He talks about the mountain like a beloved family member he doesn’t get to see very often.
In Gwich’in it’s called Vinidiinlaii, meaning where the water hits the mountain.
“Lot of people, my people, seen that. And there’s a lot of stories,” says Robert Alexie Sr.
When people in Whitehorse talk about the Peel watershed in northern Yukon and N.W.T., they talk about a vast swath of pristine wilderness the size of New Brunswick. Or they talk about potentially massive, but largely unexplored, mineral wealth.
But sometimes lost between the rhetoric and the politicking are the voices of the people who are so at home in the Peel that they don’t even need a map.
Alexie was born on the land somewhere in the Peel watershed in 1934. His grandfather is buried along the Hart River, not too far downriver from Horseshoe Mountain, he said.
His dad was born in 1887 and his mother in 1892 or 1893, he said. They grew up near the Blackstone River, in the western part of the watershed.
Alexie learned the old stories from them, about travelling around the land in search of caribou.
“That was life, them days. They moved around, they know where the caribou is.
“I hear stories about it. This is the most wonderful thing I heard in my life, is stories about the Peel.”
Vinidiinlaii is one of the most important places to his people, he said.
It’s located on the Wind River just upstream from where it flows into the Peel. In English, it’s called Deception Mountain.
Back in his parents’ day they would often set up camp there for the winter, because the caribou had done the same.
“Lots of people with nothing but tents, and they stay there all winter, and they have good time, and they just live off the land.”
Telling stories about the Peel has been a full time job for Alexie for many years, in both a figurative and a literal way.
In summers he works at the tourist information centre in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., swapping stories of river adventures with visitors from around the world.
In recent years he has also been travelling around the North to meetings to urge the Yukon government to protect the place where his family has lived for millennia.
A plan for the Peel
For the past 10 years Yukon and First Nations governments have been engaged in a land use planning process for the Peel watershed.
The purpose of the plan is to set clear rules about what sorts of industrial activities are allowed where. In theory, this would reduce conflict between First Nations, the Yukon government and resource companies.
The process for land use planning is described in treaties signed by the governments 20 years ago. It’s one of the things First Nations were promised in exchange for handing over title to the vast majority of their territory.
A planning commission spent seven years coming up with a plan that would balance the interests of First Nations, the environment, communities, industry and government.
The four First Nations with territory in the Peel – the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Gwich’in Tribal Council – all asked for the watershed to be completely protected from development.
In 2011 the planning commission recommended a compromise: 80 per cent of the area would be protected from new roads and development, and 20 would be open for resource industries.
While First Nations said this was an acceptable compromise, the Yukon government was not prepared to shut down most of the area to development.
Last week it released its own plan for the Peel, which opens up 71 per cent of the area to new mineral staking. But stricter environmental rules in most of that area will ensure that it stays wild, according to the government.
The Nacho Nyak Dun and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in launched a lawsuit this week arguing that the government’s new plan runs afoul of its agreements with the First Nations.
People in the N.W.T.‘s Gwich’in communities feel betrayed and ignored by the Yukon government’s decision.
While most of the Peel watershed is in the Yukon, the river eventually flows into the Northwest Territories and into the Mackenzie Delta before dumping into the Beaufort Sea.
On its way it flows by the communities of Fort McPherson and Aklavik.
“The Peel watershed is very huge, but everything drains and flows and runs down eventually to Aklavik,” said Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, 37.
The community drinks from the Peel, fishes from the Peel, and hunts the animals that make the Peel their home.
Premier Darrell Pasloski has no right to gamble with the community’s future health, said Greenland-Morgan.
“His government has only been in place for a short period of time, and yet they had the political decision-making power to make a decision that’s going to impact the people who are tied to the Peel River watershed and have been tied to it for thousands of years.”
Greenland-Morgan organized a rally in Aklavik this week protesting the government’s decision. More than 100 people from the tiny town of about 600 came out in support, she said.
They walked together out onto the frozen Peel River, carrying signs and taking calls from radio stations in Whitehorse and Yellowknife.
“Mining has been a part of the Yukon’s DNA,” said Pasloski in an interview this week, speaking about a recent trip to Vancouver to drum up exploration investment in the territory. “It has been around since the creation of this territory, and it has really been truly a cornerstone of our economy. And when mining does well in the Yukon, Yukon does well.”
But Yukon’s mining history is a drop in the water when compared to the history of the land itself and of the people who have been a part of that landscape.
The Gwich’in people will tell you that to be Gwich’in means to be a part of the land.
The people of Fort McPherson call themselves Teetl’it Gwich’in, meaning ‘the people of the headwaters,’ the headwaters of the Peel.
Keepers of the land
Sarah Jerome and her 13 brothers and sisters grew up on the Peel at a camp about 50 kilometres up from Fort McPherson, at Road River. Her parents were John and Bella Tetlichi.
The kids all went away to residential school, but eventually came back to Road River to re-learn the traditional skills from their parents, she said.
That part of the watershed belongs to her family just as a lot with a fence around it might belong to a family somewhere else, said Jerome.
“That’s what that part of the Peel River means to us. Our parents entrusted us to take care of it, and they told us that we were the keepers of the land. We had to protect it.”
Jerome and her extended family go up into the land to hunt beavers in the spring, to fish and pick berries in the summer, to hunt moose in the fall. Sometimes they go just to see it, just to be there, just to check on it, she said.
“Road River on the Peel River is on my mind every day, because when we were raised there, we were cared for by our parents, we were loved by them, we were taught by them, we were taught all the traditional skills, we were told to take care of that land.”
She is “heartbroken” over the Yukon government’s decision, she said.
“I would just love to go in their backyard and start digging, and start mining, and see what kind of a reaction I would get. Because they would be heartbroken if I did that.”
For the grandchildren
Back in 1959, Robert Alexie took a trip from Fort McPherson to Dawson City by dog team with his aging father.
“Old Man showed us the way to Dawson City. He wanted to see Dawson again before he got too old. So we made that trip for him back in ‘59, which is the greatest thing that we ever done. He taught us all the way over.”
Now Alexie, who turns 80 this year, hopes he can get back into the Peel and see Vinidiinlaii one more time.
“Yeah I’ve done it lots, but I sure wouldn’t mind just see it again. Even if I see pictures of it I feel good.”
Most of the future Peel River adventures, though, belong to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I really enjoy it when my grandchildren enjoy it. Always talking about it. They want to go up there. They want to go up there.
“I hope and pray that Deception Mountain, called Vinidiinlaii in my language, stays bright in the sun whenever sun rise again for rest of time, it stays in the sun. Peace and quiet.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at