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January 12, 2010
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v2.1 Reference

People of the Lakes

Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich'in Elders/Googwandak Nakhwach'ànjòo Van Tat Gwich'in

Many people have a mental picture of the Canadian north that juxtaposes beauty with harshness. For the Van Tat Gwich'in, the northern Yukon is home, with a living history passed on from Elders to youth. This book consists of oral accounts that the Elders have been recording for 50 years, representing more than 150 years of their history, all meticulously translated from Gwich'in. Yet this is more than a gathering of history; collaborator Shirleen Smith provides context for the stories, whether they are focused on an individual or international politics. Anthropologists, folklorists, ethnohistorians, political scientists, economists, Indigenous Peoples, and readers interested in Canada's northernmost regions will find much to fascinate them.

About the Authors

The Van Tat Gwich'in provided the guidance and translation for this book, and Gwich'in Elders shared their knowledge and were the impetus. Shirleen Smith lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Alberta.


"Straddling the border between Canada and Alaska, and extending from the Arctic Circle north to the Beaufort Sea is the traditional territory of the Van Tat, fed by the the rivers Europeans call Crow, Black, Porcupine, and Peel. Near its center is Old Crow, the community of some 300 souls where the project was initiated to gather stories transcribed in earlier days from their scattered archives, and to interview the elders throughout the territory for this collection of narratives. Interspersed are drawings and photographs dating back to the 19th century, and stupendous new colour photographs of the land and the people. The sections are chronological: the long-ago stories, the first generation in the 19th century, the second generation early in the 20th, and the oral history of today. A glossary translates Gwich'in to English and English to Gwich'in." Book News Inc. May 2010

"The adjudication committee was unanimous in its praise of this remarkable work of community-academic collaboration. People of the Lakes is an outstanding history that will serve as a model for ethnohistorians working with indigenous communities for years to come. It's a volume all Canadian historians will want on their shelf." Keith Thor Carlson, Professor, History Department, University of Saskatchewan

"Stories told by the Van Tat Gwich'in, 'the people who live among the lakes,' of the northern Yukon are likely the oldest in Canada. Living in the community of Old Crow, these Aboriginal people have roots in the area that go back millenia. Even during the last ice age, their land was one of the few places in the North that wasn't encased in ice and so sustained life. Archeological evidence of human activity dates back more than 25 000 years. Now those ancient stories, along with more recent history, have been collected in a book by the University of Alberta Press, called People of the Lakes." Geoff McMaster, Express News, Jan 21, 2010

"People of the Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich'in Elders/ Googwandak Nakhwach'anjoo Van Tat Gwich'in" is an amassing of oral accounts of Gwich'in Elders and the Van Tat Gwich'in which contains stories from four or more generations of Van Tat Gwich'in born in the century span from the 1880's to the 1980's. Some stories which are described as "long -ago" may go back as far as many centuries more. Context for the stories is provided by collaborator Shirleen Smith, Anthropology professor from the University of Alberta. Studded with more than 125 color photographs and more black and white photos, "People of the Lakes" is both a meticulous translation of over 150 years of Gwich'in history and a hailed tribute to the Van Tat Gwich'in community and its heritage. From the transcribing of this shared knowledge, which is priceless, can only come further enrichment of all inheriting cultures who occupy the territory of the "People of the Lakes." A great contribution also to the field of Native American Studies, "People of the Lakes" is a trendsetter and a ground breaker for anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and others interested in the northern regions of Canada and North America. A helpful Glossary is provided at the end of the book that translates from Gwich'in to English and the reverse. The text is further enhanced by the presence of various maps and historic photographs, each carefully documented. "People of the Lakes" is sure to garner praise and awards as it crosses genres and fulfills many obligations. Midwest Book Review

"[People of the Lakes] models possibilities for detailed cultural research and the gathering of a significant oral record and does it all in a book that is itself a beautiful thing..." BC History, Fall 2010

