‘Unique and irreplaceable’: Gwich’in culture recognized by national registry

Over 300 boxes and two terabytes of digital information await organizing, a process that will take NWT archivists roughly five years to complete.

Erin Suliak and Ingrid Kritsch reviewing documents to be transferred to the NWT archives, March 2019 (Photo courtesy of Sharon Snowshoe)

A team of seven NWT archivists has a big job to do, preserving over 20 years of Gwich’in knowledge.

Gwich’in heritage is being recognized nationally for its “unique and irreplaceable documents” by the Canada Memory of the World Register, a national registry that honours culturally-significant documents.

“It’s a big achievement for us,” says Sharon Snowshoe, director of culture and heritage for the Gwich’in Tribal Council.

“Many of our Elders have passed away and these materials cannot be recreated,” she adds.

In partnership with the registry and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (PWNHC) in Yellowknife, residents far and wide will soon be able to access these meaningful documents online and in-person.

This collection spans from 1993 to 2016.

Archivist Chris Calesso and project manager Elizabeth Ferch in front of the over 300 boxes in the GTC-GSCI collection (Photo courtesy of Erin Suliak)

The goal is to ensure future generations have a way to conveniently access these documents in the hopes of preserving language and culture.

Snowshoe says there was no safe place to keep the documents in Inuvik, so the transition had to be made.

“Things change so fast, even the computer.” Snowshoe also stresses the importance of having these documents go online and keeping up with technology.

“We’re always looking at (new) ways where we could share our material,” she says.

For now, the materials sit in the PWNHC, and “in the future, if we ever get our own buildings to host these materials, then we can get them back into the Gwich’in area.”

Erin Suliak is the head of the archival program and has been working with archives for almost 16 years.

Born and raised in Yellowknife, Suliak has always had a distinct appreciation for learning about Indigenous languages and culture.

“I discovered that I was not a very good linguist. . . But what I could do was I could save the recordings,” she said.

Suliak has been working closely with the Gwich’in Tribal Council for years, something she will continue to do throughout this process.

“To ensure that we’re getting the right descriptions in place, we’re using the appropriate language, we’re making sure that we’re doing everything not only from the archivist perspective but also from the cultural perspective,” she says.

Over 300 boxes of files, photos and recordings, as well as two terabytes of digital information await organizing, a process that will take NWT archivists roughly five years to complete.

“Every box, every file that you uncover has so much richness within it, it’s just such a pleasure and an honour to be able to work on this material and to preserve it and make it safe.”

The next phase of this program requires the linkage between text, visuals and audio.

Kristine McLeod is the deputy grand chief for the Gwich’in Tribal Council.

“I think the youth are doing a really great job of staying engaged, asking the right questions, and they are interested,” she says. “We can do a better job at ensuring that the information that they’re seeking is accessible in a timely manner.”

“This is a crucial component to our ongoing efforts in the preservation and the promotion of our endangered language,” she adds.

For more information visit the PWNHC website here.

About the Author

Mariah Caruso
Mariah Caruso is a digital journalist, originally from Toronto, Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a Hons. Bachelor of Arts and completed her Journalism post-grad at Sheridan College. She has an insatiable appetite for life, storytelling, connecting to the people, and getting to the heart of the issue. On her spare time, you can find her at your local coffee shop writing songs, poetry and prose or at the gym out-lifting men. If you have a story idea, feel free to send her an email at mariah.caruso@cklbradio.com or call 867-766-2552 Ext 108