A NEW ERA FOR OLD CROW
Briarpatch|January/February 2020
In the Yukon’s northernmost community, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is reckoning with how to preserve their land and culture, amid a warming climate and an influx of tourists
MERAL JAMAL

The July air is cool. Whitefish and sausages smoke on a grate above the fire. Hot coffee sits in a kettle by my side.

The kids are playing by the water. I sit around the fire with the adults, listening to them talk. About the day, about a game of capture the flag we played earlier that afternoon, about life here in Old Crow.

At 128 km north of the Arctic Circle, situated on the banks of the Porcupine River that connects Canada and the United States, Old Crow is one of around a dozen Gwich’in communities and home to around 250 members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. It is also the only fly-in community in the Yukon.

It is my second day in the community. I’m one of six journalism students who have travelled to the Yukon because our professor believes that, in order to be a good journalist, one must spend time with the people whose stories you seek to share.

The Gwich’in are part of a larger family of Indigenous peoples known as Athapaskans and one of the most northerly Indigenous communities on the North American continent, second only to the Inuit. The Gwich’in way of life remains – both culturally and economically – anchored to the land through hunting, fishing, and trapping. Today, we are at the T’loo K’at campground for the Vuntut Gwitchin government’s summer family salmon fishing camp. And it is at this camp, after a day of being out on the water, of visiting the nets, of seeing how whitefish is cleaned and smoked, that I begin to understand what it means to be an outsider in Old Crow. A tourist.

It means there is so much I don’t know, and so much I have yet to learn. It means that for every new thing I learn about the Yukon’s northernmost community, there are twice as many things I must unlearn.

A STATE OF EMERGENCY

On May 19, under the leadership of Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, the Vuntut Gwitchin Council gathered in Old Crow to declare a climate emergency. The declaration was titled “Yeendoo diinehdoo ji’heezrit nits’oo ts’o’ nan he’aa” in Gwich’in – which, in English, translates to “After our time, how will the world be?”

“[C]urrent State-led responses to climate change around the world are not sufficiently responsive to the dire circumstances already being directly experienced[,] and the implications for the health of animal populations, food security, as well as our communities[’] emotional, cultural, and physical well-being,” the declaration reads. The council was “[c]oncerned that Indigenous peoples[’] voices and lands are not being heard.”

According to a report released by Natural Resources Canada in April, between 1948 and 2016, northern Canada saw a 2.3 C rise in average annual temperature – three times the global average.

“We, here in Old Crow right now, have -27 C,” Joseph Tetlichi tells me when he calls me in November. “That’s normal temperature for this time of the year. However, we’ve got no snow.”

“Normally, by October 1, we should have three to four feet of snow. The river should be frozen, the lake should be frozen. That hasn’t happened.”

“Our people can’t even drive their SkiDoos yet,” he says. “The lake freezes, and if it freezes people are still cautious of going out on the land because the mild weather and the conditions of the ice are unheard of.”

For 25 years, Tetlichi has been a member of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), which works to preserve the herd of roughly 200,000 Porcupine caribou that migrate between the Yukon, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories. But more recently, “because of the warmer temperatures, the Porcupine caribou are acting differently in regards to migration patterns,” he says.

The Porcupine caribou herd ranges over 250,000 sq. km of northern tundra, migrating between the Yukon’s Arctic coast and Alaska in the spring and the Yukon’s Ogilvie Mountains in winter.

Since the first census in the early 1970s, the size of the herd has fluctuated dramatically. In 1972, the herd size was 100,000 individuals, increasing to 178,000 in 1989, declining to 123,000 in 2001, and shooting back up again to over 202,000 in 2017. And while the Porcupine caribou numbers are currently among the highest ever recorded, less than half of all Canada’s barren-ground caribou remain, with the populations of some herds having declined by over 90 per cent from historic averages. Across the Arctic, tundra fires have destroyed the lichen that barren ground caribou feed on, while spring rains can freeze and block access to lichen and plants. Thinning sea ice has made ice crossings impassable or precarious.

The Porcupine caribou are changing their migration patterns in response to these climatic changes. “We have a situation where they come from the calving grounds and just go to the AlaskaCanadian border, and all of a sudden veer west, moving towards Dalton Highway in Alaska,” Tetlichi says. “In the last three to four years, they’re seeing winter in Alaska. Before, this wasn’t their habitat range.” And although the herd has been known to winter in different locations, hunters have said that their migration patterns – from their route to group size – have been more unpredictable in recent years.

Add to that the fact that, in September, the Trump administration finalized a plan to allow oil drilling in the entire 1.6 million-acre coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Gwich’in call “Iizhik gwats’an gwandaii goodlit” (the sacred place where life begins). The refuge is the main calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd – and it’s also believed to be home to the largest untapped reservoir of onshore oil in the U.S., crucial to American fantasies of energy sovereignty.

The Gwich’in are fiercely opposed to oil and gas development in the Alaska refuge. Chief Tizya-Tramm testified before a U.S. congressional subcommittee that “this development on [Alaska’s] coastal plain amounts to the cultural genocide of the entire Gwich’in nation. […] If you drill in this sacred place, it will destroy the caribou, and therefore destroy the Gwich’in.”

The caribou are deeply important to the Gwich’in – along with moose, whitefish, and salmon from the Porcupine River, the community relies on the caribou for food, and pays close attention to their migration. Until around 1920, the Gwich’in used wooden structures called caribou fences that funnelled caribou to a corral where they could be killed. Seven of the 46 known fences are located in Vuntut National Park, about 50 km north of Old Crow.

Tetlichi says that due to these changes in the caribou’s migration patterns, the herd is no longer passing directly through Old Crow, as it once did. Now, hunters have to go farther afield to hunt the caribou. Hunting season has become more unpredictable, since community members don’t know when the herd will be travelling in and around Old Crow, or how long the migration will last.

“We used to [be able to] predict when the caribou was going to come and when they would go,” he says. “All that is what used to be, and now we just have to hope. We just have to hope that the Porcupine caribou will come.”

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