Doing Museum Research on Gwich’in Material Culture & Tips for Visiting Collections

Close up of Gwich'in Mens Summer Tunic-Detail.

Gwich’in Men’s Summer Tunic, c.1860, British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

An exciting part of reclaiming Gwich’in artistic practice is visiting Gwich’in pieces held in museum collections. This work is very important to better understand Northern Dene material culture and its relationship to Teetl’it Gwich’in in particular. As I’ve said before, a key part of Shinli Niintaih is researching my people’s beading, sewing and other Gwich’in artistic practices. Whether it is through hide tanning with my mother, studying centuries-old Northern Dene floral beadwork techniques, or learning about Gwich’in use of dentalium shells and trade beads, I’ve always ensured my practice is part of maintaining knowledge of Gwich’in material culture. A vital part of this is sharing my experiences along the way.

Some of the Gwich’in/Northern Dene pieces that I have come across during my visits include beautiful beaded baby belts, vadzaih (caribou) hide outfits, birch bark baby carriers, pointed toe moccasins, steel knives with beaded cases, and a doll made entirely out of hide decorated with trade beads, porcupine quills and natural dyes. These pieces were collected between the early- and mid-19th century with some into the 20th century.  Most of which were probably removed from their territory over a century ago.

Gwich'in Babiche Bag

Gwich’in Babiche Bag, c.1878. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

I have a deep appreciation of Gwich’in artistic practices, particularly beadwork, because older styles contain intricate details that deserve to be maintained. To me, the old floral styles represents cultural pride, our connections to our lands, and created a uniqueness for each Gwich’in (and Dene) region in the North.  Over time, certain traditions are falling out of use, so I document older works of art in both academic texts and museum holdings, while discussing Gwich’in art forms with elders and practising artists in my homeland. It is my hope that this work contributes to the further protection of Gwich’in material culture and the revitalization of our art forms. I am thankful to have learned from many teachers, mentors and artist friends who have generously shared their knowledge with me on this journey.

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Gwich’in Beaded Pointed Toe Moccasins, c. 1890. Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Ontario. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Over the past four years I have visited many museum collections. My first step is to look through the museum’s online database, and then make an appointment to visit the collection. Visiting a museum collection allows you to see art forms that are not long produced. It has also helped me relearn old sewing techniques and to reclaim the use of old materials. During these visits, I am able to visit with powerful pieces of art that bring me closer to the artistic practices of my people. When, I am with these pieces, I often wonder: Who made these items? How did they do it? What tools and techniques did they use? Sadly, it is rare for museums to have this information. This is usually due to the age of the item combined the fact that the person who acquired it did not adequately document this information. In most cases, I am left to make educated guesses, based on my own experience and discussion with knowledge holders, on how these pieces were made.

Gwich'in/Northern Dene Doll

Gwich’in/Northern Dene Doll, late 19 century. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

 

It is important to me that we consider Indigenous material cultures as living pieces, not ancient “objects” or “artifacts” that are stored in museums. All Indigenous art served a purpose, and they continue to hold power and embody ancestral teachings. They are our (still living) relatives. I am always grateful for the discussions and teachings from friends, mentors and colleagues who have taught me about this topic, because it drives my practice as a Indigenous researcher.  It helps me reclaim ancestral knowledge in a culturally-grounded way. So my approach to learning, understanding and visiting Gwich’in art helps broaden my work in repatriating knowledge, revitalizing land-based learning practices, and cultural healing.

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Gwich’in/Northern Dene Beaded Baby Belts, early-mid 20th century. Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

To date, I have visited museum collections in Canada, England, Sweden, and the United States. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about the role of museums, seeing how thousands of living Indigenous art pieces are kept away from communities and the families of those who created them. However, despite these items being far away from their homelands, I am also appreciative that they are being protected and there are opportunities to visit them. Every time I visit a collection I wish that elders in my community or members of my family were with me to see such beautiful artistic works. I do hope that my community will one day have the opportunity to take these amazing living pieces back and to protect them for future generations.

Gwich'in/Northern Dene Knives.

