to your values • “Know who you are,” Adamek says. “Are you proud of who you are in the moments when no-one is watching? Our elders always tell us, ‘Mind what you say.’ Be very careful about the words that you say because you can never take those back.”
We are all connected • And we’re all interdependent. “My dad drives the water truck in our community,” Adamek says, “and some might see that in a very judgemental way, but if my dad did not deliver water, nobody would have water in my community.” To build strong and happy communities, we must respect and honour the important role each member fills.
Kylie Adair is the editorial director at kaur. space. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and human rights and a miniature schnauzer named Dot.