Yukon University’s most prestigious academic awards go to two rural Indigenous women

·4 min read

While there has been a tacit understanding that Indigenous people of the Yukon have contributed to many non-Indigenous people’s PhDs, it is worthy of celebration that Yukon University has bestowed honorary degrees on two accomplished leaders from rural Yukon who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit, preservation and dissemination of Indigenous knowledge.

Ghoóch Tlâ Colleen James from Carcross was the recipient of an honorary bachelor of science; Mary Jane Moses received an honorary bachelor of northern heritage and culture for her work in Old Crow.

Yukon University’s graduation ceremony was held June 4 and the women were among 211 graduating students at the Whitehorse campus.

Honorary credentials are conferred honoris causa, or “for the sake of honor,” and are the highest and most prestigious academic awards a university can offer. Yukon University policy documents state these awards come on a highly selective basis “to distinguished individuals who deserve special recognition for outstanding achievement.”

Both women have made exceptional contributions to their people and their communities by learning and holding language, interpreting cultural practices and translating cultural understandings for a broader and necessary audience. They walk in both Indigenous and Western worlds, and support others to do the same.

On June 1, Yukon University released short biographies on the two recipients, and the following information is gleaned from those summaries.

Mary Jane Moses

Mary Jane Moses is Tetl’it Gwich’in, and originally from Fort MacPherson, Northwest Territories.

For 20 years Moses was the heritage coordinator for the Vuntut Gwitchin Government in Old Crow. She is a filmmaker, mentor, researcher and translator. Over the course of her career, she has contributed to both the Tetl’it Gwich’in and Vuntut Gwitchin communities and has translated and indexed hundreds of Gwich’in interviews.

Her films share Gwich’in stories, celebrating the knowledge of elders and the Gwich’in language, culture, traditional territory and way of life: Imprints of Our Ancestors Parts I and II (2007); Dinjii Shik Trał Tat Gwich’in ~ Man Who Always Lives in the Bush (2008); Nilii Gaii Tr’ahtsii (2009); Caribou, Our Livelihood (2010); Geh eenjit di’tr’iheetl’yaa ~ We Will Set Snares for Rabbit (2010); and Adhòh Tr’ahshii ~ Hide Tanning (2019).

Her work has been critical to the path of cultural revitalization, finding creative ways to link her community to stories (recorded in Gwich’in) and ensuring the knowledge and stories of elders are captured and shared.

Moses mentored youth in the community, and welcomed researchers to the community and helped them orient their work to community needs and appreciation of the local culture.

In doing so, she has contributed to a body of knowledge that has originated out of Old Crow in diverse fields of study from hydrology to human health to biology to palaeontology.

Her accomplishments include contributing to the book People of the Lakes: Stories of our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders/Googwandak Nakhwach’ànjòo Van Tat Gwich’in.

Her biography concludes saying that “Through all her life’s work, Mary Jane has shared Vuntut Gwitchin culture and heritage with her community, with the Yukon and with the world.”

Ghoóch Tlâ Colleen James

James received a honorary bachelor of science for her role as a knowledge keeper, ceremonial leader, cultural ambassador, language protector and teacher. She is Tlingit of the Daklaweidi (Killer Whale) clan, and a citizen of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation.

James is co-author, alongside Eleanor Hayman and Mark Wedge, of the chapter Storytelling water north of the future Héen Kas’él’ti Xoo 1 (among the ragged lakes) within the 2015 book A Political Ecology of Women, Water, and Global Environmental Change.

Presently, amongst many council positions, James is water ambassador and cultural advisor to the work of the Aat á x yaa has na.át. aáni ka heen (How We Walk with the Land and the Water) project, a joint initiative to create a land relationship plan with the three First Nations of Kwänlin Dün, Carcross/Tagish and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council.

Ghoóch Tlâ means wolf mother, and she is a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She is a passionate and articulate speaker, whose prayers and greetings remind people of the importance of understanding and fostering our connections with animals, protecting the land and water and recognizing their importance as integral to all our relationships.

A recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Leadership Ceremony, she is gracious and patient, and serves as a lifelong learner, poet and inspiration to all.

James wrote on Jan. 3 that, “Science and spirituality must travel together in the human heart of the future.”

Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News

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