A huge collection of historical Gwich’in documents has earned a place in the Canada Memory of the World Register.
The collection, compiled over 25 years by the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, is the largest and most detailed record of Gwich’in history in the world.
It’s the first project from the Northwest Territories to earn the distinction.
The Canada Memory of the World Register is a list of Canadian heritage documents endorsed by the United Nations’ cultural agency, Unesco, as having “outstanding universal value.”
“It showcases the most meaningful documents in humanity’s heritage and history,” said Sharon Snowshoe, director of culture and heritage for the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
“Being included in the register underscores the importance of preserving documentary heritage, and it also highlights the importance of making these collections accessible to students, researchers, and the public for future generations.”
The collection will be housed at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.
“We’re more the stewards of the collection,” said territorial archivist Erin Suliak.
“We’re working in partnership with the Gwich’in to ensure it’s cared for in a way that is archivally sound and will stand the test of time.”
According to a news release from the Canadian Commission for Unesco, the collection aims to preserve Gwich’in culture, language, history, archaeology, place names, land use, ecology, genealogy, ethnobotany, and traditional skills.
The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute compiled documents across a range of formats, including maps and photographs. It shared a sample of those photos on its Facebook page last year.
Suliak said the audio recordings stand out.
“They’re incredible, because they allow us to reach back in time and hear Elders who may have passed on. We may hear language that isn’t often spoken,” she said.
Snowshoe said the Gwich’in language is one of the most endangered in the Northwest Territories.
“Most of this research is done with the Elders, and they speak the language. You’ll hear the tapes. That’s one way to document your language so you can hear it in the future. It’s one way youth can hear the language,” she said.
The next step for archivists is to turn the vast collection into a searchable public database. That means digitizing documents, backing them up, and organizing them so they’re searchable in specific detail.
But for Suliak, it’s light work.
“You turn a page, you open another file, and there’s another incredible project. Amazing stories are coming out of every single one,” said Suliak.
“It is absolutely a treasure trove, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s being recognized internationally.”