Across the circumpolar boreal forests, one can find many trails and markers that demonstrate human and non-human movements on the land. This article investigates movement and traveling in the North of Canada as a way of being (see Aporta 2004), knowing, and engaging with trails and trail markers. Making trails and markers is a part of the wider pedagogy of traveling on the land that involves reading and becoming attentive to the land. It also involves learning about places, trails, and markers by traveling on the land and in the mind, for instance through sharing stories. Markers and trails, then, are made in the “field of manifold relations” in which history, movement, memory, knowledge and skills, land, and sociality are woven together (Ingold 2000, 2011).
Studies from Siberia have explored similar themes. David Anderson (2000) and Alexander King (2002) emphasize how indigenous reindeer herders challenge notions of wilderness and the importance of knowing the land. King proposes to think about the landscape as a “configuration of persons” that is “enacted and expressed in terms of social relations and activities” (2002: 65–72). Pivotal in such “culture scapes” is the “rootedness of daily life and people’s understanding in a particular place” (King 2002: 65). Donatas Brandisauskas (2007: 99) observes that Orochen hunters and herders do not use the same hearth twice when returning to former camps. One herder explains to him that this is done to prevent bad luck or sickness. The result is that there are many marks of abandoned hearths. Anderson (2000: 45, 147) addresses markers and idols on the land and their relation to cosmology. Other scholars have investigated similar topics. Julie Cruikshank and Tatiana Argounova-Low (2000: 104–115) exemplify two kinds of modified trees by the Sakha: keriakh-mas (appeasing evil spirits) and al-luk-mas (thanking spirits for individual protection). Rane Willerslev (2009: 51), too, refers to markers on the land that are commemorated for personal protection. One compelling account of the connection between humans and trees is provided by an elderly Yukaghir woman. She explains to Willerslev how one particular tree at her camp is connected to her life: she ages with the tree and if the tree dies, so will she (2009: 148). Somewhat similarly, Peter Jordan (2003) shows how Khanty women own idols. Upon death of the owner, the idol is returned to tree from which it was carved and left to rot. The reincarnation of the soul of the respective Khanty woman is connected to the decay of the idol. Jordan, further, illustrates how Khanty commemorate bear hunts through marks on trees (2003: 116–118). The blaze identifies a killed bear and forward slashed marks signify the number of hunters who participated in the hunt. Jordan considers these marks as communicative acts between human and spiritual domains. These snippets of selected case studies illuminate the significance of the land, markers, and trees across Siberia; here I elaborate on one particular marker I learned about in Gwich’in country, northern Canada: a lobstick.
The lobstick is a growing tree that has been modified in accordance with a specific purpose; for example, commemorations, signposts, honorary gifts, or personal tests of endurances. Lobsticks have played an integral part in fur trade history and have been incorporated in both Euro-Canadian history and aboriginal lives, illuminating particular relations between persons and the land. They are, however, not solidly markers of a Canadian past, lobsticks (and other markers) for aboriginal peoples commemorate past events and in certain cases are still being made. Such was the case in the winter of 2007 when a Teetł’it Gwich’in man suggested that I make a lobstick a few river points up at Bear Creek (Shih Han), Northwest Territories, Canada. Rather than considering lobsticks as a separate entity, it will become apparent that they are particular trees through their specific growths and locations and are incorporated into the broader sociality when made by and for specific reasons and persons. They become specific monuments on the land connected and related to people’s lives.
