Gwich'in people from Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska are gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, this week as the community hosts the biennial Gwitchin Gathering.
"It's going to be a bit transformative for our nation," said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow.
He said the week-long gathering is expected to culminate in the signing of a Gwich'in Accord that will help coordinate efforts across the Gwich'in nation on a range of issues.
The Gwich'in Nation lives at the northwestern limits of the boreal forest. It has been fighting to protect caribou habitat for years, most recently in the U.S.
Tizya-Tramm and other Gwich'in leaders told American legislators in 2019 that if they allowed oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), it would devastate caribou, and amount to "cultural genocide."
"If you drill in this sacred place, it will destroy the caribou, and therefore destroy the Gwich'in," Tizya-Tramm said.
Oil and gas leases that had been granted in the ANWR before the last U.S. election in November 2020 were suspended pending a new environmental review that was announced in August 2021.
Make 'our own decisions'
Tizya-Tramm said Friday that other issues, such as health and wellness, salmon and climate change in general, are becoming increasingly important for the Gwich'in Nation.
"We really need to be making our decisions as a nation on these issues because if we don't, other nations will make the decisions for us," said Tizya-Tramm.
Only 51 chinook salmon had passed by Old Crow's sonar station so far this year, Tizya-Tramm said, compared to 6,000 in the past.
"There is now a climate change clock that is ticking over all of our heads that wasn't there in the '90s to the 2000s."
He said meetings will take place every day during the week-long gathering in which anyone, a youth, an elder or a chief, can speak.
He added the Gwitchin nation is evolving and becoming stronger.
"It's something really humbling to watch as someone who now intimately understands that democracy is a verb, it is not a noun," said Tizya-Tramm.