Gwich’in/Northern Dene Knives, mid-late 19th century. British Museum, London. It is believed these knives belonged to great Gwich’in Chief and trade middle man Shayaanuti’. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

During these visits, I was able to see amazing Gwich’in artistic works that my ancestors made with their own hands. Seeing them was like visiting a relative, and like a relative I spoke to them and witnessed the beauty that each possess. At my last museum visit in England I saw a Gwich’in men’s vadzaih tunic, that I was able to touch and feel. I cried seeing that it was so beautiful. These outfits were made without steel needles, likely only using an awl and sinew. Some of the seams and stitches are hardly visible because they are so intricately stitched. One of the things I noted about these outfits was how quillwork was once the essential art form for Gwich’in. In these days, vadzaih clothing was finely decorated and dyed using natural materials found on our lands.

 

 

Gwich'in Mens Summer Tunic

Gwich’in Men’s Summer Tunic, late 19th century. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Some outfits in these collections still have vibrantly coloured quills, the same colours used long ago. This is remarkable because natural dyes often fade over time. There is also incredible amount of detail in these outfits, it is common, for example, for each individual fringe on caribou hide tunics to be wrapped with dyed porcupine quills with a dinvi’ (silverberry willow seed) bead added as an accent detail. This technique was repeated many times with some tunics have between 400-600 dinvi’ beads! (see photo above). As someone who works with dinvi’, I know first-hand how challenging it is to attach them to fringes. This was something my Gwich’in ancestors did with mastery to make beautiful clothing, a public display of who we are as a people. 

Eastern Athapaskan Floral Beadwork.

Northern Dene Floral Beadwork, late 19 century Sub-Arctic. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

As the fur trade brought new goods to the North, quillwork and dinvi’ was slowly replaced by glass trade beads and other materials imported from Europe. The adoption of floral motifs also influenced the way Gwich’in made art. Floral beadwork is still widely practiced today in many Gwich’in communities, and for those who want learn older beading motifs, museums or private collections have many inspirational pieces.

Gwich'in Floral Beadwork

Gwich’in Floral Beadwork, c.early 20th century. Collected in Fort McPherson, NWT in 1929. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

While beading remains an important part of contemporary Gwich’in artistic practice, dentalium shells was a key part of Gwich’in aesthetics, but has fallen out of use in many communities. In the Teetl’it Gwich’in dialect the word for dentalium shells was a’tthan’, meaning small bones. They were used in all kinds of jewelry, like septum piercings and earrings, in addition to be used to decorate clothing, knife cases, mitts, and other prized items. A’tthan’ was brought from the Pacific coast to our territories through the inland trade routes established by Indigenous nations long before the fur trade. A’tthan’ was considered a high value trade item. Because of its expense, those wore it were considered high status. Those Gwich’in who were able to gather enough wealth to trade for A’tthan’ in large quantities often these shells were traded with other Indigenous nations, including Inuit on the Arctic coast. As evidence of its importance, I have found old illustrations on Gwich’in a’tthan’ adornment on jewelry, knife cases, and clothing.

Gwich'in Adornment

Photo of Gwich’in Man in full adornment. Image found in Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Russia, Smithsonian Institution Press (1988). Photo by Elaine Alexie.

At the British Museum I saw an Inuit earring that resembled a design commonly used by Gwich’in. It is likely that Gwich’in and Inuit styles influenced one another. Trade routes between our peoples brought many essential goods, such as furs and tools, and with it artistic exchange.

Inuit Style Dentalium Earrings.

Inuit Dentalium Earrings. mid/late 19 century. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Researching Gwich’in adornments has inspired me to recreate many of these old styles. I credit the illustrations and the photos I’ve found on a’tthan’ and dinvi’, and other Gwich’in artists from Alaska, in helping me reclaim this knowledge. Museums are important places to see old items that can influence and bring inspiration for new works in the contemporary context. This has been instrumental in my work and approach in reclaiming knowledge of Gwich’in art. Across the North, a’tthan’ fell out of use but is making a comeback in jewellery and garment making among Gwich’in artists.  This is so great to see. We need to have more Gwich’in artists incorporating older techniques and materials, and using them in new ways.

Dentalium Necklace with Russian Blue Trade Beads.

