Gwich’in Intimacy in Canada’s North

A Summer Sunset in Yellowknife by Crystal Fraser

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People have asked me to recall some of my most memorable experiences of living in Canada’s North. I was born in Whitehorse, grew up in Inuvik, and lived in Yellowknife as an adult. If you’ve ever been north, every experience is memorable. Everything from being a cross-country skier, to catching my first 25lb++ jackfish, to travelling the land via helicopter and/or dogsled, and learning how to hunt easily come to mind. Of course, there are other fond childhood memories, like digging the famous hole to China in front of my school and falling asleep while walking to school because I was as-snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug in my traditional parka, colloquially known as a mother hubbard. But other times the striking beauty of the land is a simple enough answer.

The idea of place and region did not strike me as important as a young adult – that is until I moved south. Place and people are intimately connected, which is a fundamental premise of my PhD research. I am most interested in the Gwich’in region of the Northwest Territories, in the Mackenzie Delta area, which is comprised of four communities: Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson and Tsiighetchic. I am doing a family history of sorts that investigates the changing nature of intimacy. Scholars of Empire have defined intimacy as encapsulating marriages, sexual relationships, sibling and parental relationships, childbirth and child rearing, as well as violence. But as a Gwich’in woman and historian, Gwich’in notions of intimacy must be considered as well. For example, the Gwich’in have a close and complex relationship with the animal world. Animals are understood as kin and the Gwich’in have been able to shape shift into various animals for centuries. I will examine how these kinds of intimacies changed over time in the twentieth century. Missionaries arrived in the late 1850s on the Gwich’in flats and were the first to interrupt Gwich’in intimate relationships and practices. But the signing of Treaty 11, the ‘discovery’ of oil in Norman Wells, the influx of newcomers (mostly men), changing economies, and the introduction of new technology took its toll on Canada’s Indigenous communities.

By examining written sources and conducting oral interviews, I will ask new questions about intimacy and shed light on the impact of colonization in Canada. I will ask questions about race and gender, the far reaches of Empire, the uniqueness of the region, inter-Aboriginal relations in the Northwest Territories, and the role of Aboriginal men in intimate relationships. My extended family network, my connection to the north, and the general lack of literature on the history of the Gwich’in people serves as my basis for undertaking this sort of study. But I am also motivated to insert myself in political conversations through my work, for I consider myself an Aboriginal feminist who is also an activist. I am concerned with the past, but view History as a tool to answer complex questions of the present.

Having completed my comprehensive exams at the end of January, I am not yet in the thick of my research. So many of my questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, I have embraced the daunting task of learning Gwich’in and keeping close family ties. Last August (2011), I spent a week at my family’s traditional fish camp on the Mackenzie River. It was invigorating to wake up every morning to the sounds of the river and the smell of the rose hips, knowing that it would be a day of hard, but satisfying work. Reflecting on these things was, of course, not before I thanked the bears for staying away during the night. My family and I rewarded them with their own fish treats at the end of the beach everyday – a job that should not be neglected!

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Crystal Fraser

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