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Bringing Old Crow To The World

Bringing Old Crow To The World

The youngest Vuntut Gwitchin chief in recent history only moved back to his home community six years ago after a difficult childhood on the streets of Whitehorse. Now, he's sharing his story of hardship and hope. Dana Tizya-Tramm is our Northerner of the Year.
By Eva Holland
Dec 02
2019
From the DECEMBER 2019 Issue
When Dana Tizya-Tramm was 12 he went to an Easter dinner at an aunt’s place in Tagish, an hour south of his home in Whitehorse. She had prepared a feast. There was turkey and stuffing, there were mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, candied yams, buttered carrots. There was quail, and rice, and pasta salad. For dessert: multiple pies.
 
His aunt was not in the room as the young Tizya-Tramm advanced on the buffet, plate in hand. “Why did auntie cook all of this food?” he recalls asking. “That’s crazy. There’s no way that we can eat this.”
 
His older cousin answered him with a question: “You see that plate in your hand?” Tizya-Tramm looked down. It was an ordinary kind of plate, hospital green, plastic. “That’s from residential school,” his cousin said. “That’s where your auntie grew up. And they used to
starve her if she spoke her language. They wouldn’t feed her.”
 
He thought about his aunt’s two fridges, her two deep freezers, her cupboards always filled up to the doors with food. Dana Tizya-Tramm had one of those moments of sudden childhood insight into the mysterious inner workings of the adults in his life. This is how my auntie feels safe, he thought. And he realized, too: This is where my family comes from. This is where my mother comes from. It explained so much about her life, and his. It was a moment he still remembers vividly two decades later.
 
The stories of so many families run through those schools, the government-mandated institutions where entire generations of Indigenous children across Canada were sent to be stripped of their cultures, their languages, their families and histories. Trauma from the schools continues to pass down through generations, and not only in the form of laden dinner tables.
 
Within a year of that Easter two decades ago, Tizya-Tramm was homeless. A child making his way through Whitehorse’s darkest corners, he took drugs, and sold drugs, and fought on a dime. “I thought that people fearing me was power,” he says now. “When actually I wanted them to love me.”
 
People who knew Tizya-Tramm back then would likely not have predicted that he would get clean, commit himself to non-violence, return to Old Crow and immerse himself in his culture. They would never have guessed that he’d become the youngest chief in the modern history of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
 
Today, at 32, he’s a leading voice on the rapid climate change impacting the North. He travels the world hoping to inspire other Indigenous land and water protectors. He’s still fighting, but now it’s against Donald Trump’s effort to permit oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. He is charismatic, and he is convincing. He is, as one Vuntut Gwitchin citizen puts it, “exactly what we need right now.”
 
It’s been a long, and difficult path for Dana Tizya-Tramm. This is where he comes from.
 
Tizya-Tramm is connecting past and present while working for his people's future. COURTESY KERI OBERLY
 
Residential school is not the beginning of the story. Tizya-Tramm is the inheritor of 30,000 years of Gwich’in history. Nowadays, he feels the weight of all those years as a comforting anchor, rooting him to the earth. But in this telling, he begins his story just a century or so ago, with his great-grandmother, Katherine Netro, a Gwich’in woman who married a Hudson’s Bay worker of Scottish descent named Archie Linklater.
 
“She said that we need his knowledge to survive in the future,” Tizya-Tramm says. “And that’s why she married him. She said, ‘I want my grandchildren to go out in the world, and to bring the world back to our people.’”
 
The next generation, Tizya-Tramm’s grandparents, would be the first to leave Old Crow and the Vuntut territory. They moved away to follow their children. After their eldest kids, born in Old Crow, were taken south to residential school, the couple followed, giving up a life of hunting and trapping to become a cook and a janitor at the same school that took their children. More kids were born to them in Dawson City, and then, as the family moved further south, the last of 13 siblings were born in Whitehorse. Tizya-Tramm’s mother, Lulu, was the youngest of the 13. She was enrolled in residential school at just four years old.
 
There’s a report that his mother prepared for a lawyer, decades later, about her experiences in that school. Tizya-Tramm hasn’t yet felt ready to read it. Maybe someday. But he knows the years she spent in that institution shaped his own life.
 
“I had a really hard and confusing upbringing,” he says. “My mother loved me dearly and was part of the reason why I am the man I am today. But... residential school left its marks.”
 
There were good things in his childhood: visits to Old Crow, to spend time with his uncle Joe Linklater (who would go on to become Vuntut Gwitchin chief for more than a decade), time spent at his grandmother’s cabin in Tagish, and big family gatherings at the holidays. “I grew up in a strong Vuntut family, and we always celebrated together,” he says. But his mother struggled to cope with her past trauma. “The drinking was a slow poison, and it slowly robbed me of my mother.”
 