Dentalium Necklace with Russian Blue Trade Beads. Mid-late 19 century Northwest Coast, North America. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

When viewing living pieces in a collection, it was always hard to say goodbye and let them be tucked back away in boxes until the next time they are taken out. I do appreciate how museums keep them (a lot of these living items may not be here otherwise) but I hope one day that these items are returned to their homelands to be taken care of by their own people. 

Northern Dene/Athapaskan Birch Bark Baby Carrier.

Northern Dene/Athapaskan Birch Bark Baby Carrier, late 19 century Alaska. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie. 

Are you interested in visiting a museum to view their collection? Here are some tips I’ve learned that can help you:

1) Research what you want to see ahead of time. Check out books or publications on Indigenous material culture, specifically the art form that you are interested in. Once I started researching one area of Gwich’in material culture, it expanded to many, many others! A great place to start is speaking to relatives or elders who may have some first-hand knowledge on the topic. It can lead to other sources as well.

2) Check online museum databases for specific information on pieces they have in their collections. Most museums provide an online catalog of their collection, and they keep records of everything that they have. Libraries are another way to find information on what you are looking for.

3) Contact the museum curators and get to know them. These are the people that you will be communicating with the most and will help you arrange visits. They can also assist you in accessing their records and other information.  They are your point of contact at the museum and are responsible for organizing your visit with the collection.

4) Each museum has their own rules about visiting their collections. It is best to find out what is required for the specific museum you want to visit.  Not all museums are the same and the visit needs to be planned ahead of time. Some museums may be easy to book, but other high traffic museums may require at least 6-12 months booking ahead of time. So double-check what is required and make sure to do this well in advance.

5) Bring materials to help record your time visiting collections. I find bringing a notebook and camera helps to document pieces I am viewing, this helps me go back and see the item again, even after I’ve left. Again, check the rules by asking the curators what is allowed or not (i.e. no flash photography). Be sure to arrive early. Your time visiting is precious, enjoy it!

 

Dinvi’: Reclaiming and Working with Silverberry Beads

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With the drop in seasonal temperatures and the colors now changing, this time of year marks one of my favorite activities: picking Dinvi’ (also known as Silverberries or Wolf Willow Berries). As I have been thinking of future sewing projects on Gwich’in material culture, working with Dinvi’ has opened a door to learning more in depth about my people’s use of an item that comes directly from the land. I had first come across this special plant and the berry it produces when reading on Gwich’in material culture practices, specifically from other researchers who have analyzed museum collections.  It has been gratifying and uplifting experience working with the plant and berries once I was able to identify and harvest them. I want to share a little bit of my experience working with this special plant and provide tips on how best to harvest its berries. I do not claim to be an expert and I am still learning working with them. I had consulted several of my elders and all have no memory or recollection of their families working with it. There exists generations among Gwich’in where its use and practice have died out. It is my hope that by sharing my experience that it will inspire other Gwich’in to work with it too. In doing so, we are reclaiming a part of our cultural identity and ensuring the survival of the knowledge and practice of Dinvi’ for future generations.

For those that are fairly new to Dinvi’, I’ll give you a quick primer.  

Along with porcupine quills, the Dinvi’ seed is one of the oldest beading materials in North America used by Indigenous peoples long before the arrival of glass beads. Long before European arrival, Gwich’in people lived sustainably by utilizing the land’s seasons and the abundant resources provided to us by the natural world. Living off the land required incredible knowledge of our territories. Our ancestors knew our lands and rivers intimately, as well as how to use plants and animal products to make everything they needed. Gwich’in also figured out how to decorate these finely made items, and usually adorned their clothing and tools to show pride in who they were. These adornments displayed exceptional skill of the Gwich’in who created them.

From many visits to museums all over the continent, I have learned that Gwich’in were master quill-workers and have used quills with Dinvi’ to decorate our Vadzaih (Caribou) skin clothing and other garments. I have seen items where you can hardly see a seam or stitch, it is so finely crafted, and most likely created with just a bone awl and sinew (and no needle). Some of the finest works in these collections show vibrant work made from naturally dyed from raw materials taken from the land, such as berries, moss, or charcoal. Among the quills lies a dark bead with a yellow stripe hanging on the Vadzaih fringes along the colorful and vibrant quills. This is Dinvi’.