Gwich’in, Woodchips, and Fur Traders
The Teetł’it Gwich’in are Dene (Athapaskan) who live in northern Canada, with their traditional lands in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. In the winter, they traditionally hunted caribou and moose in the mountains of the upper Peel River watershed and walked along trails back to the river in the early spring where they made their canoes or skin boats which they used to travel down river to large encampments down river or to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post at Fort McPherson. They kept a few dogs that were used to pack goods or sometimes haul sleds (Loovers 2015). They would trade with Inuit in the north and other Athapaskan groups to the south through extended trading trails. Traveling, thus, has played a significant role in their daily lives (Aporta et al. 2014; Heine et al. 2007). The land and traveling on the land are indeed among the most highly valued aspects of Gwich’in life. As Richard Slobodin asserts in his field notes, travel is “the great necessity and the great preoccupation of northern people” and he continues, “the Peel River people are quite conscious of their love of travel and sightseeing” (n.d.: 2; 1962: 68). This is also eloquently exemplified by Thomas Andrews, John Zoe, and Aaron Herter in their article on Dogrib sacred sites and the anthropology of travel:
If we accept the premise of the landscape as a process, then it is realized through travel. Travel … grounds the process in the activities of everyday life … [O]ne gains prestige and respect through traveling. Those elders who have traveled and worked on the land all their lives, who have visited places of spiritual significance and who have learned and recounted stories about these places—are regarded as the most knowledgeable, and consequently must be “listened to” with great respect. Traveling the trails, visiting the places, and listening to the stories, provides Dogrib hunters with the knowledge necessary for living in the Dogrib landscape.(1998: 312)
Not only Gwich’in traveled in the country, Uunjits (people who have come from the south) arrived in the last three centuries. At the end of the eighteenth century, fur trader Sir Alexander Mackenzie ventured further northward to look for a passage to the Pacific Ocean from Lake Athabasca. He provided the first European written account of Gwich’in as he came across an encampment along the Mackenzie River. Gwich’in, however, recount a very different narrative in which the Gwich’in traveled to meet the newcomers and not vice versa (see Fafard and Kritsch 2005: 9; Heine et al. 2007: 180). In this account, humans are not focal in the narrative of exploration. Instead, the newcomers had been heralded by a strangely looking woodchip.1 The woodchip descended the Mackenzie River (Nagwichoonjik) and washed ashore at Cony Bay to be found among driftwood by Gwichya Gwich’in. Contemplating who could have made such a woodchip, as it did not look as though it had been made by a beaver or a Dene using a stone ax, some Gwich’in traveled up the river and found aachin (strangers) at a camp. The strangers showed them iron or steel axes and other goods. Teetł’it Gwich’in oral history recounts how woodchips were found at the confluence of the Peel and Mackenzie rivers. In order to see where it came from, the Teetł’it Gwich’in paddled up the Mackenzie as far as the HBC trading post Fort Good Hope where they found traders or Chiizhit Gwich’in transcribed as ‘people who live in the rock’ by Mrs. Sarah Simon (Fafard and Kritsch 2005: 9).
Vuntut Gwich’in oral history shows that Gwich’in had already become familiar with Russian trading goods via the Inuit prior to the arrival of the HBC fur traders (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Smith 2009: xlviii, 119). Within decades the direct fur trade with Europeans intensified in the region. To gain from this lucrative trade, Gwich’in leaders requested a trading post in their land (see Sax and Linklater 1990; Slobodin 1962). The HBC, a London-based international trading consortium that appropriated greater part of present-day Canada, sent employees to the region to assess resource potential and map the region for economic and political reasons (see Isbister 1845; Krech 1976; Murray  1910). Fort McPherson (Teetł’it Zheh), the Gwich’in community where I have been working, was built in the 1840s, and followed by several other trading or distribution posts in the region.
One of them, Lapierre House (Zheh Gwitsal), was a small but crucial distribution and trading nexus in the Richardson Mountains to which the Gwich’in brought meat and furs to trade for beads, guns and other items (Krech 1976; Slobodin 1962). In the 1860s missionaries entered the northern regions to offer Christianity to the HBC employees and, more specifically, to convert the Aboriginal people (Choquette 1995; Coates 1986; Mishler 1990; Sax and Linklater 1990). Anthropologist Harvey Feit (2004) explains that very often the relationships between the Company and the aboriginal people were based upon partnerships and the Company relied heavily on the skills and expertise of Aboriginal people for traveling and survival (Krech 1976). This was also true for the missionaries.
Traveling Places, Traveling in the Mind
Tom Andrews and his Dogrib teachers allude to the importance of knowing places (see also Legat 2012). Cornelius Osgood, similarly, hints at the importance of knowing and narrating places for Gwich’in and links it with hunting: “A network of trails covers the whole country and each hunter knows them within a restricted area. The killer of game simply describes the trails which pass closest to the meat and indicates at what point and direction the trail is to be left and roughly to what distance. A brief description of the actual locality concludes the instruction” ( 1970: 59 see also Heine et al. 2007).
