Gwich’in gathering place and former Hudson’s Bay trading post now Yukon Historic Site
CBC News: The sound of laughter, fiddle tunes and feet jigging on the hardwood floor of the old general store could be heard across the historic site of Rampart House as members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation gathered last week to celebrate their connection to the site and its new protected heritage designation.
Down the hill from the once-thriving community, a dozen river boats lined the shore of the Porcupine River, right at the border between the Yukon and Alaska. More than 50 people made the 80-kilometre trip downriver from the fly-in community of Old Crow, Yukon, on a scorching July day.
A few elders, including Lorraine Netro, arrived by helicopter. “It’s emotional,” she said. “It’s such a day to celebrate … Rampart House is, you know, the beginning for so many of our families.”
The event on Thursday was a signing ceremony for an updated management plan for the site, as well as an official designation of Rampart House as a Yukon Historic Site.
Like many at the gathering, Netro has deep roots at Rampart House. Her grandfather walked from Circle, Alaska, to Rampart House and raised a family there. “This place was selected as a community for a very special reason, it was a gathering place for all the Gwich’in people from Alaska, for Vuntut Gwitchin and our relatives in the Northwest Territories,” Netro said.
According to Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Pauline Frost, also at last week’s gathering, there hadn’t been so many people at Rampart House in many decades.
“Can you only imagine what that was like a 100 years ago? The people that are here today… the children that are running around and playing, I can only imagine, that’s what it was like, ’cause it’s bringing life back to this place.”
‘Strong rope’ between countries
In the 1800s, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at Fort Yukon, at the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. But in 1867, when the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia, the company had to move upriver, out of American territory.
The company reestablished a new post — only to find out it was still in Alaska.
After surveys, the company moved a second time, further upriver and across the border to what is now known as Rampart House. That increasingly rigid international border cut a line right through Gwich’in families and communities.
“They had a Gwich’in name for the border, néentaii tl’yah, means ‘strong rope’,” said elder Allen Benjamin. Both sides of his family come from Rampart House.
“It’s like they put a long rope to divide two countries… it caused a lot of problems in terms of hunting and fishing.”
The salmon and caribou don’t recognize borders; they migrate across an invisible line the Gwich’in, all of a sudden, didn’t have the right to traverse so freely. “We do not recognize that border because these lands, our ancestors lived in these lands and they connect us. We have a spiritual connection to the lands, to the animals, to the waters,” says Lorraine Netro.
Rampart House is central to the Gwich’in people, explained Chief Pauline Frost, pointing to the Porcupine River and the hills just behind the large house still standing on site.
“Just over this hill you can walk to Herschel Island, you can walk to Old Crow Flats — and it was significant because it was a connection to Fort Yukon and a connection to Old Crow and LaPierre House and as you go up the tributary, you’ll see more and more of these significant areas,” Frost said.
Restoration and preservation
For more than 30 years, Brent Riley has been coming to Rampart House to supervise and work on the restoration of the site. He’s the historic sites restoration planner for the Yukon Government.
“Seeing it for the first time was very interesting,” said Riley. He says a small crew documented what was still standing and got to work on replacing boards and preserving what remained.
“We’ve got some photographs that we were looking at, not that long ago, from the ’70s and ’80s… and it’s like, oh, I’ve never seen a roof on that building, but there’s a photograph of it with a roof on it in the ’70s.”
To date, he says four buildings have been completely conserved and work continues on a fifth. “We’ve got six buildings that are of substantial size, several outhouses, several caches that are still standing, and then we’ve got, as they say, the remnants of a whole bunch of others.”
Rampart House and another site important to the Gwich’in people, called LaPierre House, are both co-managed by the Vuntut Gwitchin and Yukon Governments. The heritage status now applies to both sites and there is a new management plan that outlines key restoration priorities.
The new status as a territorial heritage site won’t necessarily mean any more funding for the sites, but it will give the area a more protected status.
Chief Pauline Frost hopes last week’s celebration is the first of many gatherings to come. “We want to be able to show the world, we want to introduce more you know, educate others, because this is who we are as Vuntut Gwitchin, this is where we originated.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl Kawaja, Cheryl Kawaja is a CBC North reporter based in Whitehorse.