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Gwich’in Mens Outfit. Royal Ontario Museum, March 2018. Photo by Author.

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Close up of outfit. Antique Beads, Natural Dye Quill work and Dinvi’ beads. Photo by Author.

I came across this word from an old Teetł’it Gwich’in noun dictionary that was published in the 1970s. I confirmed this word with one of the linguists that consulted for the dictionary. He recalled that Teetł’it Gwich’in elder Andrew Kunnizzi described the berry with the word Dinvi’ that translates as, “Berry with Black Seeds Used for Beads.”

Silverberry willow is a hardy plant that can be found growing along gravel river bars, river banks, along dry slopes and on the edge of meadows.  It has a bright silver-green foliage and produces a fragrant yellow blossoms that come out in early June. It smells a bit like honey. The plant growth range is identified primarily in the Western/Boreal regions in North America. It extends from the North (Alaska, Yukon, NWT) through to BC, the Prairies, all the way east to Quebec, south to Utah and reaching into Minnesota.

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Silverberry Willow with full foliage. Photo by Author.

Silverberry Willow is part of the olive tree family and used for medicinal and food purposes by Indigenous peoples throughout its habitat. The berry is a rich source of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as several minerals, and is source of essential fatty acids. The berry was sometimes added to pemmican, used as a soup thickener and can also be used to make soap. The bark of the willow was used to weave blankets, clothing, ropes & baskets, and taken medicinally a tonic was used to treat frostbite or sunburns. The berry is also known to be a food source for Moose and Deer.

 Some of the common names used for the plant are Eleagnus commutate, Wolf Willow, Silver Willow, Buffalo Willow, or Rosary Bush. Each berry the Silverberry plant produces is a single, dark-brown, fluted seed. Once fully cleaned and softened by water, you can string them to dry and use as beads.

Want to pick & harvest Dinvi’? Here are some tips.

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Workshopping Materials on Dinvi’. Photo by Author

These are not absolute rules to do it correctly, I did what worked for me. So, do what you think may be best with the items you have on hand.

  1. Take time to identify the plant and look for its dominant characteristics. Look for them on gravel bars, river banks, and mountain slopes or the edge of meadows..  Check for the silver color on the bark, the leaves and berries. I found it was best to find one that was well-established, as they produce the largest and most numerous berries.  The willow is considered to be a nitrogen fixer in soil and can produce a lot of shoots in a given area. Look for large bunches. Once I was able to figure out what kind of plant to look for based on its characteristics, I could find it almost everywhere.

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    Dinvi’ berries ready to be picked. Photo by Author.

  2. Take ONLY what you need. Leave an OFFERING to the plant for taking its berries. This can be tobacco, coin of value, matches or something that value to give. Treat this as an exchange for using something that comes from the land. This is a fundamental teaching in Gwich’in culture. The Dinvi’ is medicine after all. All things taken from the land should be paid back in some way to show respect to the plant, and to the land in which you are on.
  3. Once you have picked the berries, you will need to clean them.  Have these items on hand:
  • A few bowls (to discard the seed coverings, one for the seed)
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
  • Water
  • Stove Top Stock pot or Sauce pan (large enough to cover the seeds with water)
  • Strainer
  • Imitation Sinew
  • Scissors
  • Awl (optional)
  • Large Size Needle

I find it is best to clean the berries right away. The berry produces a green power and the seed is encased by it.  You can use rubber gloves as the power can leave a residue on your fingers or hands. Once you have cleaned it, put it in water.  You can use a container with a lid or warm water up in a bowl, if you prefer. Let the beads soak a little and then put in a stockpot for a low boil (or in this case a lid container with warm / hot water). At this point, the water changes color to a dark brown.  I change the water a few times and each time I make sure to shake the beads in lid container to get any extra layers off the seeds. Strain the water and let cool.

 

Now to string them. Thread a needle with imitation sinew or something similar. Be MINDFUL when working with the seeds.  These beads were so special to our people and I like to think as objects of medicine. It took me a few tries when piercing the beads with my small awl, as some do tend to split. Hang to dry.