The simple description of which he speaks is actually a complex and detailed account of the places and trails, which are made recognizable to others. Osgood further observes that “[f]ollowing the trail thereafter is primarily a matter of memorizing details of geographical and floral peculiarities and utilizing a developed awareness for any sign of human intrusion upon nature” ( 1970: 58). Often this would, I imagine, involve place-names and land-features or markers, but Osgood makes no mention of them in his published work. He does, however, illuminate a crucial facet of traveling and that is recounting travels to others. Stories about places to be experienced are preludes, offering clues (Ingold 2000) that guide the traveler’s attention when he travels or arrives at a particular place. An old Western Apache woman made the same point to the anthropologist Keith Basso in his monumental work on stories and places: “Travel in your mind to a point from which to view the place whose name has just been spoken. Imagine standing there, as if in the tracks of your ancestors, and recall stories of events that occurred at that place long ago. Picture these events in your mind and appreciate, as if the ancestors themselves were speaking, the wisdom the stories contain” (1988: 114).
As this speaker emphasizes, events and memories and places are woven together into narratives and indeed one’s imagination or mind seems to travel to these places and to these memories. Richard Nelson calls this “the human imprint on the land” in which cultural and personal meanings are described into the landscape (1986: 242–245). The “Koyukon person constantly passes by these places, and the flow of the land becomes a flow of the mind” (Nelson 1986: 243). The land, then, becomes an ongoing nexus of places and trails that have been shared, made, and are continued to be made. In my field notes, at an early stage of my work with the Teetł’it Gwich’in, I contemplate that “[t]he land is the place traveled, not a wilderness as it might seem on the cards [maps]. The atlas should be changed and illustrate the ancient trails of the people. It is about knowing the places, the lakes, the rivers, the mountains, the histories,” and the trails and stories I must add. This contemplation has also been at heart of the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI) and has led to the online Gwich’in Atlas.2 In collaboration with Carlton University’s Geomatics and Cartographics Research Centre and MDT Communications, the GSCI have included nearly 850 place names (often with oral history) that it has collected since 1992 (see Aporta et al. 2014; Heine et al. 2007; Kritsch et al. 2000).3 Aporta with his colleagues, and collaborating with the GSCI, observed that: “[t]he Gwich’in travelled extensively by land and water, naming features and places that were of significance to them, and sharing stories about these places. Names are found everywhere on the landscape, and these names and their associated stories reflect Gwich’in travels,explain the history of the place, and offer insight into Gwich’in culture and knowledge about their lands and about people’s relations with the land” (2014: 223).
Anthropologist Richard Slobodin had come to a similar observation and wrote in his field notes that “[t]o the Peel River Kutchin [sic], … this vast region [the Peel River Drainage] is home,4 as familiar, as studded with well-known details and recognizable landmarks as our home town or home neighborhood to any of us” (Slobodin n.d. folder 2:3). This home contains numerous place-names (his field notes include sixty place names) that describe features of the land or tell of events that have unfolded in the long range of movements on the land by Gwich’in as well as others. One such homely areas has been Bear Creek (Shih Han) located between Fort McPherson (Teetł’it Zheh) and Lapierre House (Zheh Gwitsal).
Bear Creek runs into Rat River (Ddhah Zhìt Han) and is situated close to Horn Lake (Ejì’ Van) in the Richardson Mountains (Figure 1). There are a few important historical places and trails in this part of Gwich’in country. The Daghoo Trail (Gwatoh Taii), for example, connects the Rat River and Fort McPherson with Lapierre House at Bell River (Chii Vee Njik Gwichoo). Bear Creek has also been adjacent to numerous feeding places where caribou would return during their cyclical migrations. In the past, Teetł’it Gwich’in built caribou corrals or fences at different places close to Bear Creek. Bear Creek has remained an important place for Teetł’it Gwich’in to hunt, fish, and trap. In the 1970s, for example, several Gwich’in men built a log cabin that could be used as a camp while hunting caribou in the Horn Flats or Timber Creek Flats. On the walls, inside the cabin, many Gwich’in hunters and travelers have scribbled down their movements and hunting statistics.
Near the cabin, among the trees, is the old campground of John and Caroline Kay, and traces of John Kay’s wood area with its distinctive V-shaped wood cuttings are still visible nearby. During my visits with the late Caroline Kay, she shared some of her intimate knowledge about Bear Creek. She recounted how once her husband had gone ahead and shot thirteen caribou in the mountains while she and her son continued to Bear Creek to quickly set up camp. She concluded by reminiscing about the amount of work that was involved in skinning and cutting up the caribou. During that same visit on the 3 February 2007, she mentioned Fish Hole (Ne’eedilee) where fish winter and explained that the strong winds at the cabin come from Loon Lake (Daadzaii Van) up in the mountains close to Bear Creek.
