A Special Gathering With The Gwich’in

I recently returned from Tsiigehtchic in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where I had the honor of attending the biannual Gwich’in Gathering.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to visit other Gwich’in villages and events in Old Crow, Canada, as well as Arctic Village, Fort Yukon and Venetie in Alaska, but something about this particular trip felt different.

Tsiigehtchic, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. (Earthjustice)

Perhaps it was the difficult time and growing challenge we face. Perhaps it was the incredibly serene, remote and beautiful location of the meeting at the confluence of the Arctic Red and Mackenzie rivers. However, I suspect more than anything, the difference was my own openness to learning the lessons afforded from spending several days with such a proud and wise people. Now that I’m back East, immersed again in the daily Washington, D.C., deluge, I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from our Gwich’in friends.

Members of the Gwich’in Nation light a sacred fire. (Earthjustice)

Here are five simple take-aways from my time in Tsiigehtchic:

1. Respect our elders.
The Gwich’in respect their elders in a way that goes beyond acts of simple consideration, such as letting someone have a seat or eat first, though they always do these things too. When they speak, they introduce themselves by sharing who their grandparents and parents are. They ask elders to start every meeting with words of guidance and with a prayer. They ground everything they say and do in their culture and teachings handed down to them. It made me think how often I acknowledge my own history and where I came from. How can I carry the strength of my own traditions and past into my life today?

2. Live a life of joy.
Tsiigehtchic, like many Gwich’in villages, is remote with only one small store. The cost of basic goods and services is incredibly high. The winters are harsh. However, the joy, love and affection they show to one another is palpable. I watched children of all ages play together for hours on the playground with no electronic devices in view. I watched elders join young people in song and dance lasting deep into the night.

Dancing and celebration lasted deep into the night during the Gathering. (Earthjustice)

And I watched people, separated by the modern day artificial boundaries of territories, states and countries and the expense and difficulty of travel, embrace one another as family, as brothers and sisters bonded by history, culture, tradition and community. As Samuel Alexander, a Gwich’in from Fort Yukon said, too often we judge communities as rich or poor based on things like unemployment rate or income. In a subsistence culture, especially one as joyful and steeped in tradition as the Gwich’in, that is not an adequate measure of wealth.

3. Be present.
The Gwich’in do not show impatience when they sit in meetings. They do not stare at their devices or think about what they will say when they get their turn. They speak from the heart and with great purpose. Everyone has a voice and no voice is silenced. It is certainly different from how we conduct “western” business, both because of the pace of deliberation and, more significantly, because the intent is to make true connections more than to merely transact business. When the Gwich’in took up a resolution to reaffirm their unified support for protecting the calving grounds on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain, I listened as speaker after speaker spoke of this “sacred place where life begins,” about their own identity, about their security and told their stories of hunting and living off the riches of the land. There was a lot of emotion but I had the sense that with each speaker came heightened spirits, a deeper resolve and – by the end – a nation had come together in a more powerful way.

4. Be generous.
All of us “outsiders” who were there – from other environmental advocates to photographers to those just passing through – were treated incredibly well. We were fed delicious food, given the honor of speaking and allowed use of facilities without a request for anything in return.

Visitors to the Gathering were offered warm food and warmer smiles. (Earthjustice)

However, what really stood out for me was how the Gwich’in took up almost daily collections. There were collections for those who recently lost a loved one and even for a visiting Ecuadorian Native who came to share his experiences with oil drilling in the Amazon. A young Gwich’in woman shared a story with me of killing her first caribou and donating the meat for a funeral in a different village for people she didn’t even know.

5. Take the long view.
Vuntut Gwich’in councilor Dana Tizya-Tramm, in a particularly compelling moment, said: “The Vä No Glitt (they become many among us), our white brothers have lost their way. They trade the infinite for the finite.”

The Gwich’in have seen and endured much in their history. They are one of the oldest peoples in North America, going back tens of thousands of years. I was hugely honored to be there with them representing Alaska Wilderness League. After I had a chance to speak to the gathering, an elder I had never met warmly embraced me, and I could see in her teary eyes deep gratitude and appreciation. However, I left the gathering feeling that I am the one who should be grateful. I am grateful for my short time with our friends, for their teachings and for the renewed spirit, full heart and heightened resolve they have given me. There is no word for “goodbye” in the Gwich’in language. And for me, having returned to Alaska Wilderness League last October after years away and returning again to the biannual Gwich’in Gathering – something I never thought I would do – that now makes perfect sense.

We are proud to stand with the Gwich’in, and we remain more determined than ever to ensure oil rigs never invade the calving grounds on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain.