Chapter 5 – Yukon Indigenous Peoples and Governance

A Dynamic Future

It is significant that of the over twenty self-government agreements signed across Canada, 11 of them are in Yukon. This is a large number considering that Yukon has some of the smallest First Nation populations in Canada. Many across the country believe that Yukon First Nations are leaders in self-government. They have broken trails that other Indigenous peoples from across the country and the world can, and do, use as examples of better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

It will be an exciting and challenging journey to see the Final Agreements fully implemented across Yukon. As stated in the Mapping the Way Project, “We can see the huge change that only 20 years of self-governance created. Imagine what First Nations will be doing in the next generation” (Yukon First Nation Self-Government 2016).  There are certainly still challenges, particularly when dealing with the varied interpretations of the agreements. And many Indigenous peoples and communities still struggle with the legacy—and ongoing presence—of colonialism in Canada.

However, Yukon First Nations continue to prioritize the cultural legacy they have inherited from their ancestors. As noted in the Yukon First Nation Self-Government Mapping the Way online project, “From the protection and management of Settlement Land, special areas and heritage resources, to the cultivation of intergovernmental relationships within this new governance landscape, implementation of the agreements is ‘dynamic and evolving and continues to shape the Yukon’s present and future’” (Yukon First Nation Self-Government 2012b).

A Unique Approach to Self Government Video Panel Discussions

Figure 5.1 Respected Elders Judy Gingell and Sam Johnston discuss Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow. (Yukon University and Yukon Government 2018).

Figure 5.2 Negotiators Albert Peter, Victor Mitander and Barry Stuart discuss the Umbrella Final Agreement (Yukon University and Yukon Government 2018). 

Figure 5.3 Former Chiefs Hammond Dick of the Ross River Dena Council and David Johnny Sr. of the White River First Nation talk about forging a separate path from the UFA (Yukon University and Yukon Government 2018).

Figure 5.4 Margaret Commodore, Bill Webber, and Charlie Eikland discuss the creation and work of the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians (YANSI) (Yukon University and Yukon Government 2019).

Anthropologists in Yukon: Dr. Paul Nadasdy

Figure 5.5 Anthropologist Dr. Paul Nadasdy (photograph courtesy of Paul Nadasdy).

Nadasdy began doing research in Yukon as a doctoral student in 1995. Having previously spent some time in Alaska, he knew he wanted to conduct research in the North.  Given his interests in First Nations politics and environmental issues, and because Canada was reputed to be a leader in co-management, it seemed like Yukon would be an ideal place to do the research he wanted to do.

One of Paul’s most notable career-related experiences in Yukon was his participant observation with the Ruby Range Sheep Steering Committee (RRSSC). Created in 1995 (shortly after Paul’s arrival in Yukon) in response to Kluane First Nation’s concerns about the sheep population in the Ruby and Nisling ranges, the RRSSC met for the next few years in an effort to develop a set of sheep-management recommendations. Paul was interested in traditional ecological knowledge, its integration with science, and the politics of such efforts, so he attended all the committee’s meetings and interviewed many of its participants. The RRSSC formed the central case study of his book Hunters and Bureaucrats, and his critique of the RRSSC process—and of the project of knowledge-integration more broadly—has been influential in academic, management, and policy circles. Of course, Paul adds, he would not have been able to come up with that critique of the RRSSC if he hadn’t spent a great deal of time with Kluane people out in the bush, talking over coffee, and the like. And the latter activities are much more enjoyable than sitting in meetings…!

For Paul, the benefits of collaboration have been huge: his research simply would not have been possible without it. He sees the kind of ethnographic research he does as being inherently collaborative, in that it depends on people talking with him, taking him out on the land, and letting him sit in on meetings. During his initial period of research (1995-1998), he arrived in Burwash Landing with research questions he had generated on his own, but he changed them as his research progressed, in response not only to the situation on the ground but also to reflect local people’s interests, knowledge, and perspectives. Paul considers this an essential aspect of doing ethnographic research. Paul’s more recent project is collaborative in a more standard sense. It grew in part out of his experience working as a negotiator for Kluane First Nation (KFN) back in 1997–1998 and in part out of conversations he had with Robin Bradasch and others in KFN’s Land Claims Department in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These conversations about the different cultural assumptions that various parties brought to KFN’s land claim and self-government negotiations and the resulting misunderstandings framed the project. Together, they agreed that it would be useful if someone (Paul) wrote about this dimension of the negotiations, especially since not even all of the negotiators seemed to be aware of it.

In preparation for the research, Paul worked with Robin and others to bring some order to KFN’s land claim–related archive. In the process, they uncovered (in plastic bags in the back of a filing cabinet) the nearly 100 tapes KFN had used to record all their final and self-government agreement negotiations from 1995–2002 (and a few from earlier periods of negotiation as well). During his research, Paul received funding from the National Science Foundation (in the US) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research to (1) have all of KFN’s tapes transcribed (copies of the tapes have been deposited in the KFN collection of the Yukon Archives) and (2) return to Yukon for a year (August 2003 to August 2004) to carry out more research on KFN’s land claim process. One valuable part of Paul’s work for KFN that year was to act as their official representative on the Implementation Review Group (IRG). In this capacity, he attended monthly IRG meetings (usually four days/month) from October through July. At the same time, he also attended/observed (again as KFN’s official representative) monthly meetings (two days/month) of the Senior Financial Arrangements Committee, a tripartite body set up under the Yukon Self Government Financial Transfer Agreements.

Paul also conducted extensive research with the files in KFN’s Land Claims Department, examining documents on land claim negotiations, including many types of materials, such as drafts of agreement chapters and maps tabled by all three governments during the course of negotiations. He worked in the Yukon Archives, which contain Yukon government records of the negotiation process. Analysis of these documents has enabled him to better understand the impact that specific historical events, both internal and external to the negotiating process, had upon the negotiations.

During his year working on this project, Paul also conducted 16 semi-structured interviews with negotiators and implementation officials. By that time, his participant observation and archival research had progressed far enough to give him a good idea of exactly what issues he needed to discuss with each interviewee. In these interviews, he elicited interviewees’ perceptions of what took place at the negotiation table, inquired into the nature of their government’s mandating process (and “internal negotiations” that took place within each government), and asked about social relations among the negotiators. He gained an understanding of the social context (social relations, values, and practices) in which government officials work(ed). This enabled him to get a more balanced understanding of the land claim negotiation and implementation processes, as well as a sense of the plurality of approaches to land claims among the government officials most involved in the process.

When asked what the best part of Yukon is, Paul replied, “The land and people. I fell in love with Kluane country, and I have been incredibly fortunate to have spent a good deal of time out in the bush hunting, fishing, trapping, and travelling with experienced and knowledgeable people like Joe Johnson, Douglas Dickson, Dennis Dickson, Dickie Dickson, Agnes Johnson, Peter Johnson, Grace Chambers, Gerald Dickson, Bob Dickson, and Joe Bruneau, all of whom generously shared their time and put up with my less than expert bush skills.” Over the years, Paul has travelled many of the trails and visited many of the cabins and other significant sites throughout the region. Back in Burwash Landing, it still amazes him how incredibly welcoming and friendly people have always been; they took him in as a stranger and have been unfailingly warm and generous. Paul concluded by saying, “Because of the connection I feel to both the land and the people of Kluane country, I can honestly say it feels like I am coming home whenever I crest Boutellier Summit and catch my first glimpse of Kluane Lake below.”



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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Elena Castillo; Christine Schreyer; and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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