Vuntut Gwitchin look to correct mismarked cultural sites in final land claim agreement

The Vuntut Gwitchin in northern Yukon say eight culturally significant sites were mismarked in their final agreement.

Amendment would not affect hunting rights of Gwich’in Tribal Council members

Earlier this week, members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Gwich'in Tribal Council met in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to discuss correcting the locations of four culturally significant sites in the Vuntut Gwitchin final agreement. (Submitted by Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan)

The Vuntut Gwitchin in northern Yukon want to make corrections to their final land-claim agreement related to eight mismarked culturally significant sites in their traditional territory.

The First Nation signed the document in 1995, which includes 56 site-specific parcels of culturally significant settlement lands such as traplines, fish camps and grave sites that are scattered throughout their traditional territory. 

But a year after the final land-claim agreement was signed, the First Nation learned eight of those sites were described in the wrong location.

Earlier this week, members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation met with the Northwest Territories' Gwich'in Tribal Council in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to discuss correcting the locations of four of those sites in their land claim's final agreement. Members of the federal and Yukon governments were also there.

"It wasn't a loss or a gain of land for either First Nation … just a correction to some of the lands that were designated as site-specific in the '90s," said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.

Tizya-Tramm says elders who helped select the sites used topographical maps. When surveyors went out to mark the sites, they weren't in the exact location.

Members from both organizations reviewed maps produced for the final agreement, which showed some sites in the wrong location. (Submitted by Bobbi-Jo Greenland-Morgan)

"If you grab a dog team out in the middle of the blizzard at midnight, these elders can bring you to these key areas. But when you are pointing on topographical maps that are robbed of the landmarks, being able to discern these exact areas becomes very difficult," Tizya-Tramm explained.

Tizya-Tramm says around 2016, his First Nation reached out to the Gwich'in Tribal Council to begin the consultations on amending their final agreement. 

"It's been a long road," said Tizya-Tramm.

"These are simple adjustments," he said. "This gives us power and leverage to work with one another to create reciprocal agreements and really push our First Nations forward in partnership."

Some members worried

During this week's meeting, there was curiosity and some confusion among members of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, said Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan. 

Some people worried they could lose their harvesting rights in parts of Yukon. Others thought the sites to be corrected were "huge," she said.

"Our membership should understand that there is no land being lost here by either party, by Gwich'in Tribal Council or Vuntut Gwitchin," said Greenland-Morgan. 

She said the land to be amended is about the size of Old Crow's airport terminal strip, about 16 hectares. 

Greenland-Morgan said both First Nations also talked about how to strengthen their family ties and their ancestral connections.

Leaders of the two Gwich'in organizations plan to meet again next week in Ottawa while they're there for other meetings.

The changes will need to be approved by local leadership, then by all other parties to the agreement — including the Yukon government and the federal government.

With files from Mackenzie Scott