The Gwich’in Tribal Council’s Department of Cultural Heritage is sharing memories of the past three decades online after donating some materials to the NWT Archives at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
Established in 1993 following the signing of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the department preserves and promotes Gwich’in culture, knowledge, and language.
Some of its possessions were recently donated to the territorial archives for safe-keeping. At the same time, a range of images are being shared on the department’s Facebook page.
There are pictures of community members ice-fishing and learning from Elders in field schools on the land in the 1990s, as well as sweeping portraits of the Arctic landscape of the Mackenzie Delta.
Sharon Snowshoe, executive director of the department, told Cabin Radio she enjoys seeing the projects her department undertook in years past.
“Sometimes you hear the names but you don’t see the places. It’s nice to see those places, where they are located,” she said.
Alestine Andre is behind many of the photos being shared on Facebook. Originally from Tsiigehtchic, she worked at the department for 23 years as a heritage researcher. She has since retired and now lives in Whitehorse.
Andre’s work for the department ranged from documenting archaeological expeditions up the Arctic Red River to studies of plants used by Gwich’in peoples.
Andre estimates she and fellow researcher Ingrid Kritsch logged some 3,000 photos of more than 120 projects.
She returned this year to help digitize and organize that archive, which she described as “a big undertaking” and “quite jarring” for her emotions.
“Thirty years ago we had so many Elders, and now most of the people in the photos are not around,” Andre explained.
This is why the department’s work is so important, Andre said: it keeps the memory and wisdom of Elders alive for those who come next.
“It’s good to have that record for the future, and for generations of Gwich’in in the future to realize that the knowledge that was documented is so valuable … and that their family was part of that,” she said.
Governor General’s Award
That work capturing the histories and culture of Gwich’in peoples hasn’t gone without recognition.
The Gwich’in Tribal Council received this year’s Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Community Programming. The award focused on Gwich’in Goonanh’kak Googwandak, the council’s project mapping heritage sites throughout the Gwich’in settlement region.
The project took more than 20 years to complete. Having begun in Tsiigehtchic in 1992, it culminated in the launch of an interactive online atlas in 2015.
The work relied on 74 Gwich’in Elders and land-users who provided locations, the oral histories behind them, and pronunciations of Gwich’in names.
Andre, who worked on the project in her time at the department, said much of the information in the atlas remains practical and culturally relevant.
Snowshoe’s favourite place-name story is about Vittrekwa River, which means “Don’t Cry Creek” in Gwich’in.
“When Old Vittreekwaa was born, he cried all the time,” she said, recalling the story as told by Elder Neil Colin.
“Every night and day, he’s crying, and they were going through Vittrekwa River, moving a dog sled team … and this one man from there, he was a medicine man, and old Vittreekwaa’s parents asked him, ‘Can you help our boy? Because he cries too much.’
“He said, ‘Right now, I’m going to call this river Don’t Cry Creek.’ And right there, that kid stopped crying,” Snowshoe finished with a laugh. “That’s why they call that creek Vittrekwa River.”
Alongside recognition from the Governor General, the project has pushed both the Yukon and NWT governments to recognize traditional Gwich’in place names.
Snowshoe said the Yukon has approved 60 of 237 names to be added to official records, while the GNWT has approved 414.
“I’m very honoured to be part of the project,” Snowshoe said, “but we give the credit to the Elders and the knowledgeable land-users, the people that have provided the information to make this possible.”