The authors...want to secure language, oral history, and knowledge of the land for future Van Tat Gwich'in generations. Recurrent themes are childhood experiences, seasonal activities (e.g., hunting, fishing, and trapping), and historical places (e.g., harvesting areas like the Old Crow Flats, trading posts like La-Pierre House or Rampart House, and social gathering places like Bear Cave Mountain), as well as kinship, relations with Inuit, and the changes that began with the entry of European and Canadian fur traders and missionaries. The vast majority of information is obtained from the Van Tat Gwich'in Oral History Collection, which includes interviews with the four generations recorded by local researchers in collaboration with Canadian academics.... The stories and quotes, shown in a different text colour, combined with a vast number of illustrations, make for a pleasant read. In their attempt to bring four generations together in one volume, the authors allow enough room for Gwich'in voices.... People of the Lakes is an inspiring book and worthwhile reading. The beauty of this impressive volume lies in the continuity of the narratives and the intimacy in which the different generations tell about their personal lives and those of their ancestors.... [T]he book is a welcoming invitation for any reader interested in Gwich'in lives, aboriginal and Canadian history, anthropology, religion, politics, and ethnohistory." Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, University of Aberdeen, Arctic, March 2011

"What is immediately striking about the book is the level of community involvement in it and the local enthusiasm for the project. This was truly a community effort. It is the outcome of a ten year collaboration between anthropologist Shirleen Smith and the Vuntut Gwich'in First Nation, a rare example of a true research partnership between academic and non-academic partners in the North. This spirit of partnership is infused in every aspect of the book from its methodology to its organization and presentation of materials. This is a monumental achievement." Nicolas Brunet, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, The Northern Review, Spring 2011. View entire magazine @

"The interviews, meticulously translated from Gwich'in, are detailed, adding new insights and perception to what is already known about the Van Tat Gwich'in First Nation, connecting the remote past with the immediate present, the archival documents with newer oral history sources, and photographs (268). The stories and histories come alive through memorable anecdotes, thus revealing how oral history can be effectively used in knowing and understanding indigenous people, and, in this case providing a deep knowledge of the Van Tat Gwich'in and their lives over the last two centuries." Jacky Moore, Canterbury Christ Church University, Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 2011 [doi: 10.1093/ohr/ohr084]

"Interviews with Vuntut Gwitchin elders, panoramic views of Old Crow Flats, and old photos treasured by members of the community for many generations are beautifully woven together by Shirleen Smith in collaboration with the Vuntut Gwitchin elders.... This book should be used as a template for First Nations trying to preserve the ancient oral traditions of their people.... Meeting the needs of those of a more scholarly persuasion, twenty percent of the book contains numerous endnotes, glossaries both from Gwitchin to English and English to Gwitchin, and a comprehensive bibliography." David Norton, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXXI, 1(2011)

"... this book will be of interest, not just to linguists and anthropologists interested in First Nations languages or cultures, but also to scholars from a wide range of disciplines. The way the book is arranged is pleasing to the eye, with narratives from the stories interspersed with explanatory texts. The book also contains many excellent black and white and color photographs, from both the present and the recent past, which greatly enhance the text. At a time when languages and stories are being lost all over the Arctic, and around the world, as rapid change occurs, this book is an inspiring example of what may be done to preserve such treasures before they are gone forever." Astrid E.J. Ogilvie, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2011

"This is, I believe, the third time that the Turner Prize Committee has decided to make an extraordinary award for the humanistic achievement of a project rather than the writing per se. The overall category of collaborative research and oral history encapsules the goals of SHA in that the ethnography part of ethnographic writing is the sine qua non of our disciplinary credibility. This elegant volume of texts and photos is a pedagogical resource for the community and for outsiders seeking to understand the continuity of traditional ways in northern communities despite extensive consequences of historical events." Dr. Regna Darnell, Victor Turner Prize awards speech

"People of the Lakes is the result of ten consecutive years of work from a community of less than 300 Gwitch'in Dene from Old Crow, Yukon. It has won nine prizes since publication. It was designed to be the first official transcript of Old Crow history, the last village without road access in the Yukon. It is a 391-page distillation of over 350 transcripts, organized into three sections. A span of 150 years of archived transcripts, audio recordings, photographs and film stills were also pulled together to add to the project. It is finished with a long well cross-referenced index as well as glossaries of Gwitch'in to English and back." Anna de Aguayo, Anthropologica 53, 2011
University of Alberta Press


9780888645050 : people-of-the-lakes-vuntut-gwitchin-first-nation-smith
Paperback / softback
456 Pages
$44.99 USD

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