The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI) was established by the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) as its cultural and heritage arm following the signing of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement in 1992 as part of the establishment of a number of organizations to address the responsibilities outlined in the Agreement. The GSCI was also established to address concerns about the decline in Gwich’in language and culture. Beginning operation in September 1993, the GSCI was responsible for matters relating to Gwich’in heritage resources as outlined in the Agreement, specifically Chapter 25, and Chapter 9 of Appendix C which relates to the Yukon Transboundary Agreement. The Institute had a mandate “to document, preserve and promote the practice of Gwich’in culture, language, traditional knowledge and values.”
From 1993-2016, the GSCI operated as a non-profit organization under the GTC and had registered charitable organization status. It was governed by a Board of Directors made up of seven to eight representatives from the GTC and the Gwich’in communities of Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic. The GSCI was led by an Executive Director who reported to the GSCI Board of Directors. The GSCI’s first Executive Director was Ingrid Kritsch (1993-1998), followed by Alestine Andre (1998-2000), Grace Blake (2001-2002), Leslie McCartney (2002-2003), Dolly Carmichael (2004-2005) and Sharon Snowshoe (2005-2016). Among GSCI’s long term staff were Ingrid Kritsch (Executive Director 1993-1998, Research Director 1998-2016); Alestine Andre (Cultural Director 1994-1998, Executive Director 1998-2000, Heritage Researcher 2001-2016); Kristi Benson (TK Coordinator 2004-2006, Traditional Knowledge/Heritage/GIS Specialist 2007-2016); and Sharon Snowshoe (Executive Director 2005-2016). The GSCI operated multiple offices: a head office in Tsiigehtchic, a research office in Yellowknife, an Executive Director office and language office in Fort McPherson (the former from 2006-2016), and other outpost offices as needed. In April of 2016, the GSCI became the GTC’s Department of Cultural Heritage which continues the GSCI’s mandate and work within the Gwich’in Settlement Region.
The GSCI’s mandated responsibilities included documenting, preserving and promoting the Gwich’in language, conducting research on Gwich’in social and cultural heritage and developing related programming. In regards to the claim, GSCI’s responsibilities included implementing the heritage resources chapters of the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement which included the repatriation of Gwich’in heritage materials and knowledge, the recognition, protection and management of Gwich’in historic and cultural sites, and the nomination of Gwich’in place names for official recognition. Developing and implementing GTC policies relating to research including the GTC’s Traditional Knowledge Policy and the GTC Burial Sites Guidelines were also important responsibilities.
The GSCI worked with researchers, Gwich’in communities and organizations, other First Nations, government departments and agencies including museums and archives, independent filmmakers, and media outlets such as the CBC to develop, organize and conduct approximately 120 research projects, many of which were conducted on the land. Types of research projects the GSCI conducted or was involved with included oral history, place names and traditional knowledge projects, ethnoarchaeological projects, material culture revitalization and repatriation projects, genealogy projects, ethnobotany projects, ethnoastronomy projects, and Elder’s biography projects. The GSCI also conducted climate change projects related to impact on heritage resources, traditional knowledge research associated with major proposed development such as the Mackenzie Gas Project, and a variety of Species at Risk research projects. Science, culture and language immersion camps involving community members, youth, professionals and graduate students were also important educational initiatives carried out by GSCI. Language documentation and recording were integral to these projects and camps and they often involved audio or video recording of interviews, workshops and other events, as well as extensive photography. In addition, the GSCI contributed to the development of the Gwich’in Language Plan and worked with the Gwich’in Language Centre and was involved in its administration. This work generated many publications, including books, dictionaries and language materials, curriculum materials, a cybercartographic place names and story atlas and database, place name maps, posters, videos, museum exhibits, and online exhibits and resources.
The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement outlined provisions and responsibilities for the GTC in regard to land use, archaeological and heritage resource permits, and a Traditional Knowledge Policy was created by the GTC and the GSCI to guide research in the Gwich’in Settlement Region. The GSCI was responsible for implementing the Traditional Knowledge Policy, among other polices, and for reviewing and regulating Gwich’in traditional knowledge research, developing research guidelines and consent forms, incorporating Gwich’in traditional knowledge into programming and policy and communicating the policy and the rights of Elders and participants with research participation. To these ends, the GSCI was involved in the development of a traditional knowledge policy that related to Gwich’in traditional lands in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, provided input into land use planning and management with other organizations, reviewed land use and research licence and permit applications, entered into research and data sharing agreements with researchers, assisted researchers, and received project and produced materials from researchers. Consequently, the GSCI became the major repository of all Gwich’in traditional knowledge research materials in the Gwich’in Settlement Region.
Under the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Teetł’it Gwich’in (under the Yukon Transboundary Agreement) are to be consulted by government concerning cultural and heritage resources and matters. The GSCI was responsible for this consultation and engagement with government and engaged with departments, agencies, boards and commissions of the Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Government of Yukon, plus Yukon First Nations in the transboundary areas. This consultation related to legislation, research, heritage, language, education and curriculum, funding and environmental protection.
Repatriation projects undertaken by the GSCI included the identification of Northern Athapaskan and Metis materials in national and international repositories, the repatriation of Gwich’in knowledge from the Dene Nation Mapping Project conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, and the repatriation of traditional skills and the creation of replicas of traditional 19th C. Gwich’in caribou skin clothing.
The GSCI’s work for the recognition, protection and management of Gwich’in historic and cultural sites included work with other Gwich’in organizations and governments in developing a vision and management plan of the Gwich’in Territorial Park and conducting oral history, place name, archaeology, and ethnobotany projects in the park. The GSCI also undertook burial site mapping and recognition projects and undertook nomination projects to have Gwich’in heritage sites and rivers designated as national and territorial historic sites and Canadian Heritage Rivers. These nominations came out of GSCI place name and oral history research projects, with the GSCI playing significant roles in the planning and management of these sites. The GSCI successfully nominated eight Territorial Historic Sites and one new National Historic Site and advocated successfully for the revision of the plaque text for the Fort McPherson Historic Site, already designated as a National Historic Site for its role in the fur trade, to include its importance to the Gwich’in. The cultural and heritage research the GSCI carried out also generated a comprehensive heritage inventory of culturally significant heritage sites and places in the Gwich’in Settlement Region that GSCI helped to recognize, protect, and manage in a manner consistent with Gwich’in values. This is being carried out through protective measures in the Gwich’in Land Use Plan and the designation of Territorial and National Historic Sites.