It takes a few days for the seeds to dry into beads and the stripe color brightens overtime.

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Dried Dinvi’ Beads. Ready to be used. Photo by Author.

As I have mentioned, working with Dinvi’ has been very gratifying. It has been empowering.  Like beadwork, it teaches patience and to be in a good mind and heart, especially with the last two stages of cleaning and processing. It is a beautiful seed that becomes transformed into a bead that can be used for many things. I love working with this plant and hope to continue doing so for more years to come.

Here are some items I have made using Dinvi’ fabricating Gwich’in old style adornment using old techniques found in resource books and contemporary styles that I designed. 

 

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I feature items from time to time on my online shop. You can check out my website here.

Thanks for reading and I hope this post can be helpful to you when working with Dinvi’!

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Author standing amongst Silverberry Willows, July 2018.

To follow my research journey in learning more about Gwich’in Material Culture, you can follow me on Instagram here and on my Facebook page.

Hai Cho – Many Thanks!

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Please Note

While I am open to sharing this knowledge with non-Indigenous peoples, I request to not appropriate this knowledge for your own interests and using our own cultural designs for profit. I am sharing this information to help my people regain the knowledge of a special bead that was lost over many generations. Please respect that.

Some website resources I would recommend:

Other Indigenous peoples that use Dinvi’ check out this news link.

http://plantwatch.naturealberta.ca/choose-your-plants/wolf-willow/

http://galileo.org/kainai/wolf-willow/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeagnus_commutata

Some books to read:

“Living on the Land” Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place Kermoal & Altamirano-Jimenez (2016)


“Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember”, Thompson & Kritsch (2005)

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Teetł’it Gwich’in Governance: A Reflection On My Thesis and Community Based Research

As reconciliation is on the minds of many Canadians, the prevailing assumption is that self-governance stems from contemporary treaty processes, an idea born out of the colonialism of State-Indigenous relations. However, this is not the case. Indigenous Nations have their own understanding of governance rooted in their cultural and social traditions. Over the past four years I have researched this very issue in my home community of Teetlł’it Zheh, otherwise known in the English language as Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories in Northern Canada. A large part of my research was working with my elders and knowledge holders to identify ways in which my people conceptualize and practice self-governance outside of state-based processes. This post offers some personal reflections on my academic journey, a journey that has transformed me in many ways.

I am Teetł’it Gwich’in and was raised by my grandparents in the small community of Teetł’it Zheh.  My people, the Teetł’it Gwich’in, are the ‘People of the Headwaters’, and are considered one of the original bands of the Gwich’in Nation.  We are also the northern-most Athapaskan speaking group in North America, and our territory extends across lands from Northern Canada (Western Northwest Territories and Northern Yukon) to northeast Alaska since time immemorial.

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Looking West from Teetł’it Zheh – Fort McPherson, NWT. Photo by Author.

In my research I examine governance from a cultural and spiritual perspective. So I focus on my people’s way of life to show the importance of our social and cultural traditions that originate from life on the land. I call these social and cultural traditions practices of Indigeneity. By focusing on my people’s philosophical practice, drawn from interviews with many of my elders, I want to understand how Teetł’it Gwich’in practices of Indigeneity inform our social, physical, and cultural relationship with the land. This, I argue, is central to our practice of sustainable self-determination.

Sustainable self-determination[1] is the ability for Indigenous people to practice self-governance without interference from outside forces, or what my elders call the “white man government.” Most importantly, self-determination requires maintaining a connection to our lands; ensuring food security (hunting, fishing, picking berries), exercise of land-based governance, and ceremonial life. Connecting sustainable self-determination through the personal accounts of my elders, I see true self-governance as existing outside government frameworks, not as a part of them. Most often, this older understanding of Teetl’it Gwich’in self-governance is forgotten or ignored due to the colonial fragmentation of our communities. However, when governance is practiced outside western standards, we can see how traditional governance necessitates land-based practices—the very expressions of our Indigeneity, the essence of being Teetl’it Gwich’in.  I am interested in the concept of Indigeneity because it hinges on the importance of land and culture as essential for being an Indigenous person in an Indigenous community. Indigeneity also draws attention to the tensions between Indigenous peoples and settler-states like Canada. Indigenous peoples are impacted by policies from the government that sought to control, assimilate, and remove our connections to our lands and cultures.

