When Stanley Njootli Senior travels on the land in Gwich’in traditional territory, he sees the footsteps of the people who came before him.

“No matter where you go you can see the evidence,” he said. “You can see where they camped along the riverbank and they cut trees. You can see the stumps where they cut tree branches for their dogs to sleep on and for their own tents too. In some places you can find old tent poles.”

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’re part of our heritage and using the land. Those trails were used by my family and the whole community for things like travel, hunting, trapping, and berry picking,” said Njootli. “Now, I think the trails are getting used less and less because people just don’t travel, so some of them are lost.”

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. The Yukon Gwich’in people call themselves the Van Tat Gwich’in, which means “people who live among the lakes.”

“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.

Map of overland trail connecting Old Crow to Arctic Village, spring 2019

“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.”

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.

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