He didn’t feel safe with the men who came and went from their lives. At one point, he recalls, he started sleeping with a knife within reach. When he was 13, Tizya-Tramm reached a breaking point. One night, he got into a fight with his mother’s boyfriend, wound up with a bloody nose, and walked out of the house. “I didn’t come back for a year and a half.”
 
He stole a tent from a backyard in Whitehorse’s Riverdale neighbourhood, set it up under a tree and laid down inside. He spent that first night after leaving home listening to the mosquitoes buzz outside the tent's walls, feeling the hard tree roots beneath him, and crying. The next day he went to school.
 
By that time, he had already made some “dubious friends,” he says. There was a group of older teens who had access to a house with no resident adults—it was a crash-pad and a place to party. Tizya-Tramm wound up living there, sleeping under the staircase like Harry Potter. He describes himself as being trained by the older kids, “to be a pitbull. They would point their fingers and say, ‘Go get ‘em,’ and I would.”
 
He brawled, he drank, he got high. He delved into cocaine and hallucinogens, sometimes staying up all night before heading to class still high the next morning. He started selling pot at school and used the money to buy frozen Hungry Man meals.
 
All the while, though, he kept going to school. And on his own time, he read. He read voraciously: psychology, sociology, physics. Books offered a way for him to try to understand himself and his place in a confusing, hurtful world.
 
In the popular imagination, fed by Hollywood tales of addiction and redemption, recovery is a sharp left turn: a powerful moment, a switch flipped, and a new path to salvation. But the truth of extricating yourself from a life you don’t want is much messier, and more gradual. Moments of realization are not always followed by action. The path, when it arrives, is not perfect or linear.
 
For Tizya-Tramm, one moment came a few months after he left his mother’s home. He’d started filming his older friends at parties using a video camera. Word got back to him that the Mounties were aware of the footage and were looking for him. So he went into the woods, dug a hole, and buried the tapes. Then he begged for a flight to Vancouver, where one of his aunts lived, hoping to start fresh.
 
In the city to the south, there were even more ways for a troubled kid to get into trouble. A year later he was back in Whitehorse, back with his old crowd, and back into using. But those months in Vancouver offered him a glimpse of hope.
 
“Down there something interesting happened,” he says. “Nobody knew me down there. And I thought to myself, ‘If nobody knows you, then who do you want to be?’” The question was buried after his return home, like those videotapes.
 
But it didn’t go away entirely.
 
In Grade 11, he dropped out of school. At 18, he attempted suicide. His survival was another moment of insight. Confused but powerfully affected by that unexpected second chance, Tizya-Tramm started thinking about the future. It would take another year—another heavy year of drug use—before he found sobriety. By then he was 19 and could feel time running out. He called a cousin in Vancouver, who offered him a job. If nobody knows you, then who do you want to be? He accepted the offer and got on a plane.
 
Speaking at the World Affairs Council of Seattle roundtable back in April. UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
 
Tizya-Tramm is calm when he discusses his past; calm and largely unembarrassed. “I’m a big believer in ‘warts and all,’” he says. It’s not just who he is, it’s also what he represents as a young chief.
 
“I think his openness, despite it being a difficult subject and sensitive, his openness about it is another one of these ways that he’s able to exemplify leadership,” says Kris Statnyk, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen who now works as a lawyer in Vancouver. “Not just when he’s out on the road or traveling for important meetings but locally, in our communities, where the young people are experiencing some of the same challenges that other northern Indigenous communities do face.”
 
Statnyk and Tizya-Tramm are the same age, from a generation that has grown up mostly under self-government. (The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s self-government agreement was finalized in 1993 and took effect in 1995.) They came of age during the years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent touring the country, collecting testimonies from survivors of the residential school system.
 
“I think it’s maybe a generational thing,” says Statnyk of Tizya-Tramm’s ability and willingness to speak so plainly about his past and his pain. Their parents’ generation laboured under greater stigma and a lack of understanding, remaining silent about some of their traumatic experiences because they didn’t have the space and the safety to tell their stories. The new generations are freer.
 
Looking back on his own childhood, Statnyk thinks someone speaking out the way Tizya-Tramm is now would have meant “a world of difference” to him. “To have those I looked up to and that were representing me in the world have not only the self-awareness, but that openness to share, in the hope that others can learn from it, and be better for it, and not feel ashamed for our experiences because of the history of colonization.”
 
Tizya-Tramm, too, hopes his story can help children growing up today. “If this relates to any other kid, then it’s worth its weight in gold.”
 