We need to be conscious of the differences between how Indigenous peoples and states govern themselves. Nowhere are these differences more apparent than the politically charged processes of self-government negotiations. While presented as empowering Indigenous peoples, these negotiations confine Indigenous nations to citizenship in a state, with a “gift” of self-government within a state-structured framework. To some Indigenous scholars and elders that I had interviewed, this is not true self-determination based upon Indigenous principles, practices, and worldviews. And I generally agree with this critique.

Instead, of focusing on state-based self-government and the processes it requires, I choose to center the knowledge of my elders in articulating a just vision of governance driven by our Indigenous social, cultural and physical identities. While it is important to transform the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada, being Indigenous should not only be seen as a way to restructure such a relationship, it should also be understood as that which defines, maintains, and reproduces an Indigenous people, like the Teetł’it Gwich’in, as a self-governing people. Practices of Indigeneity represent the many political, social, and spiritual ways of being Indigenous.[2] It is a fundamental component of Indigenous peoples’ practice of land-based governance, as it is grounded in teachings of traditional, ancestral knowledge, important for cultural and spiritual practices to continue.

For example, Moose Hide Tanning is a practice and form of Dene governance.[3] The practice of Moose Hide Tanning fosters physical, spiritual, emotional, and cultural wellness that contributes to the collective governance of Dene peoples. It is an act of self-governance and a practice of Indigeneity. In this sense, practices of Indigeneity strengthen one’s connection to ancestral homelands, to families and to community.

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Smoking a Moosehide at Nitainlaii – Gwich’in Camp. Photo by Author.

Practices of Teetł’it Gwich’in self-governance are driven by the cultural and social traditions found in our land-based relationships. When I inquired about state relations with my people, they seemed to view the state as an entity whose primarily goal is to alter our way of life. It is certainly how my elders view the state. These acts are, at their core, acts of colonialism. Colonialism has many layers and complexities but in this case it is manifested in forceful practices of power and authority that strives to assimilate my people. Confronting colonialism, and looking at these how it undermines our cultural practices, our own ways of knowing and being, as Teetl’it Gwich’in, must be the basis for our future self-determination on the physical and cultural landscape of Gwich’in lands. Teetł’it Gwich’in elders, that I found fitting for the title of my thesis, they describe our ways of governing as: Nakhwanh Gwich’in Khehłok Iidilii , ‘We Are Our Own People’. By centering my people’s knowledge, the worldview of the elders continues to show how important it is for the political and cultural presence of Gwich’in living on our lands, continuing our political, cultural, and spiritual practices of our ancestors.

Stories of Culture, Resilience, and Governance

My elders are experts in their own way and the stories they shared are a valuable source of knowledge. They have witnessed the change from a land-based way of life to settlement living with a seasonal wage-labor economy, in ways that many others cannot fully understand. Most of the elders I spoke to were born before these dramatic changes took place in the North and were raised entirely out on the land. Some elders know intimately the Teetl’it Gwich’in landscape, and others immense skills for harvesting resources from it. A common theme in each of their stories is the importance of land-based connections for the continuity of Teetł’it Gwich’in governance. Members of my community are keenly aware of how federal policies have impacted our lives. Many share stories about Gwich’in-Canada relations and the incompatibility of traditional forms of self-governance with the current structures forced upon us.

In the lifetime of my grandparents, for example, three broad cultural and political changes introduced as federal policies profoundly transformed Teetl’it Gwich’in life in the NWT. Policies like social housing, residential school policy, and Indian Act governance all worked to separate us from the land, as well as our traditional forms of governance that sustained our relationship with it.

