The 2022 Gwich’in Biennial Gathering saw people travel to Old Crow, Yukon, for a week of discussion and celebration.
Although usually held every two years in a community in Alaska, the Northwest Territories or the Yukon, the 2022 gathering was the first in four years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are doing something that the United States, Canada and no other nation I know is doing – coming together, thinking and being a nation together,” said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.
“It’s so sacred, because as we enter a new era with caribou, with salmon, our health and well-being. If we as Gwich’in don’t decide where we are going in light of these challenges, then other nations will decide that for us. It belongs to no other nation but ours and our people.
Here are some key developments.
Renewal of resolution to protect the Porcupine caribou herd
Participants passed a renewed resolution to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.
The resolution was originally passed at the first Gwich’in gathering in 1988 and calls for the permanent protection of the Coastal Plain, or Area 1002, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), where Porcupine caribou migrate every year to give birth and raise their young.
The herd is sacred to many Gwich’in, who often refer to themselves as the caribou people.
The fight to protect the area took on an added sense of urgency in 2017, when the US Congress passed a tax bill that opened ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas extraction. Drilling leases were granted in early 2021, but President Joe Biden imposed a temporary moratorium on exploration after taking office.
Although the Gwich’in previously reaffirmed the caribou resolution, the 2022 gathering also saw wording updates to the document, including the addition of a section touching on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
New Resolution on Chinook Salmon
The assembled participants passed a resolution to protect the relationship between the Gwich’in and Chinook salmon, or Łùk Choo. It essentially elevates chinook salmon to the same level of importance as caribou to the Gwich’in, and comes as the Yukon River and its tributaries – including the Porcupine River, which flows near Old Crow – are experiencing the worst upwelling chinook never recorded.
The document recognizes, among other things, that chinook are a “keystone species in a healthy ecosystem that sustains all life forms” and that they are “providers of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health and well-being for the Gwich’in”. It also commits the Gwich’in Nation to “take all necessary steps to manage and ensure the stewardship of Łùk Choo throughout our lands” and to restore Chinook populations and their habitat through stewardship led by the Gwich’in.
Participants shared stories of the impact of declining salmon runs and debated the wording of the resolution over the two days, making it the most discussed topic of the meeting.
“My grandkids are from Teslin, Yukon. They’re Tlingit… They’re salmon people. My grandkids have never been to a salmon camp in their traditional territory,” Lorraine Netro said in tears.
midday coffee16:59Low Yukon River salmon numbers affect different locations differently
Others, like Brandon Kyikavichik, have called for stronger measures, such as allowing only indigenous people to fish and ending practices like commercial ocean trawling.
“We haven’t done enough for the salmon,” he said.
“If we don’t do what needs to be done…it’s over, that’s it, say goodbye to the salmon, and all these years we’ve spent coming to these meetings begging and pleading will be for naught .
“I know I paint a pretty dark and grim picture and every time we come to these salmon meetings it’s dark and grim, but it’s dark and grim. I’m not going to water it down.”
Tizya-Tramm later told CBC that, like the caribou resolution, the salmon resolution can be brought to meetings with Canadian and American officials as an advocacy tool.
Addressing mental health, the drug crisis
Mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide quickly became important topics of discussion.
While a session on mental wellness and the impact of the opioid overdose crisis was originally scheduled for later in the week, it was moved to the first full day of the rally after attendees spoke to several topics during comment periods.
“Fighting for the caribou, fighting for the salmon, that’s great and we’re doing a great job on that side, but if we’re not taking care of our people, what’s the point of all that work?” asked Charyl Charlie, director of education for the Vuntut Gwitchin.
A number of people shared stories of their own struggles with addiction, mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, homelessness, loss, lateral violence and abuse, with many calling for a summit on healing or welfare.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’ve never had a wellness workshop at Old Crow and I think it was needed 20 years ago,” Joe Tetlichi said in a chat opened.
“We are now getting to a place where mental health is a big issue. We see a lot of things in the world today, how does this affect young people? I think we really need to look at this.”
Yukon Morning5:57Youth at the Gwich’in Biennial Gathering at Old Crow
Calls were also made to listen, respect and create space for Gwich’in youth.
“You see a lot of hardship, you see a lot of trauma that continues to flow within our generation,” Alyssa Carpenter, director of the Western Arctic Youth Collective (WAYC) project, told CBC in an interview.
WAYC was at Old Crow to support young people at the rally, which included organizing separate activities for young people and encouraging them to participate in the wider discussions.
“I think young people want to talk about addictions, they want to talk about the impact and loss due to suicide or loss in general, and not just the physical loss, but the loss of relationships with people, or loss of connection to culture and identity,” Carpenter said.
“There’s a lot of stuff – it’s complex but it’s very interconnected.”
Gwich’in Nation Agreement
The agreement, approved by participants on the last full day of the gathering, unifies Gwich’in people across the north on eight common priorities and how to address them.
midday coffee9:08Gwich’in Gathering proposes a new agreement, raises big questions and promotes unity.