In Vancouver, he worked for a company that built high-end retractable awnings: hardware from Sweden, fabrics from Italy. He stopped using drugs, stopped getting into brawls. In 2009 he was laid off after the Wall Street crash limited the market for luxuries. Job-hunting was tough, especially for someone without a high school diploma. But Tizya-Tramm eventually landed a new job at an award-winning gelato shop in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. He worked his way up quickly to a supervisory position, learning everything he could, and leaning on what he calls his “gift of gab.” He even quit smoking to better train his palate. Get him going on the subject today, years later, and he’s still passionate about the ways a great gelato hits your tongue. It was a new life.
 
When the shop’s owner offered him a salaried job and a chance to study in Italy, Tizya-Tramm hesitated. He considered the offer seriously. It was tempting. But then he thought about his grandfather. “He went from being a prolific hunter and trapper in our traditional territory of Vuntut to an illiterate janitor in a residential school,” he says.
 
He remembered that at one point during those years, his grandfather had consulted with the elders, asked his wife’s permission and then left Dawson City and the residential school with his dog team, traveling overland to Old Crow for three months—trapping and hunting as he went. He arrived back in his community with more furs and meat than he’d set out with at the beginning of the journey. That wasn’t a legacy Dana Tizya-Tramm could turn his back on.
 
“I would be delivering my grandchildren an arbitrary society and robbing them of a 30,000-year-old culture,” he says. “I would not and could not be the missing link between my grandfather and his great-grandchildren.”
 
He gave his notice at the gelato shop, and booked a flight north. He didn’t feel able to return to Whitehorse, the site of so many painful memories. “I had hurt so many people,” he says. “There is no way for me to take back what I’ve done... I’ll never be able to forget what I’ve done. And for me, around Whitehorse, every corner was a bad memory.” In January 2013, he arrived in Old Crow.
 
Caribou are life for the people of Old Crow. PETER MATHER
 
The community sits alongside the wide, brown Porcupine River, for which the caribou herd, so intertwined with the people’s lives and their culture, is named. Buildings are clustered between the water and the airstrip, and the surrounding country is relatively flat, by northern Yukon standards. When Tizya-Tramm arrived, in mid-winter, the sun would have been little more than a suggestion on the horizon each day.
 
He moved in with his older sister, also recently returned to the community, and got a job stocking shelves at the Northern store. Then he threw himself into the life and culture of Old Crow: learning to chop wood, hunt and trap, fix a skidoo. “I was very thirsty for my culture.”
 
Lorraine Netro, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen and a member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, remembers that young man who was new in town. She didn’t get to know him well until later, when they worked together. But she saw him then, learning from elders, making the effort to get out on the land. “I’m sure it was challenging,” she says. Still, he seized his opportunity “to build that solid foundation based on culture and tradition and what it means to be Vuntut. And he got it.”
 
Tizya-Tramm immersed himself in the seasons and the land. “I knew that I was starting out on a journey I should have taken a long time ago, and that my grandfather’s trail was over the horizon when I had just started taking baby steps,” he says.
 
“But I will tell you, there are moments that I have had, out on the land by myself, miles away from any other human being, where the sky was like a Monet painting, where I could feel the silence pushing up against my body, and in these moments the world and our land was my cathedral, and I was touched by moments of awe, and the entire universe played my soul like the bow on violin strings, and I’ll never be able to share these moments with anyone, nor should I, because they are mine.
 
“And these moments are not ones that can be afforded to you on the SkyTrain in Vancouver, or in a skyscraper in Toronto, or locked away at your desk in a university under fluorescent lights.”
 
“I knew that I was starting out on a journey I should have taken a long time ago,” says Tizya-Tramm. COURTESY KERI OBERLY
 
Let's state clearly what should by now be obvious: Dana Tizya-Tramm is a heck of a communicator. Sometimes, he can sound like he is delivering a polished, thoughtfully written speech when he is speaking entirely off-the-cuff. His words are fluid, unhesitating, laced with vivid analogies and literary references. In the course of a 90-minute interview, he quotes from William S. Burroughs, Carl Jung, and the Buddha. He’s a charismatic presence: serious and calm, but quick to smile or make a joke. It’s difficult to picture him as that teenage brawler. It’s very difficult not to get caught up in his words when he speaks.
 
The voracious reading that had kept his mind occupied even when he was sleeping under the stairs in a Riverdale party house continued in Tizya-Tramm’s Vancouver years. He read everyone from Adam Smith and Ayn Rand to Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) and Charles C. Mann (1491, 1493). He read about the legal system, economics, history—he refers to some of that education, learning about colonial ideas and systems he ultimately rejects, as an inoculation. His base of knowledge combines with his “gift of gab” to make him a powerful speaker.
 
