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.
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 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. 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. 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.
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, particularly the introduction of social housing programs, 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, 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
Gwich’in typically view land-based living as Gwiinzii Kwundei, “the good life” on the land. 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.
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.
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.
 Corntassel, Jeff (2008). Towards Sustainable Self Determination: Rethinking the Contemporary Indigenous-Rights Discourse. Alternatives, 33: 105-132.
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