March 11, 2005

A centuries-old conflict finds another option (Adbusters #59, March, 2005)

North of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Yukon, a town called Old Crow has 300 residents known as the Vuntut Gwitch’in, or ‘people of the lakes.’ Change for the Gwitch’in mostly happens at glacial speed: they still live in small log cabins and hunt the 150,000 caribou that summer on their land. And 24,000 year old tools made of wooly mammoth tusk found near Old Crow make it the oldest known outpost of humanity in North America.

But while Old Crow sits at the edge of civilization, about 50 years ago its people suddenly became part of a more recent global narrative: the war against the world’s indigenous people. When outsiders set foot on ancestral lands across the globe, ‘civilized’ men met indigenous ‘savages,’ and battle lines were drawn. Plagues, wars, famines, cultural destruction, bloody slaughters – all followed that first contact, whether it came 100 or 1,000 years ago. And though the bloodletting has subsided, the conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples is still like a freshly scabbed wound.

But there are signs this centuries-long dispute can be reconciled. Consider the Yukon. In one generation, the territory has transformed from a northern outpost with aboriginal people and racist laws to a center of progressive indigenous politics. Yukon First Nations began demanding rights to their lands at the turn of the twentieth century; the government finally delivered in 1993, with the Umbrella Final
Agreement. The title is bureaucratic but the document is revolutionary: it lays out a process of returning rights and title of traditional territories to 14 Yukon First Nations; sets up a system of self-governance with processes for conflict resolution between indigenous governments and more senior governments; and spells-out ways First Nations – if they choose – can take responsibility for their people’s education, child-care and justice, among other things. And not a drop of blood has been spilled in the process.

Emboldened, Yukon First Nation leaders now speak globally on indigenous issues. Former Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Ed Schultz, was instrumental in creating the Arctic Council, a group of eight circumpolar countries that brings together international leaders – both indigenous and non-indigenous – to discuss common concerns. He’s now looking broader, gunning to become the Yukon’s next Premier. Change is also happening at the grassroots. The Yukon has experimented with traditional justice methods. Take circle sentencing: a circle of friends and family of both an offender and their victim reach consensus not only on how to punish, but how to rehabilitate the offender back to health.

But the healing is not happening quite as quickly within. Many communities remain traumatized from conflicts with Canada’s infamous Department of Indian Affairs. Thousands were stolen and adopted to caucasian families between the 1950s and 1970s; others were shipped to residential schools where they were beaten and raped. The effects span generations: alcoholism is rampant; education levels are low; communities are small and often succumb to personality politics; income gaps between ‘white’ and First Nations people are vast. And today, kids in Old Crow are more interested in Playstation2 than hunting.

The Yukon First Nations, still have a way to go, but their experience points to a promising future. A once self-sufficient people who were made dependant are now being allowed to start picking up the pieces. And their gains have been made not through the power of the gun, but rather the power of persuasion and dialogue.

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