Boundaries Among Kin: the Rise of Nationalism Among Yukon First Nations

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By the Northern History Workshop

Over the past 40 years, the indigenous people of northern Canada have engaged the federal and territorial (or, in some cases, provincial) governments in the negotiation of comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements. These modern treaties spell out the nature of government-to-government relations among the signatory governments and grant northern First Nations real (if limited) powers of self-government and a role in the management of northern lands and resources. As a result, First Nation governments across the Canadian north have emerged as significant players in regional politics – and particularly in environmental politics. This is very different from the days, not so long ago, when they lived under the colonialist dictates of the federal Indian Act and had virtually no say either in their own governance or in the management of the lands and resources upon which they depend. Land claim and self-government agreements, then, have clearly empowered northern First Nation people and their governments and helped foster a significant shift in indigenous-state relations.

Empowerment, however, is never simply a matter of “giving power” to formerly disempowered people, as if power were a substance that one could possess only in varying amounts. To the extent that it requires formerly disempowered peoples to alter their personhood and society as a prerequisite for the exercise of that power, “empowerment” must also be viewed as a form of subjection. And, indeed, northern First Nation people have had to restructure their societies in dramatic ways just to gain a seat at the negotiating table. To be heard at all, they have had to frame their arguments in a language intelligible to lawyers, politicians, and other agents of the Canadian state. By and large, this has been the language of territorial sovereignty.

In my chapter, I focus on a central premise of the sovereignty concept: territorial jurisdiction, the idea that governments exercise power and authority within bounded territories. Indeed, sovereign power is fundamentally territorial, a fact that informs commonsense notions of the world as divided up among political entities, each exercising jurisdiction over discrete mutually exclusive territories separated by linear borders. Such a vision of political space implies that to qualify as a government in the first place, a political entity must have jurisdiction over a clearly demarcated territory. This is a vision that clearly informs the Yukon agreements, which carve the territory into fourteen distinct First Nation “traditional territories.”

Although these territories are assumed by many to reflect “traditional” patterns of indigenous land-use and occupancy, indigenous society in the Yukon was not in fact composed of distinct political entities each with jurisdiction over its own territory. Indeed, politico-territorial entities of this sort are quite recent phenomena in the Yukon. Far from reflecting traditional practices, then, the new political map of the Yukon is more appropriately viewed as a legacy of ongoing colonial policies in the territory. Rather than merely formalizing jurisdictional boundaries among pre-existing First Nation polities, it is a tool for creating the legal and administrative mechanisms that bring those polities into being. Thus, although the Yukon agreements do grant First Nations some very real powers of governance, those powers come in the peculiarly territorial currency of the modern state. I examine this process of transformation by focusing on a particularly contentious case of boundary-making in the Yukon: disputes surrounding territorial overlap between the Kluane and White River First Nations.

mapyukonfirstnationsThe territorializing structure of the Yukon agreements – along with the new social and political relations they engender – is transforming how Yukon First Nation people think about and interact with one another and with the land. One of the most important aspects of the transformation wrought by this territorialization is the emergence of multiple ethno-territorial nationalisms among Yukon First Nation peoples. First Nations are increasingly becoming the repositories of ethno-territorial sentiments and loyalties that crosscut – and sometimes now override – relations of kinship and reciprocity that have long structured human-human and human-land relations in the region. I turn to a second case, territorial relations between the Kluane and neighboring Champagne-Aishihik First Nations, to explore the rise of ethno-territorial sentiments and their implications for environmental management. Though it is widely recognized that the Yukon agreements are transforming practices of environmental management, this is not simply because First Nations have been granted a formal role in environmental management. Perhaps even more important is how the process of political territorialization is remaking human-human and human-land relations in the territory.


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