“Everything he learns, he shares,” says Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “And that’s how our history was—it was all oral. He’s bringing that back.”
 
Demientieff lives on the Alaska side of the international border that runs through Gwich’in territory. She first got to know Tizya-Tramm after he’d settled into Old Crow life and began to gravitate towards youth work and activism. From stocking shelves at the Northern, he moved within a year to coordinating youth programs. He got involved with Our Voices, an Indigenous youth leadership collective, and went on to found his own organization, The Youth of the Peel. In 2017, he traveled to Washington D.C. as part of a delegation, along with Netro and Statnyk, among others, to advocate for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Their efforts, part of a decades-long Gwich’in fight to prevent oil development in the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, didn’t stop Donald Trump from moving ahead later that year with a provision to allow oil leasing and drilling in the so-called 1002 lands.
 
But Tizya-Tramm didn’t give up. He had already been elected to council in 2016, where he was the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s lead voice on ANWR and the Porcupine caribou. Then, late in 2018, he was elected to serve as chief. His leadership comes at a time when powerful forces are converging around the Gwich’in. The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and other plaintiffs had only just secured a victory in their legal battle over the fate of the Peel Watershed when they had to turn their attention back to the latest threat to the caribou and the Arctic Refuge.
 
“When I was facing to the east, over 64,000 square kilometres,” says Tizya- Tramm, referring to the Peel, “then 1.2 million acres [of ANWR] came into question when I barely had time to turn around.” In March, Tizya-Tramm testified in Washington D.C. before a congressional sub-committee, urging them to protect the calving grounds. That battle is ongoing. The first petroleum lease sales in the refuge are slated to occur early in the new year.
 
Meanwhile, climate change is already reshaping the Vuntut territory. In May of this year, Tizya-Tramm and Old Crow declared a climate change state of emergency—the first jurisdiction to do so in the North. (The city of Whitehorse and the territorial Yukon government have since followed in Old Crow’s footsteps.)
 
“I’ve been really impressed,” says Kris Statnyk of Tizya-Tramm’s leadership so far. Lorraine Netro agrees. “I’m very proud of him,” she says. “He’s a voice for our people.”
 
“I do believe that our ancestors chose him,” says Demientieff. In her experience, he is committed and engaged, and always encourages the various Gwich’in leaders to work together through the challenges they face. In her view, he follows the elders’ call to work, as they put it, in a good way.
 
“Working in a good way: that’s a very simple statement, right?” she says. “But it’s not always easy.”
 
Tizya-Tramm intends to continue advocating fiercely for action on climate change, and he has big plans in the works on that front—plans that involve connecting Indigenous youth across Canada and eventually around the circumpolar world. He hopes to be able to help secure protections for the Porcupine caribou. But he’s also looking inwards. His community’s modern, formal self-government is only 25 years old. He hopes to help further develop its tools and systems, its policies and legislation, and support for its staff during his time in office. “One of my key legacies is going to be leaving a government that is better organized.” So far, he has impressed his colleagues with his work ethic and dedication to his goals.
 
“I want Gwich’in people to be a cohesive, knowledge-carrying people that brings the world together in a very divisive time,” he says. Working towards that aim, working in a good way, hasn’t come without obstacles.
 
Recovery, as we’ve said, is not a simple or linear story. Early in 2017, Tizya-Tramm’s mother died. They had, in the years since he walked out of her home as a young teenager, forged a strong relationship. “I had some really beautiful years with my mother,” he says. Her death was not only a terrible loss, it also brought up some of the troubles and trauma of his youth. Drugs were in his past, but now drinking became a problem.
 
“There’s a great saying, ‘heal the boy and the man will appear,’” he says. “So I had to go back and do work that I hadn’t done when I was a teenager and a young man.” In August 2017, he entered treatment, and did that work. And then he went right back to the task of advocating for his people and the land.
 
This year, Dana Tizya-Tramm was not only officially sworn in as chief, he also became a newlywed. His wife, Zen Law, is a Singaporean woman who he met on an online dating site, after which the two started chatting on Facebook every day. Their first proper phone call, made over a vast distance, was nine hours long. The couple might seem an odd match—after all, as Tizya-Tramm points out, you can fit 67 geographical Singapores inside the Vuntut Gwitchin traditional territory. But, “we just clicked.”
 
They celebrated their marriage this summer in Singapore, with another ceremony planned next August in Old Crow. Tizya-Tramm says, only sort of kidding, that theirs is probably the first connection between their two peoples in 40,000 years—since life before the Bering land bridge.
 
He thinks back to his great-grandmother’s hope that her children would go out into the world, and bring the world back to their community. He wants the same thing. Moment by moment, the work goes on.