Science binds people of the big river

The Yukon River begins in the trickling glacial streams of Atlin, gathers strength from the Yukon's and Alaska's rivers and lakes, and then pours into the Bering Sea at a flow rate of 28.3 million litres of water per second.

The Yukon River begins in the trickling glacial streams of Atlin, gathers strength from the Yukon’s and Alaska’s rivers and lakes, and then pours into the Bering Sea at a flow rate of 28.3 million litres of water per second.

“That’s a tremendous amount of water,” said Bryan Maracle, science director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.

More than the mighty Mississippi gushes out, he said, adding that the Yukon’s flow is way above normal.

“We’re seeing these large fluctuations (in precipitation),” said Maracle, who works for an organization that is reforming the way science is done in First Nations’ territory.

“We’ve seen record snowfall in the Yukon and now it’s exceptionally dry,” he said.

To figure out what’s happening to the lifeblood of an entire corner of North America is no easy task. The US Geological Survey tried in the mid-1990s, but it ran out of money.

The scale of water-quality research is so massive in this part of the world that a new kind of research organization had to be invented.

The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council saved the day in 1997 when it was created to carry on the geological survey’s work—but its method, philosophy and purpose are far from orthodox.

“This is a first for the scientific community, that a native non-profit is operating on a scale that is almost the size of BC and is doing reputable science,” said Maracle, who hails from the Tyendinaga Mohawk territory in south eastern Ontario.

Seventy aboriginal governments, tribes and band councils are members of the council, with the Kaska Tribal Council, the Dease River First Nation and the Daylu Dena Council joining this past weekend at the council’s seventh biennial summit held at Helen’s Fish Camp north of Whitehorse.

At 35 monitoring points – like the one at Pilot Station, Alaska where the river output rate was calculated – local First Nations dunk nine empty bottles into the river and take samples.

Some samples have to be treated with chemicals. Some have to be warmed up. And most need to be carefully stored to remain at the temperature they were taken in.

The community researchers do this between seven and 10 times a year, said Maracle. Then the samples are sent to the council’s scientists in Anchorage where the data can be posted and shared.

The complex “living” network of First Nations and scientists is huge, complicated and effective.

“I’m not aware of any operational network for data collection in universities that are doing what we do,” said Maracle.

The science is simple and straightforward, he said.

“But the scale that we’re operating on is way out of the box.”

The 3,700-kilometre-long river has been a provider of food and life for thousands of years. It was the backbone of early settlements throughout the continental northwest.

But it has also become the aggregate dumping ground of military, industrial and municipal waste—making scientific data on its chemical composition and flow patterns indispensable to returning it to full health.

A typical, run-of-the-mill research project couldn’t be in so many places at once, and be doing it over a long enough time to find anything.

“Grassroots organizations or beneficiary-driven work is the way to get anything done well,” said Rob Rosenfeld, a founder and director of the council.

In other words, if the project isn’t for and by the people around it, the endeavour won’t get off the ground.

“The development industry in Africa, Asia and South America has for many, many years tried top-down structures which clearly didn’t work,” he said.

The council has normally been funded by grants until a few years ago when it ran low on money. Now the various First Nation governments and tribes fund the council, keeping it grassroots.

“We don’t trust that the federal government will always have the money or the capacity to take care of any of our needs,” said Rosenfeld.

The council has performed massive clean-up projects, and lobbies against more pollution.

The amount of spills to monitor is staggering.

“The US military has left incredible amounts of contaminants throughout the entire Yukon River Watershed, including here in Canada,” said Rosenfeld.

“The Champagne/Aishihik First Nation has found Agent Orange on its lands, left behind from building the road system,” he said. “In Lake Laberge, there’s a lot of military shells and a lot munitions that have been found.”

Galena, Alaska is sitting on 757,082 litres of spilled hydrocarbons while oil drums litter the entire watershed after a century of negligence, said Rosenfeld.

The focus on pollution stems from the council’s principles, which incorporate an aboriginal worldview to steer the direction of the scientific research, said Maracle.

To do this, the mysticism around western science had to be removed, reducing to it to a bare bones tool for gathering information, he said.

Traditional knowledge—

at least in respect to the collective First Nation memory of the land’s behaviour and health—is not considered a data set on par with scientifically researched facts.

“So our focus is on beginning with traditional knowledge and beginning with what questions we should be asking; we develop our questions of concern,” he said.

The oft-brandied about term for this kind of scientific integration is “science that fits a human need,” he said.

The scientific principles are aboriginal because the outlook is different. The need that the science sets out to satisfy isn’t simply to produce a better product or a more effective machine—it is confined to the well-being of the people around the research.

“These needs are not truly anthropocentric but holistic,” said Maracle.

At last weekend’s meeting, First Nations travelled from across North America to see the council’s work, which was hung and displayed along the walls of a big top tent.

Delegations from the Onondaga Nation in New York state and the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission attended, as did a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, Suzette Kimball, who is head of the US Geological Survey.

“There’s a lot of desire to feel empowered,” said Maracle. “We’ve had a lot of interest from other watershed group coming to us and asking, ‘How are you doing this?’”

Getting First Nations and tribes to answer their own needs instead of the demands of existing agencies has been a council success story.

“The unity amongst the people of the river embodies what we’ve able to achieve,” said Maracle.

“Unity is power.”

Contact James Munson at