ten days in old crow, yukon
February 26, 2010
I am thinking about a beautiful place at the top of Canada, and missing the people who live there.
For the first ten days of February, I lived and worked in Old Crow. The village of about 300 people is located north of the Arctic Circle on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 800 kilometres north of Whitehorse. It is the only fly-in community in the Yukon, tucked inside the immense territory of the Van Tat Gwich’in. [If you’re looking for the community online, the other recognized spelling is Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Their traditional lands spread into Alaska, up to Herschel Island on the Arctic coast, and across the mountains to Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories.]
I arrived at a sad but important time in Old Crow’s winter.
The northern Yukon’s best-loved and most famous writer, Edith Josie died on January 31st at the age of 88. Edith devoted her long life to documenting daily happenings in Old Crow. Her column, Here Are the News, appeared in the Whitehorse Star for forty years and was syndicated to newspapers in Edmonton and Toronto. Edith’s stories appeared in translation around the world in languages as diverse as Finnish and Italian. The people of Old Crow cancelled all other activities to prepare a traditional funeral.
I had admired Edith from a distance for many years, and so I felt honoured to meet her family, attend her funeral in the old log Anglican church, and celebrate her life at a community feast with people from all over the Yukon, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. I’ve been writing a story about the moving way that people in Old Crow say goodbye to elders, and to Edith Josie in particular. I will never forget our long walk to her gravesite, or the loving words at her feast.
Community members gathered again a week later to celebrate the publication of People of The Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders an impressive oral history collection, carefully assembled through interviews with elders out on the land, exhaustive transcription and translation into English.
This comprehensive project began in January, 1999. The book is a significant achievement for Old Crow elders and the heritage team that delivered their stories to readers. Full of colour photographs, it covers 150 years of Van Tat Gwich’in history and overflows with fascinating yeenoo dai’ googwandak or “long ago stories” about traditional knowledge of every kind.
If 150 years sounds like a long time, it is a spark in the lifetime of this community.
Archaeological evidence suggests the land of the Van Tat Gwich’in might be the site of the earliest human occupation in North America. The record of ancestors in the area can be traced back about 15,000 years.
I came here to find not-so-long-ago stories about children’s experiences in Old Crow. I loved talking with kids at Chief Zzeh Gittlit School and everywhere else in town. I also interviewed adults who had a special childhood story to tell, people like Marla Charlie and her mother Elizabeth Kaye ~ who create exquisite beaded clothing and crafts ~ and Florence Netro who is planning to take school kids and their teachers out on the land this spring for Gwichi’in culture camp.
Inheriting the same love of storytelling, a seven-year-old girl named Madison Lord sat down beside me and invented the funny story of The Baby Moose With the Fake Broken Leg.
I would love to fill this blog with pictures of the great people I met in Old Crow, but I need permission first to publish their photographs. Their stories and pictures will surface in the book I’m writing. Right now I’ll share a few pictures of Marla Charlie’s beadwork, and snapshots of the community, the river and the infinite expanse of land around it.
If you want to visit one beautiful place in Canada beyond the reach of your imagination, find your way to Old Crow. It won’t disappoint you.