A Gwich'in Steering Committee photo from the 2018 Gwich'in Gathering.
This year’s Gwich’in Gathering was set for July 24-26 in Old Crow, Yukon, with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) hosting. But with Covid-19 evolving around the world, the event has been cancelled to keep communities safe.
Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin said: “We cannot take the chance of allowing this gathering or our community to be a hub and an intersection right across our nation.”
Old Crow, above the Arctic Circle, is only accessible year-round by plane. The VGFN enacted a Community Emergency Act in late March to keep the virus out with measures that restrict social gatherings, limit plane access, and ban unnecessary interaction with Elders and other vulnerable community members.
Bernadette Demientieff, director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, was involved in the decision to cancel the gathering. She said Covid-19 has the potential to be devastating for the Gwich’in.
“I felt that the safety of our people should always be first, and a virus like that can wipe us out,” she said. “It has to be done, especially for the welfare and safety of our elders and our children.”
Similar gatherings across the North are facing the same outcome.
The Dehcho Annual Assembly, due to have been held in June, was cancelled last week “for the safety of all peoples,” read a statement from the Dehcho First Nations in Fort Simpson.
‘Old and new friends’
While Tizya-Tramm and Demientieff said the decision to cancel the Gwich’in Gathering was necessary, it was not easy.
Since reviving the tradition in 1988 for the first time in 150 years, Gwich’in from Alaska, the Yukon, and the NWT have come together every other year to celebrate their shared culture. The location alternates between communities.
This year would have marked the 16th gathering since the tradition’s revival. The VGFN was expecting to host about 350 people from other communities on their land.
According to Tizya-Tramm, there were big plans in motion; youth were going to have their own platform to conduct meetings, and climate change concerns were going to be a key focus in discussions.
Chief Wanda Pascal was prepared to go this year to represent the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council in Fort McPherson, NWT. She was going to bring her daughters and their grandmothers so they could participate in the dancing, feasting, and celebrations.
For Pascal, the gatherings are an important opportunity to talk about issues and concerns that Gwich’in across the North share. Often, discussions revolve around the Porcupine caribou herd – which has sustained Gwich’in people for thousands of years – or the Peel River Watershed, which spans Gwich’in territories in the NWT.
“It’s a chance for us Gwich’in to get together and update each other on what we’re doing, and some of the concerns coming to our communities, and how we deal with them,” she said. “And we get to meet new and old friends.”
Plans shift to next summer
The gatherings have also allowed the Gwich’in to organize in opposition to oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge. The refuge acts as the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou. In 2017, it was opened up for drilling by the Trump administration in the US.
Demientieff remembers the 2018 gathering well. To her, it was a “refuelling” in the fight to save the caribou.
“In that gathering, they told us never to give up,” she said. “Giving up is not an option. We are going to continue to stand and fight for the protection of our lands.”
Despite this year’s disappointing cancellation, all is not lost. The VGFN is hoping to postpone the gathering until next summer when it hopes to safely host fellow Gwich’in communities. Until then, Demientieff said it’s a time to reflect on the importance of land, animals, and each other.
“We always enjoy coming together as one people to celebrate the Porcupine caribou herd, to celebrate the Gwich’in way of life, and the honour the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou.”
And Chief Pascal’s advice?
“Take care, be safe, keep listening to the health officials, and wash your hands.”