Gwich’in elder Edith Josie, the voice of Old Crow, died Sunday of natural causes at the age of 88.
The Whitehorse Star journalist was known around the world for the colourful reports she gave from her isolated, fly-in community.
Josie’s column, Here Are the News, ran for more than 40 years giving Outsiders a look into the day-to-day happenings of the people of Old Crow.
“She had her own unique style of telling stories to people and it really carried through to others,” said her son, William Josie.
Josie wrote exactly the way that she spoke – in broken English with Gwich’in syntax – flavouring her columns with local expressions and a quirky sense of humour.
In one of her first articles she describes the unsuccessful “ratting” (muskrat trapping) in Old Crow Flats that year.
“John Joe Kay and his family and Dick Nukon and family came into town from their ratting camp,” she wrote in the spring of 1963.
“They reported no rats around there but they say too many mosquito. Too bad no prize on mosquito.”
Storytelling was in her blood, but it wasn’t her ability to spin a good yarn that landed Josie a job with the paper. That fell on her by accident.
In 1962, Reverend James Simon and his wife were asked by Whitehorse Star publisher Harry Boyle to find an Old Crow correspondent.
Sarah Simon decided that Josie, unmarried and without a stable income, would be the best candidate.
“When Harry Boyle got her to start, he was really excited about it,” said Star publisher Jackie Pierce.
When her first entry, scribbled on white stationary paper, arrived by airplane, Boyle was taken aback by her writing.
But he resisted editing her work, said Pierce.
“If he had changed her style I don’t think her column would have gone over as much,” said Pierce, explaining that her chatty style is what grabbed audiences.
But it was also what Josie wrote about – traditional ways of trapping, fishing and hunting caribou – that interested people.
“It was so far up north, it was still sort of primitive then … that’s what caught the imagination of people.”
Josie managed to put the tiny northern community of Old Crow on the map.
“People in the South didn’t know there was a community of Old Crow until my mother started writing,” said Josie’s daughter, Jane Montgomery.
Josie grew up in Eagle, Alaska, where she learned to read and write, and moved to the Yukon when she was a teenager.
She walked for six months with her parents and three brothers from Eagle to Whitestone, just southeast of Old Crow. When she moved into the community, Josie lived in an uninsulated two-bedroom log cabin, writing her column at a large plywood table pushed into the corner.
She survived on meat that had been trapped by the men in her community, gathered berries in the summer and hauled her own water.
But, even so, her income wasn’t enough to care for herself and her children.
In August 1963, Josie gave birth to her third son, Kevin, but had to give him away because she didn’t have the money to raise him.
“At 8:30 I had baby boy and he’s 6lb. Miss Edith Josie had baby boy and I give it to Mrs. Ellen Abel to have him for his little boy,” she wrote.
“She was very glad to have him cause he’s boy.”
It was the biggest news to come out of Old Crow that year, wrote Dora Jane Hamblin, a Life magazine reporter so fascinated by Josie that in 1965 she travelled to the Yukon to write an in-depth feature on her.
By the time Hamblin had published the article, Josie’s column had already been picked up by the Edmonton Journal. That was when her financial problems began to disappear.
With the cheques she received from the Journal and the Star each week, she was bringing in twice the money a muskrat pelt snatched in those days.
She was considered the “financial elite” of Old Crow, said Hamblin.
Josie’s column was syndicated in the Toronto Telegram and the Fairbanks News-Miner and was plucked by other newspapers looking to run her column for free.
“Sometimes she would get phone calls from people in the South thinking that she lived in an igloo,” said Montgomery.
“And my mother would just laugh.”
Eventually her work was translated into German, Italian, Spanish and Finnish, prompting fan mail from all corners of the globe.
And then, the awards started to roll in.
She received the Canadian Centennial Award in 1967, the Yukon Historical Museums Award in 1994, the Order of Canada in 1995 and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2000.
But even with all the fame she attracted, Josie remained down-to-earth.
“She handled the attention quite well,” said William Josie.
“She was friendly and would sit down and talk with anyone, really listen to them and give them advice.”
In the ‘90s, Josie began to write less and less. Her columns, which usually came in by plane to Whitehorse every week, began to appear monthly.
Then one day, she stopped writing altogether.
“She just got busier,” said Pierce.
Josie travelled a great deal and continued taking classes from Yukon College well into her 60s, she said.
She loved sharing what she knew with others and was a great teacher to the people in Old Crow, added William.
“One of the things I’m really thankful for is the old stories she has told me,” he said.
Josie passed along her stories to several generations in the community. But it is the young people who will miss her the most, said William.
“Now my daughter will be keeping (Edith’s) storytelling tradition alive,” he said, adding that his daughter quit school to look after her grandmother when she became sick.
Josie had a huge impact on her community.
And she knew it.
“I write my big news. That’s how all of the people know where is Old Crow. Before the news go out nobody know where is Old Crow,” she wrote in one of her columns.
“Just when I pass away, that’s the time my news will cut off.”
Contact Vivian Belik at