An elder’s take on the Peel

I live in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories. I'm 78 years old and I want to say something concerning the Peel River watershed that we are having a problem with.

by Charlie Snowshoe

I live in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories. I’m 78 years old and I want to say something concerning the Peel River watershed that we are having a problem with.

As a child, I remember my parents moving up to the mountains and all the McPherson people go up, way up the Peel River and they live around there all winter until spring time. When I was something like five years old, we took off from our camp 35 miles above. My dad had two dog teams and he put my brother and I, he’s younger than I am, on one team.

And that off and on, that is what I remember, and we ended up around Hungry Lake. I think about that time, John Martin’s family moved from Mayo to the people of Fort McPherson and they ended up in Aklavik.

I remember that one time there, when my dad and those went to Dawson and they come back. Another thing I remember was when we are moving we had our older cousin Peter Vittrekwa living with us. Sometimes I would ride in his sled. Then I had an auntie who – one time or another – put me in the sled and I would have a ride with them. Moving around, you just don’t stay in one place, you got to move around wherever the caribou are.

I remember that second winter we were there, we had a little bit of hard time, but we ended up having a good time, getting caribou meat and stuff like that. And at one time, my cousin that was living there with us and two sisters there, they were going to go for wood and they asked me to come along with them and my mother hooked up one big dog on the sled and we went for wood up in the mountain where there is small dry wood. They loaded my sled up and I came back home.

And that was my first spanking, my first whipping I got because the next day I woke up and I wanted to haul wood – you know how a little guy can bother and bother – so my dad got fed up with me and took a little brush. It didn’t hurt me but it scared me, made me shut up anyway.

I remember all that and another thing too, I remember when we were coming back late in spring. About 50 miles from here is a little waterfall, it was really warming up, water was running down that fall and there was a guy there having lots of fun, telling people to go down there. At the end, 20 miles from here, one of our elders by the name of Peter Alexie lost his wife, I remember that when I was a kid.

So this is something I want to bring to your attention: my memory about that time. And when I was six years old, I was sent to residential school. I could have been a real Yukoner but I was sent to school until I was 15 years old, in Aklavik, Northwest Territories. But, I knew, that my people were still moving around through the Peel River watershed, because they had a lot of stories about that.

I hear a lot of stories from the elders saying that they moved around and they stay in certain places to get caribou here and there and moose and everything. And one of the things is that when I came out of school, there is certain people in Fort McPherson that always go up in the Yukon to trap, some go up the Peel River, 150 miles. The first trip, I didn’t know how to trap, but I was up there with my dad. Two brothers were there, George Robert and John Robert, and we stayed there until Christmas. Right after Christmas they went back up again. And that was my first year, in 1951. I know that my people always used to live up in the Peel River watershed.

And another example I would like to give you was that there was one, two, three, four families, that lived right in the Yukon year-round. The only time they came to town, like everybody else, was first of July, Christmas and New Year. Outside of that those three families stayed along the Peel River. Peter Alexie, he used to stay 125 miles up the Peel, he had a camp there. His brother Abraham Alexie stayed 75 miles above Fort McPherson, just inside the Yukon Territory. And then there is old George Robert and John Charlie, they all raised their family there, right in the Yukon. Some of them are still living.

This is something not too many people talk about and it’s too bad that we are having this mix-up now, it should have happened when all the elders were still living with us. And this is something I want to share with you, in knowing what I know, that this is the reason that the people of Fort McPherson and Mayo, Dawson, Old Crow have put up a land-use plan in order to protect the Peel watershed.