Robert Alexie Jr.'s family has confirmed the author and Gwich'in Tribal Council president was found dead on the Dempster Highway outside of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., on Monday.
Police found the body of Alexie, who had suffered head wounds, near a vehicle.
Alexie, 58, was a major force behind the Gwich’in regional land claim in 1992.
The Gwich'in were the first Dene group to negotiate their own claim after the comprehensive claim — for all five Dene groups and the Métis — collapsed in 1990.
Aklavik mayor Charlie Furlong was with Alexie when he stood up and walked out of the tent during the gathering in 1990.
“We saw it falling apart and also knew that the majority of the chiefs would not support the motion that we were debating,” Furlong recalls.
“Robert took it upon himself, after discussions with some of the key people in our area and among the leadership, that we had to leave.”
After the Gwich’in signed their land claim, the Sahtu and Tlicho regional groups followed with their own regional claims.
“He gave the opportunity for tribal governments to be able to pursue their own goals and objectives to help preserve their language, culture and traditions,” says Furlong.
Born and raised in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., Alexie graduated from Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik in 1974.
He began his career as an observer and communicator at community airports. Later, he completed a public and business administration program and returned to Fort McPherson as band manager for the Tetlit Gwich'in Band Council.
He was elected chief in 1989, and served for two years before being appointed chief negotiator for the Gwich'in land claim.
Alexie spent 13 years as executive director of the Gwich'in Land and Water Board before getting elected president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council in 2012.
In addition to a life in politics, Alexie was also an author, poet, musician and photographer.
“Robert was the type of person who could see the little things in people," Furlong says. "He could see the funny side, he could see the serious side. This was how Robert captured people through the camera.”
His novel Porcupines and China Dolls, about the Indian residential school system, was published in 2002 and The Pale Indian followed in 2005.