Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed/Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih: Stories from the People of the Land
A 22-Year Journey from Interviewing to Publication
By Leslie McCartney, University of Alaska Fairbanks
After over 20 years in the making, Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed/Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih Stories from the People of the Land (by Leslie McCartney and Gwich’in Tribal Council) has been published by the University of Alberta Press.[i]
The Gwich’in Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories in Canada was created following the signing of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement with the Government of Canada in 1992. To deal with the responsibilities created under the agreement, the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) established several organizations, one of which was the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI) to deal with concerns about the decline of Gwich’in culture and language. In 1993, the GSCI commenced work with a mandate to “document, preserve and promote the practice of Gwich’in culture, language, traditional knowledge and values.”[ii]
As directed by a board of directors, composed of Elders from the four Gwich’in communities, the GSCI carried out an impressive array of research projects. Many included oral history and traditional knowledge to understand and document Gwich’in culture and land use through place names, ethno-archaeological research, genealogical and ethnobotanical research. In their five-year strategic plan for 1996-2001 entitled Into the Next Millennium, the GSCIoutlined projects that the Institute they wished to undertake to help achieve their mandate. One such project was “Biographies of Prominent Elders.”[iii]
McCartney, an anthropology graduate student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario approached Ingrid Kritsch, the then Executive Director of the GSCI, expressing an interest in the project as part of her graduate degree. Kritsch responded by saying, “We haven’t started that project yet so if you are interested, you are welcome to be the lead researcher on it.”
The Gwich’in Elders’ Biographies Research Project (GEBRP) began in the summer of 1999. The GEBRP focused solely on documenting 23 Elders life stories for future generations. How hard could it be to record Elders’ stories and then write them up in a book? Little did the GSCI or McCartney understand the complexities that would be encountered along the 22-year journey to publish the stories.
As with any oral history project, several entanglements were encountered prior to and during the interviewing process. These are detailed in the first chapter and appendix of the book; but it was the process of writing the oral onto the page that presented the most challenges, again detailed in the appendix. Three such entanglements are discussed here:
First was navigating how a non-Indigenous anthropologist writes Indigenous Elders stories in a way that did not repeat the long history of ‘Indian Biography.’ As a genre steeped in a colonialist worldview, we were well aware of the critiques of it by several scholars. We were also keenly aware to avoid falling into Brumble’s critique that Anglo editors routinely cut out repetition as he says “it grates upon the modern ear, despite the fact that repetition is commonly part of oral narratives” and that editors usually arrange details in a chronological order. [iv] McCartney chose to leave many repetitions in the stories and chose not to present every Elder’s story in a Western-style chronological order.
Second was finding a compromise on how the ‘voice’ of the Elder was to be represented in writing when English was very much their second language. Salish linguist Anthony Mattina describes a dialect of English he calls “Red English … a pan-Indian phenomenon with various subdialect[s].”[v] Some scholars object to this style of dialect in print as they believe lay readers may see it as inferior English or one that portrays the speakers as impoverished and leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples. Mattina disagrees; the problem, he argues, is with the reader who makes judgements about speakers based on their speech patterns. In constructing the Elders’ stories we tried to retain the way the Elders spoke, bearing in mind that English is not their first language and that some of their words on the page conformed to Mattina’s ideas of a distinct dialect. We hope that the decision to retain the narrators’ original words as much as possible helps keep the narrators’ personalities and their distinct voices and styles of speaking at the forefront.
The third involved placing the stories within cultural and historical contexts and how to convey to readers the importance of kinship connections and the meanings of place names. In both cases, the Elders assumed the reader would know this information but in reality, they most likely would not. For the genealogical information, numerous footnotes were included from the Gwich’in Enrolment Board’s 1998 publication Jijuu: Who Are My Grandparents? [vi]
The historical and cultural contexts comes from the land itself. The Gwich’in relationship with their land is paramount in the stories with geographic and environmental knowledge embedded in the land in the place names. In 2015, the GSCI launched their online Gwich’in Place Names Atlas containing over 900 place names. The final manuscript incorporated much of the information found in the Atlas into the Elders stories in footnotes. Readers are encouraged to read each chapter in conjunction with using the online Gwich’in Place Names Atlas (http://atlas.gwichin.ca/index.html) to more fully experience the sense of place denoted in the story.[vii] Despite all the entanglements encountered, the authors hope that this book is an invaluable compilation of historical and cultural information documenting the biographies of the oldest Gwich’in Elders. Through their stories, the Elders share their joy of living and travelling on the land. Their distinctive voices speak to their values, worldviews, and knowledge, while the authors assist by providing context and background on the lives of the narrators and their communities.
[i] Leslie McCartney and Gwich’in Tribal Council, Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed/Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih Stories from the People of the Land (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020).
[ii] Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, Into the Next Millennium: The Five-Year Plan of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, 1996–2001 (Tsiigehtchic: Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, 1996).
[iii] Ibid, 12.
[iv] H. David Brumble III, American Indian Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
[v] Anthony Mattina, ed., The Golden Woman: The Colville Narrative of Peter J. Seymour, trans. Anthony Mattina and Madeline DeSautel (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985, 9).
[vi] Gwich’in Enrolment Board, Jijuu: Who Are My Grandparents? Where Are They From?: Our People, Our Names: A Genealogy/History of the Teetł’it Gwich’in of Fort McPherson (Fort McPherson: Gwich’in Enrolment Board, 1998).