1086 The voice of the Gwich’in Elders

Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih: Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed: Stories from the People of the Land
by Leslie McCartney and Gwich’in Tribal Council

Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020
$99.99 / 9781772124828

Reviewed by Daniel Sims

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“Publish or perish” is an axiom of professional academics, especially those employed by post-secondary institutions. For those who find a job right out graduate studies, publications are needed to get tenure and, contrary to popular belief, even when tenure is obtained there is still an expectation of publication. For those who do not find a job right out graduate studies, but still hope to find one, a failure to publish can be the silver bullet to these dreams. In recent years this requirement has come into conflict with the mantra for proper research involving Indigenous peoples – “nothing about us, without us.” This struggle has emerged because working with community can take time, something the academy is not always willing to provide.

Gwich’in territories. Courtesy Gwich’in Department of Cultural Heritage

Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih – Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed is a good example of how long things can take when handled in the right way. In the year in which this project first started, Jean Chrétien was prime minister of Canada, Titanic was in theatres, Windows 98 was latest operating system from Microsoft, and this author was enrolled in Quesnel Secondary School.

The authors are well aware of the fact that this timeframe is not the norm when it comes to academic writing. Indeed, in the last chapter of the book they paraphrase ethnographer Douglas Harper: “this project has simmered and become richer for it” (pp. 635-636) The result of twenty-two years of work, Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih is a collaboration of oral historian Dr. Leslie McCartney and the Gwich’in Tribal Council via the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute and then the Department of Cultural Heritage.

Elder Annie Benoit

A massive tome at 668 pages, excluding the index, Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih tells the life story of 23 different Gwich’in Elders. Sadly, all but one of them has passed away as of the writing of this review. That being said, given that the death of an Indigenous Elder all too often represents the total loss of their knowledge, it is good to see that at least some of what these 22 Elders knew has now been preserved for future generations. In this sense, this book succeeds in its goal of “document[ing], preserv[ing], and promot[ing] Gwich’in culture, language, traditional knowledge and values” (p. 621).

Although it could be read in a number of ways, I would argue that it is pretty clear from the English title of the book, Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed, that the primary audience of the book is the Gwich’in; and as in my recent review of Kwanlin Dün: Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur – Our Story in Our Words by Kwanlin Dün First Nation, I can easily anticipate that this book will be used in an education setting by the nation. Unlike Kwalin Dün, Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih is almost entirely in English, which, depending on your knowledge and/or desired knowledge of Gwich’in can be seen as a positive or a negative.

Elder Sarah Gardlund

It will also be of interest to anyone interested in the Gwich’in nation, Gwich’in history, and colonialism in the Arctic. Given the rapid pace of change in the last century or so, quite often the histories provided by the Elders document a huge part of the history of colonization in the North, with many of the Elders in question being amongst the last generations to live for at least part of their life without significant outside influence or change. For example, some of the 23 Elders saw both the signing of Treaty 11 in 1921 and the signing of the modern Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claims Agreement in 1992. In this sense, the sentiment of the title is also an acknowledgement of the amount of change these people have lived through.

Looking at the oral history contained within this book, one is immediately struck by how central it is. Aside from the introduction, the last two chapters, and the appendix, it is the voice of the Elders dominates the book. This rather simple statement, however, masks the reality of how this book was produced. To put it rather bluntly, Dr. McCartney and the other authors have provided the reader with English transcriptions of the oral histories of the Elders in question. As noted, however, sometimes the Elders spoke in English, sometimes they spoke in Gwich’in, and sometimes it was a mixture of both. As a result, at times what is contained within the book is a translation of the original history.

Sharon Snowshoe (right), Director, Culture and Heritage of the Gwichin Tribal Council, presenting a copy of the book to Mary Firth, the only Elder left of those interviewed for the project, December 2020
Author Leslie McCartney, December 2020

While I am okay with this decision, the English text might make some question the information contained within. Adding to this potential questioning is the fact that the transcriptions and translations are not word for word, but rather an impressionistic approach that allowed the transcriber/translator to include context, methodology, and other important information in text (pp. xxvi, 637-638). Having worked with oral histories for over a decade I find this technique to be quite reasonable, especially since it was undertaken with full community involvement and a commitment to consider elements like dialect, structure, repetition, chronology, stereotypes, and an overall desire to remain true to what the Elders stated, even if it was not politically correct. As with the translation, I do not find a problem with this situation and I would recommend anyone concerned to read through the appendix, which discusses in detail how the book was produced.

A repeated sentiment in the book is that, when it comes to the Gwich’in Elders, “their stories and philosophies cannot be learned in a classroom” (p. 621). In this sense the book is an interesting project. It is also understandable that the authors would make such a statement. If I had the choice of reading these oral histories or listening to Elders, I would pick listening to the Elders every time. This preference of course assumes that the Elders are still relatively easy to hear. Given that all but one of them has passed, Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih is surely the next best thing.

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Daniel Sims

A member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation in British Columbia, Dr. Daniel Sims is currently employed at the University of Northern British Columbia as the chair of the Department of First Nations Studies.  His research primarily focuses on the Indigenous history of northern BC with a particular emphasis on the law, environment, and economy. Currently he is working on two projects. The first consists of turning his dissertation on the impacts of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Tsek’ehne into a book, while the second examines concepts of wilderness and the numerous failed developments in the Finlay-Parsnip watershed of northern BC during the early 20th century. He is also working an English translation of Einar Odd Mortensen’s book, Pelshandleren: Mitt liv blant Nord-Canadas indianere 1925-28, with Dr. Ingrid Urberg, which is forthcoming from the University of Alberta Press. Editor’s note: Daniel Sims has previously reviewed books by Kwanlin Dün First NationBob JosephMary-Ellen Kelm & Keith D. Smith, and Lillian Sam & Frieda Klippenstein for The Ormsby Review.

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