Gwitch’in people from all across the North have gathered in Old Crow this week to remember one of their strongest leaders.
“We’ve had about 50 people come over from the Northwest Territories and a number of people from Alaska to participate in the celebration of life of John Joe Kyikavichik,” said Darius Elias, standing to the side of the funeral procession in Old Crow on Thursday.
Officially, Kyikavichik was a chief and a councillor. As an elder, he was formally recognized for his contributions to the Yukon and for his work to preserve First Nations’ visions. And as a younger man, he was part of the delegation that traveled to Ottawa to sign and present the landmark document, Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow.
But to the people of Old Crow, and many others across the North, he was a friend, leader and a role model with a great sense of humour.
Kyikavichik was married to Sarah Tiyza Kyikavichik, had six children, twelve grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
“When I was a kid, he was at every single meeting, always speaking up and letting people know about his experiences on the land and giving direction and gentle guidance to the youth,” said Elias. “He was such a real, Vuntut Gwitch’in role model.”
Kyikavichik passed away on August 28. He was 86 years old.
“He was such a pillar of strength for our community over the years,” said Elias, noting Kyikavichik’s words about the land will be the ones he remembers most.
“He always said, ‘Our water, our land, our wildlife is so important and we’re rich people as long as we can dip a cup into the Porcupine River and drink it with confidence.’”
But Kyikavichik was more than just wise, he was able to help conflicting people find common ground, said Elias.
He remembers heated meetings in the community, years ago, when discussions were underway regarding protection of the area along the Porcupine River, where the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans built their branch office.
“We had half the room filled with pro-development and half was people for protection and people that wanted a balance in the middle,” said Elias. “And I remember he had such grace under pressure. He just made some phenomenal speeches that I consider so invaluable today and I consider him instrumental in that whole process in securing the watershed.”
But above all, Kyikavichik shone when he spoke to the youth – whether it was when he took his grandchildren out hunting and trapping, or when he shocked non-aboriginal students from the South, breaking a trapped muskrat’s neck in front of them and then serving it to them for dinner.
Elias got to grow up with Kyikavichik as a nextdoor neighbour and he considers himself blessed to call him a personal mentor.
“He always conveyed to the youth that the work that we do today is not for us,” said Elias. “He always said that it’s for those people who are yet to be born yet.
“He was a visionary, to say the least. Words can’t describe the contribution he’s made to our people.
“His legacy is going to live on. His hard work is done now and we have to carry it on.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at