This story has been heavily edited for content and updated at the request of its author. A different version appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of What’s Up Yukon.
When Stanley Grafton Njootli travels on the land in Gwich’in traditional territory, he sees the footsteps of the people who came before him.
“You can see markings on the trees and sometimes the remnants of old traps and places where people camped,” he says.
North Yukon is honeycombed with routes. It’s an intricate network of trails and waterways that the Gwich’in people have used to move through the area for thousands of years. These routes linked people to each other, to camps and settlements, and they linked people to resources.
“They would have been used by all Gwich’in long ago when we followed the caribou, for things like travel, hunting, trapping, and berry picking,” says Njootli. “They’re part of our heritage and using the land.”
To prevent further loss of the routes, knowledge and stories associated with them, the Vuntut Gwitchin Government’s Heritage Department has been working to document and revitalize those trails through the Van Tat Gwich’in Navigation System Project, which began in 2011.
Gwich’in based in North Yukon call themselves the Van Tat Gwich’in, which means “people who live among the lakes.”
Njootli has been part of the winter trail-finding journeys over the years. Along with a team of trailbreakers, he would travel the routes for two to three weeks, breaking trail with chainsaws when necessary.
“In the past, people had certain areas where they would stay for maybe a time period, but people moved quite a bit,” said Megan Williams, Vuntut Gwitchin heritage manager. “When there were lots of resources—say a fish trap that was pretty productive, or a place where caribou gathered—then people would get into large groups and then they would often split off into smaller family groups and travel that way.
“It was very fluid. There was a lot of moving around and using these routes to go to different parts of the traditional territory.”
Currently, roughly 60 of the routes have been mapped, and the heritage department is working on ground training—sending groups out on the land to collect information at the rate of one or two annually.
“They’re ancient routes,” said Williams. “You can see many of them from a helicopter because they were used so much, they’re actually worn into the ground.”
Observing the routes from above is one thing, but being on the ground scouting whether a route is still passable is quite different.
“There are definitely a lot of changes on the land that the elders have noticed,” said Williams. “They see some of their regular access routes from 40 to 50 years ago are no longer viable.”
Changes to the northern landscape, including shrubification (an increase in ground-covering woody plants in regions of the Arctic) means that some of the trails have become impassable and others must be rerouted.
“A younger elder will lead people on one of the routes and they’ll find that the vegetation has grown up shoulder high and it’s no longer a viable access route because of climate change,” said Williams. “There are places where you could spend two weeks cutting through the willows to try and use that access route.”
Documenting and revitalizing these trails connects people in the community to the land and to its heritage.
“Anything that comes out of the oral history of the elders is considered heritage,” said Williams. “A route, a place name, a landscape, a place where a story took place, all of these are primarily what we are working with in First Nations heritage.”
Historically, they travelled by foot, dog sled and watercraft. As technologies changed and the Gwich’in people of the Yukon settled in the community of Old Crow, the need to use these routes decreased. The people who lived on the land and remember these routes as vital lifelines for the community are getting older.
“The elders giving us the information are 70 to 80 now and we also have information from elders who were born in the late 1800s and early 1900s who spent their adult life out on the land,” said Williams. “When the trail is lost, the knowledge is lost.”
As more routes are mapped and re-established through Gwitch’in territory, it’s hoped they will be used by community members to learn about their heritage and spend time on the land.
“There’s a major focus on using the trails and making sure that the knowledge is there,” said Williams. “A picture of a trail and a signpost showing where it used to go is nice, but it really leaves out a huge part of the knowledge, which is learning how to travel on the land.”
For Njootli, it’s important for the next generation of Gwich’in learn skills to help them in the future, no matter what it brings.
“Both climate change and food security are a big deal for us these days,” he says. “The world is changing and we don’t know what’s going to happen next, we need for our people to know our lands, to know the fishing holes and where caribou and moose hang out.
This series is provided by the Government of Yukon Historic Sites to highlight the work of Yukoners and their connections to the territory’s heritage.