From our ongoing Arctic Interruptions series, Crystal Fraser examines the role of Indigenous historians as “interruptions” in Northern Canada. Edited by Sara Komarnisky and Lindsay Bell, this series challenges our expectations about the North and opens new windows on its life and history. This series will appear in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs.
Recalling the days of my childhood, I am sitting in a boat on the Nagwichoonjik (Mackenzie River) waiting to embark to my family’s fish camp. The drone of the kicker, slight summer breeze, and unrelenting Northern sun are among my observations, but my anticipation of travelling to Diighe’tr’aajil overwhelms every other thought. This will be the first time I visit my family’s fish camp in more than twenty years, though neither the landscape nor the impending labour seems foreign or unfamiliar. I am here to learn about (and from) the land, my family, and what it means to be Gwich’in in the twenty-first century.
Anthropologist Audra Simpson proclaims her book, Mohawk Interruptus, to be a “cartography of refusal.” Unpacking nationhood, citizenship, and state, Simpson argues that Mohawk communities “are not settled; they are not done; they are not gone. They have not let go of themselves or their traditions, and they subvert this requirement at every turn with their actions” (Simpson, 33). Like the Mohawk, Gwich’in communities are far from being done, far from being settled, and far from being gone. These insights came to me by both spending time on the land and engaging in community-based research.
In this article, I tease apart the nuances of Northern research in the context of twentieth-century histories about Indian Residential Schools in the Northwest Territories. Historical research effectively answers questions about the present: Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Engaging in these pursuits, especially when asking delicate and intimate research questions, reveals far more about Gwich’in and Northern traditions, research, and engagement than I ever thought possible.
In 2013, I travelled to the Gwich’in Settlement Area to undertake a key part of my doctoral research: interviews. University-based training for historians, in the exercise of studying the past according to Western philosophies, places excessive emphasis on the use of archival records. Although there has been a methodological shift in recent years, historians continue to underestimate the full potential of oral narratives. Seeking to bring new perspectives – Indigenous perspectives – into Canadian history, I planned to interview former residential school students, former administrators and teachers, as well as family members about a colonial educational system that largely unfolded over the course of the twentieth century. With the closing of the notorious Grollier Hall in 1996 coupled with the 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Inuvik, incorporating local understandings into national narratives of Canadian history is crucial. I sought insights about education, colonialism, and Indigenous resistance to understand a broader system that attempted to assimilate Indigenous children, reshape familial structures, and implement a capitalist, wage-based economy in a distant region. What I realized, though, is that interviewing and interviews were themselves interruptions.
Being a Gwich’in woman and an historian, I view myself as someone who might be able to provide a space in academia where Indigenous voices, perspectives, and histories might be uncovered and heard. The special relationship I had with those who I interviewed – my research partners – was based on reciprocity; people entrusted me with their experiential historical knowledge, thereby placing a responsibility onto me to analyze their insights and include them in broader historical landscapes. Not only did we interrupt the ways in which “traditional” Western research is generally undertaken, but we also engaged in a process that saw unbalanced community-university power relations crumble; Indigenous people are finally interviewing other Indigenous people. My research partners interrupted the research process as well. As much interviewing as I was doing, I was sometimes the person being interviewed. Gwich’in, Slavey, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Métis, and non-Indigenous Northerners kept me accountable to community concerns, guiding my research questions and ensuring that I was getting the story right.
Some of our interviews were conducted on the land. This was important to many of my research partners and by engaging in laborious activities, conversations arose that answered some of the many questions I had. Gauging what was (in)appropriate, these moments were not the time to dig out the consent forms or university-imposed ethics guidelines. Rather, berry picking, caribou hunting, fishing, driving the Dempster Highway, and hauling water provided windows of opportunity for people to convey their carefully crafted messages to me in a way that was informal, yet rigorous. Their historical expertise and stories from time past cannot be separated from the land and their everyday lives, even though separating people from their land and stories is what residential schools attempted to accomplish. And this is how residential schools and Indian Act policy failed, in part, since many Gwich’in people view their identities as inextricably bound to the land and their surrounding environments.
Engaging in research on the land also provided potently powerful opportunities for me to learn new things, like how to make dry fish, what tendon to cut when butchering a caribou carcass, and how to make weather predictions based on how willows bend in the wind. Since my relatives attended residential schools, my research questions translated into acts of everyday life, providing a platform to interrupt and dismantle the ways I have been taught to understand my world. Further, several Indigenous northerners emphasized that being on the land is a political act in itself. Although our Gwich’in leaders signed Treaty 11 in 1921, we have endured and overcome state agendas that sought to remove us from the land, to relocate us to towns and cities, and to condone violent methods of resource extraction. Simply being on the land is a form of protest in itself. Land is Interruptus, not terra nullius.
As I sat in the boat, waiting to be whisked up the picturesque Nagwichoonjik, I contemplated the sometimes vexed research relationships between universities and Northern communities. The next day, at Diighe’tra’aajil, my Elder and mentor explained the crucial importance of undertaking meaningful work, work that communities can use in important and constructive ways. She explained that bridging the gap between academia and community life is an incredible challenge for most people. But doing meaningful work, working with (and not simply in) communities, and welcoming local voices in research agendas will produce the best, most valuable, and innovative research.
Recently, Gwich’in Elders stated: “Yi’eenoodài’ Yeendoo Gwizhit Gwitèe’ah.” In English, that translates to “Long Ago Will Be in the Future.” Through calculated and continued acts of Interruptus, the trauma of colonialism, dispossession, and residential schools will soon be displaced for northern Indigenous people and we will one day return to our Long Ago Days, a time which presented challenges, but also much happiness and prosperity. As Gwich’in and as Indigenous people, we have not let go. We will continue to subvert, respond, and interrupt – on the land, in communities, and in academia. ◉
 The translation of this Gwich’in place name, Diighe’tr’aajil, is “they took everything away from him,” referring to an occasion when an Inuit man won a gambling match against a Gwichya Gwich’in man and took all of his possessions. This camp continues to be used by Alestine Andre and Itai Katz. Michael Heine et al., Gwichya Gwich’in Googwandak: The History and Stories of the Gwichya Gwich’in (Tsiigehtshik and Fort McPherson, NT: Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, 2007), 305.
Photo credit: “Heading up the Nagwichoonjik to Diighe’tr’aajil, Summer 2013” by Crystal Fraser.