Over the past century the North has re-shaped both politically and socially. Particularly federal welfare state policies following the Second World War focused on northern social and resource development[4], particularly the introduction of social housing programs[5], that over time displaced a large number of Gwich’in families from the land. By replacing housing that was formerly built by the people themselves[6], by units build by others, housing policy was instrumental in creating dependency and normalizing sedentary living in the North. Through this incentive, the federal government shifted focus away from the independence of land-based living towards dependency on federal programming to survive. From the perspective of elders, the people now lived in the community on an annual basis, and spend less time on the land with every passing year. This situation undermines access to, and connection with, the land, which is vital to the transmission and practice of traditional knowledge and culture. It also undermines the independence that it provides in allowing them to be a self-governing.

The residential school policy undermined cultural continuity and severed family and land-based connections. The creation of residential schools, as an institution removed many Teetl’it Gwich’in from their families and lands in attempts to severe their direct connection to culture and identity. With the last residential school closing in the region in 1997 many still live with the traumatic effects from the schools.

The introduction of Indian Act policy interfered with traditional Teetł’it Gwich’in governance practices and imposed a different leadership structure on the people. This new system replaced existing Teetł’it Gwich’in processes with ones governed by outside ideals. This new system slowly transformed the traditional leadership structures among the people, changing the way the people conceive of and practice self-governance that is tied and guided by their land-based practices. The imposition of these federal policies in the lives of the Teetł’it Gwich’in has created a system of control that regulates the everyday affairs of the people, confining the self-governing practices of the Teetł’it Gwich’in to a narrow colonial framework. This is not the old way of self-governance described by my elders.

Teetłit Gwich’in Governance

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Teetl’it Njik – Peel River. Photo by Author.

Gwich’in typically view land-based living as Gwiinzii Kwundei, “the good life” on the land[7]. In essence, by being healthy and using the land to keep ourselves happy and independent, we are engaging in self-governance practices, thus ensuring self-determination among our people. Teetł’it Gwich’in cultural philosophy implies a deep connection to the land, a particular form of governance, and an approach to cultural and spiritual wellness through healthy living and land-based practice. Our way of life is centered on our social, physical, and cultural relationship with the land. This involves access to, and use of, our traditional lands, invoking land-based living as guided by our cultural and spiritual traditions. Combine all these elements together this is where we practice self-governance.

I realized this was the case was when my late auntie and Teetł’it Gwich’in elder Elizabeth Colin shared with me,

            “My values come from the elders from the past and our parents…you know  teaching us. We were raised at Three Cabin [Creek]. Most of the year…we’re there…everybody is busy, we do our own thing…Just really the Old-Time way. Doing everything. We don’t sit around. Everybody is moving, moving because we had to. We had to make sure everything was running smoothly… Really what you call our own. We are governing ourselves.”

Self-governance is the individual and collective freedom through the practice of Teetł’it Gwich’in land-based culture rooted in traditional knowledge. This process ensures our physical, spiritual, and physical continuation of our Teetł’it Gwich’in culture.

Living on the land also requires a different kind of leadership. Teetł’it Gwich’in leadership is based on one’s deep knowledge and understandings of the land and skills as a provider. In the old days, Gwich’in chose leaders called Dinjii Chit, who were responsible for safeguarding the people and making decisions that ensured the welfare of the community. Teetł’it Gwich’in governance has two key principles: Yiinjigwich’dhoh’eh, and Nihtatr’indaih, which roughly translate to respect and sharing. Yiinjigwich’dhoh’eh is considered a guiding force and an important value in the way Gwich’in governed themselves, as individuals, among one another, and the physical landscape we share with other beings. Nihtatr’indaih is a form of action fundamental to the political, social, and cultural fabric of Teetł’it Gwich’in culture. Respecting the land and the beings will live near and sharing resources with those in need are key traits of our self-governance.

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Teetł’it Gwich’in Lands – Photo by Author.

The land is the basis of our cultural practice and teachings, but also the root of physical health and healing. For the Teetł’it Gwich’in, land is everything. Life on the land provides a healthy environment that brings wellness to the people, contributing to the health of the people. Our subsistence practices can re-enable us to be free since these practices are central to Gwich’in self-sufficiency and self-governance. Access to traditional foods, physical exercise, and being on the land are aspects the entail our practices of Indigeneity. These activities allow Teetł’it Gwich’in to renew the skills necessary for our people to live our culture, be who we are, and to govern ourselves as a people.

