*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.