A new book offers readers a glimpse of traditional Gwich’in life directly through the stories of Elders.

Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed is based on interviews with 23 Elders speaking about their lives growing up in the Beaufort Delta and northern Yukon.

Elders speak about traditional life

The Elders recount traditional activities like hunting, fishing and trapping, their culture and interactions with Euro-Canadians.

Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed, a book that includes interviews with 23 Elders about traditional Gwich’in life, was published in late 2020 by the University of Alberta Press.

Published in late 2020, the book is the result of two decades of work, after the first interview took place in 2000.

Leslie McCartney – an anthropologist and co-author of the 717-page tome along with the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) – joined the project in the late 1990s.

Back then, the GTC was called the Gwich’in Social and Culture Institute (GSCI).

At that time, the GSCI prepared a strategic plan to document, preserve and promote Gwich’in culture, language and values, McCartney said.

“They outlined different projects they wanted to do. One of them was doing biographies of prominent Elders. They figured there’s a lack of information about Gwich’in Elders (and) it would be wonderful if Elders could share their knowledge for the project,” said McCartney, who is an associate professor and oral history curator at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “I met with Elders along with the GSCI to ask them what was important to pass on to the next generation. (Our team) interviewed them at fish camps and at people’s homes.”

Most of the interviews took place in Aklavik, Inuvik, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic.

At those four locations, Gwich’in speakers helped translate the interviews when Elders spoke in their first language. Others interviewees spoke in English or a mix of Gwich’in and English.

Intense interview process

McCartney described the process as intensive as it involved a lot of people with different skills.

“We transcribed, edited and published (the interviews). We were still using tapes at that time and digital still wasn’t there yet. I think there were over 60 hours of recordings, and that all had to be translated and transcribed.”

Elder Sarah Simon of Fort McPherson was one of the Elders who shared her stories for the book. She lived to be 99 years old. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

In addition, McCartney conducted a tremendous amount of research on Gwich’in history and culture to build context around the Elders’ stories.

Most chapters of the book include sidenotes that contain genealogical, historical and linguistic information that helps contextualize the stories.

Translation challenges

Alestine Andre, a translator and logistics assistant with the project, said accurately conveying Gwich’in concepts into English can be a big challenge.

“That’s tricky even for me as a speaker,” she said. Now retired, Andre worked for the GTC’s department of cultural heritage.

“Let’s (take) the term ‘dinjii zhuh’. For myself and our Elders who can speak, it clearly means ‘people from here.’ The loose term in English is ‘native to a particular place.’ A good example would be my father when he was alive in the 1990s and seeing on television the San people in the Kalahari Desert (of southern Africa). My father called them ‘dinjii zhuh.’ The people from that land.”

Elders happy to share stories

A highlight for Andre in being part of the book was seeing how happy the Elders were to share their stories.

“Now you see me here at my camp. I live here alone. Everything I have around me is done by my sons for me. I am still able to see my net. I check the net and I cut the fish. I do this by myself,” said Mary Firth, who still lives in Fort McPherson and spends her summers at her fish camp at Nataiinlaii. photo courtesy of the Gwich’in Tribal Council

“The Gwich’in people are story people, like many Indigenous people around the world. We need to tell stories, we’re interested in stories. (The Elders) were happy to tell us about their travels on the land, whether they were walking or going by dog team,” she said. “Their early lives on the land – you could tell it was a good life they were talking about. It wasn’t just a subsistence life to survive but also birth, death and tragedy. It’s all there.”

Sharing Gwich’in values

The book’s stand-out chapter for Andre is the final one: ‘Listen to What I’m Saying.’

That chapter details such Gwich’in values as respect, honour, love, laughter/humour and spirituality. For each value, the Elders explain what they mean to them.

Catherine Mitchell, from Aklavik, talked about respect in the context of hunting.

“When Dad or other men came home, they had these wrappers for toboggans. It was the carry-all,” she recalled. “They were so good at hunting and the way they handled it was clean. You don’t see a stain on the toboggan wrapper. Not even on their feet, very clean. Not like today. Boys go hunting and they’re just full of blood when they come back. It’s not good. They’re not hunters. They’re careless.”

Sense of accomplishment

When the project started, the Elders were in their later years and more than half of them were in their 80s at the time of their interviews. One of them – Sarah Simon – was 99. But all of them, except for Mary Firth have since passed away.

“I think they were happy knowing that they told their stories to be shared with their grandchildren. That’s what they wanted and it was done,” Andre said.

McCartney hopes the book communicates a better understanding of the history and culture of the Gwich’in in the NWT.

“The Elders wanted to give the next generations a sense of pride of being Gwich’in, and pride in their culture and how their ancestors lived, and the legacy they gave the next generation.”

One-thousand copies of the book were published by the University of Alberta Press. Readers can buy copies at the Yellowknife Book Cellar or online.

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