Gwich'in across northern Canada and Alaska will now be more coordinated and unified in efforts to tackle collective issues like climate change, threats to salmon and caribou and lateral violence.
Attendees of the 2022 Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, voted in favour of passing the Gwich'in Nation Accord, or Gwiyiinji ILak Hah T'igweedi'yaa Sriinatr'igwihee'aa — "We Will Act With One Mind To Make Things Right" — on Friday.
The four-page document affirms commonalities and objectives among Gwich'in, such as a spiritual and cultural connection to the land and water and the right to exercise and promote traditional laws and culture.
It also lays out eight joint priorities — nation connection, cross-border mobility, climate change, language revitalization, healing, ending lateral violence, salmon and caribou — and how to address them. Among other things, it commits Gwichi'in leaders to meeting twice a year, promises the creation of a working group with representatives from each community to push forward language revitalization efforts, pledges the organization of a healing summit to address drug, alcohol and gambling addictions and assures united efforts to protect caribou and salmon.
The accord the first document of its kind.
"I think history was made today," First Chief Karma Ulvi of Eagle, Alaska, later told CBC.
"It was, I think, such a milestone for all of us to come together and work together to benefit our people."
The accord was drafted throughout the week-long Gwich'in Gathering. The event, which is typically held every two years, sees Gwich'in travel to a community in Alaska, the Yukon or the Northwest Territories to discuss and vote on how to manage some of Gwich'in's pressing issues as well as celebrate Gwich'in culture.
The gathering in Old Crow came after a four-year hiatus, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing organizers to cancel the 2020 edition.
'It's a step in the right direction'
The reading of and voting on the accord was the culmination of the 2022 gathering, with 56 people, after hours of discussions and revisions Friday morning, raising their hands in favour of its adoption and no one in opposition.
Shawn Bruce, a citizen of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, was among the people who voiced concerns prior to the vote, saying he thought the wording could be more assertive in some sections, though he ultimately voted to adopt it.
"I read it and I read it over and over, but it's a step in the right direction and I believe down the road we'll add to it, make it stronger," he said. "It's just the first step and I'm always happy to support the first step for anything."
In a closing speech Friday, Gwich'in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik said the gathering, and ultimately, the accord, was "about renewal and revitalization, of who we are as Gwich'in, of our culture, our history and where we're going into the future."
"This is about unity, bringing our nation together," he said, adding that while some Gwich'in First Nations or communities have tried to strike out on their own, having a cohesive vision and plan was the most effective way forward.
"Yes, you can go faster by going alone, but as we all know and for those who have lived on the land, you can go much further by going together," he said.
The accord does not prevent individual First Nations, communities or tribes from creating or administering their own plans, declarations, resolutions or laws.
'The rebirth of our nation'
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm described the document as a "buttress" to previous collective Gwich'in efforts and work.
"This accord, I think, is the rebirth of our nation in certain respects … I really hope that future generations look back at this accord and see the work and see our desires and hopes and dreams and that we were thinking of them," he told CBC.
"Our elders led the foundation with our agreements and this is us building upon that."
Tizya-Tramm also said the accord was a "living document," meaning it can be updated and revised as existing priorities change or new priorities and issues arise.
Gwich'in leaders will meet in the Northwest Territories in October for a caribou summit focused on the harvesting of the Porcupine caribou herd in accordance with Gwich'in knowledge and values.