River recognized
Gwitch'in section of Mackenzie River becomes tourism area

by Glen Korstrom
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 09/98) - A 100-kilometre stretch of the Mackenzie River was recognized in January as a national historic site.

The honor goes to the segment between Thunder River and Point Separation, a part of Canada's longest river the Gwich'in call Nagwichoonjik.

Still to come is a trilingual plaque in Tsiigehtchic and several interpretive markers along the route, informing tourists about the lives of the Gwichya Gwich'in, their culture and the role of the river in their history.

Though more than 775 national historic sites now dot Canada, few stray north of 60 degrees and none span as much territory as this one does.

"The Gwich'in thought this was a strange concept," says Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute director Ingrid Kritsch.

Designating one piece of land as more historically important than another didn't make that much sense to them, she says. "How can you choose one place to represent your whole culture?"

Kritsch says Parks Canada realized in 1993 that few sites represented aboriginals, women and other cultural communities and in October of this year set out to redress the imbalance.

Officials approached the Gwich'in to see if they were interested in identifying historically significant places through the national historic sites process, and elders responded positively.

Meanwhile, the recognition will help the Gwich'in sustain their oral history, most of which revolves around the Mackenzie River, or Nagwichoonjik.

As elder Noel Andre sees it, each part of the river has its own story and this recognition can only remind his own people about their heritage.

"People don't fish much, they just take what they need," Andre says of fishers today. "I used to see parents fish so they would have enough dry fish to last all winter."

Animals and people were equals in several tales, Andre says. Animals had the power of speech and could assume various shapes and outward forms.

Andre admits that he has "never seen that" in real life, but he still knows the stories that form much of Gwich'in culture.