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Thesis Community Presentation Flyer

Next Steps

My time spent on this research project with my elders and learning about Teetł’it Gwich’in governance was empowering and rewarding. It provided me with a deeper understanding of the many ways my people relate to the land and the diversity of relationships that arise from these connections. Governance is relational, it is land-based, it is practiced through kinship, it is found within all of us. Understanding how governance is practiced, not just intellectually, but through on-the-land action, as individuals, who are responsible for our own governance and collective health. If individuals are not healthy then our nation will not be healthy either. Every time an elder or relative tells me to “take good care of myself” this is not just a saying, taking care of oneself ensures our own individual responsibility of governance, to take care of our bodies and spirit to support the overall wellness of ourselves and our people, this is a fundamental aspect of Indigenous governance. It was eye-opening to learn of the cultural effects of early federal policies on the elders, and the impacts of severing Gwich’in connections to our lands. For instance, I learned from one elder that one residual effect of residential school is how we conceptualize our relationship to federal state policies, which in practice many elders associate government policy with land/family removal and cultural loss.

My research experience enabled me to relearn the centrality of a land base on which to practice traditional knowledge and governance, both of which are crucial to the future of the Teetł’it Gwich’in people. What is surprising is how recently Teetł’it Gwich’in lived a self-sufficient land-based way of life and how much of this knowledge still existences among families in my community. I was raised by my grandparents who showed me how to live on the land and to practice hunting, to gather berries, to tan hides, and travel through my ancestral lands. We were on the land every season almost every year. However, many Teetł’it Gwich’in youth today no longer have these opportunities, missing out on the important teachings about the responsibility to maintaining Gwich’in relationships with the land and the other beings we share it with. This is alarming because there is still much on the land that can sustain our people, and the knowledge our elders still possess needs to be utilized to be passed on. So what are we to do?

We govern ourselves by going out and doing what our ancestors before us have always done. Having Teetł’it Gwich’in people on the land, living our culture, speaking our language, generating physical, cultural and spiritual wellness from land-based practices, and invoking our Teetl’it Gwich’in philosophy is to practice self-determination. This way we can regenerate our traditional governance practices. By re-awakening our traditional laws and systems of governance as guided by our own philosophies, we can return to a form of governance outside of state constructs of power and authority. The land plays a central part of our people’s history and it can teach us our philosophies because they originate from it. We need to ensure we are all connected to the land and practicing the cultural and social traditions of our ancestors to invoke Teetl’it Gwich’in conception of Nakhwanh Gwich’in Khehłok Iidilii, we are our own people by governing ourselves.

Hai Cho Shilakat. Thank you, my friends.

If you would like to read my Masters Thesis on Teetł’it Gwich’in governance in its entirety, you can find it here.

Works Cited

[1] Corntassel, Jeff (2008). Towards Sustainable Self Determination: Rethinking the Contemporary Indigenous-Rights Discourse. Alternatives, 33: 105-132.

[2] Alfred, Taiaiake & Corntassel, Jeff (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40(4): 597-614.

[3] Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie (2009). Finding Dashaa: Self Government, Social Suffering and Aboriginal Policy in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

[4] Christie, Gordon (2011). Indigeneity and Sovereignty in Canada’s Far North: The Arctic and Inuit Sovereignty. The South Atlantic Quarterly. 110(2) : 329-346; Coulthard, Glen Sean (2014). Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[5] Christensen, Julia Blythe (2011). Homeless in a Homeland: housing (in)security and homelessness in Inuvik and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Doctoral Dissertation. McGill University: Montreal.

[6] Wishart, Robert Patrick & Loovers, Jan Peter Laurens (2013). Building Log Cabins in Teetl’it Gwich’in Country: Vernacular Architecture and Articulations of Presence. In David G. Anderson, Robert P. Wishart and Virginie Varte (Ed.), About the Hearth: Perspectives on the Home, Hearth, and Household in the Circumpolar North (pp 54-68). Berghahn: New York.

[7] Loovers, J.P.L. (2010). You Have to Live It: Pedagogy and Literacy with Teetl’it Gwich’in. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Aberdeen.