Loss of Vuntut Gwitchin elder Joel Peter 'insurmountable'

Joel Peter, a Vuntut Gwitchin elder who died last week, was known for his mastery of bushcraft and work on Gwich'in heritage projects.

Elder was known for his mastery of bushcraft and work on Gwich'in heritage projects

Joel Peter was known for his bushcraft and work on Vuntut Gwitchin heritage projects. He died last week at age 76. (Lance Nagwan)

The death of Vuntut Gwitchin elder Joel Peter is an "insurmountable" loss, according to his relatives and colleagues.

Peter died on Oct. 15 at the age of 76, said his nephew Jeffrey Peter.

Joel Peter was part of the last generation to be raised on the land speaking Gwich'in as his first language, his nephew said.

But Joel Peter also easily adapted to the English language and modern life. 

Jeffrey says his uncle became a mentor to him. His uncle was smart, humble, calm, spiritual, traditional and always genuine, he said. 

Joel Peter in 2016 trapping muskrat in Crow Flat, north of Old Crow. 'This is what he lived for, to be out on the land,' says nephew Jeffrey Peter. (Jeffrey Peter)

He was most at home in the bush, Jeffrey said.

"Living out on the land, being out on the land, hunting, fishing and he was always happy to share his knowledge about those things," said Jeffrey.

"He would never brag about it. He would just show you by actions and that's the traditional Gwich'in way of teaching," he said. 

Friend, uncle, mentor and teacher

Later in his life, Joel began working with the Vuntut Gwitchin heritage centre in Old Crow.

Family member Brandon Kyikavichik had been close to Peter since his early childhood.

"We lost a friend. We lost an uncle, we lost a mentor, a teacher, we lost someone that we cherish very much," Kyikavichik said. 

Kyikavichik said he and Peter worked together on heritage projects in Old Crow for the past 11 years.

Part of that work included using old recordings to recreate, down to the smallest details, what traditional life was like for previous generations.

Peter was a master speaker of Gwich'in, he said. The two of them could work together in almost any dialect.

Kyikavichik said it's an "insurmountable" loss to the community.  

Joel Peter, left, and Brandon Kyikavichik at work on a heritage project. (National Film Board/Our World)

"We, right now, you know especially the people around my age group ... we're just scrambling right now.

"We are right on the very precipice of that transitional period that our elders foresaw decades ago and we're just scrambling trying to save our language, trying to draft laws, trying to protect our lands from development, trying to protect the caribou," he said.

Peter was part of every aspect of that, especially the language, Kyikavichik said.

A funeral service for Joel Peter will be held at St Luke's Anglican Church in Old Crow at 2 p.m on Saturday.