My own weaving into the Bear Creek nexus commenced at the end of December 2015 as I traveled with Johnny Charlie Jr., a Gwich’in tribal councilor director and former wildlife officer, and Frederick (Sonny) Blake Jr., a member of Legislative Assembly in the Northwest Territories, to Bear Creek cabin. Prior to the actual day of traveling, Gwich’in elders like Mr. Neil Colin, had been sharing a few stories about Bear Creek and some of the trails leading toward it. After having traveled to Bear Creek for the first time, Mr. Colin elaborated on the places and trails with more detail. He described the contours of the land and particular land features that would be passed while traveling. He further expanded on places where he had hunted caribou many years ago with a dog team: Fish Creek (Łuk Njik), Horn Lake, Loon Lake, Sheep Creek (Divii Daaghoo Njik). When I finally traveled to these places, I remembered these stories again.
One important facet in traveling on the land is knowing and making trails. My first lessons in the making of trails came in the dawning darkness of late December 2005. Johnny, Sonny, and I traveled with snowmobiles via Johnny’s cabin on the Husky River to Bear Creek via Timber Creek Flats.5 My first extensive traveling driving a snowmobile was full of challenges and delays. For example, driving the snowmobile, I had slipped from the fresh trail and collided with a small spruce tree coming out of Timber Creek Flats.6 Finally, after help from Sonny to get the snowmobile out the deep snow, we caught up with Johnny. He had stopped at the creek (later dubbed Porcupine Creek by other Gwich’in because of fresh porcupine marks on the trees surrounding the creek) that runs into Bear Creek from Timber Creek Flats behind the old cabin.
The creek with steep river banks and grown-in willows was impossible to pass without building a temporary bridge of snow and cutting willows. Johnny immediately put me to work. However after observing my inexperience with making a trail, he grabbed my ax and told me to hold and pull the willow in one hand and cut the willow as close to the ground as possible with the hand wielding the ax. He showed me this a few times and returned my ax. The ax itself was still rather blunt, something which was to change drastically upon my return to Fort McPherson. I was weary from the lengthy traveling and weakened by hunger. Slowly but steadily I made some progress and Johnny’s teachings started to permeate my being.
A few months later, February 2006, I traveled back to Bear Creek with Johnny, Sonny, and several other Gwich’in for the first Rat River Trapping Course. This time we traveled with snowmobiles across the river at Fort McPherson to Husky Lake up into the hills to Charlie Rat Trail to reach Bear Creek via Rat River. The Charlie Rat Trail, which included a relatively narrow trail that follows along a creek (Charlie Rat Viteetshik) with steep banks on both sides, had not been cut out for some time and so Johnny put the boys (including myself) to work. At this stage, Johnny expected me to have learned how to cut a trail after his previous teachings at Bear Creek and told me to stay in the back and cut out a wider trail with a few boys. Not only did we have to cut the willow close to the ground, Johnny also instructed us to blaze the trees to make markers along the trail for others and to aid in cutting out the trail again next winter. Large or small spruce trees are blazed by cutting off a small part of the bark so that the inner bark is shown. Especially “green” trees are blazed since the whiteness of the inner bark is more intense and visible (see also Nelson 1986: 183). Furthermore, blazing “green” trees produces gum that is collected for medicinal purposes. These blaze-marks can be seen throughout Gwich’in territory and some were made decades ago. Larger parts of spruce trees are sometimes also peeled to make dry wood and to use the bark for fish smoke houses (see Heffner and Heffner 2012, for culturally modified trees in Southern Yukon).
The making of trail-markers has indeed a long history.7 Osgood ( 1970: 58) mentions that “[o]nce in a while a tree is blazed [by Gwich’in] but not so often or conspicuously as white men do.” He goes on to describe that “[g]enerally the top is cut off a small spruce or the branch from a large one.” Osgood’s observation is in rather stark contrast with the present trails across the Gwich’in country.
One of the major changes that has occurred in the Gwich’in country in the last few decades has been the shift from living on the land to living in the growing settlement of Fort McPherson. A number of factors are responsible for this shift; the start of government welfare programs in the 1950s and 1960s, the notorious residential school legacy,collapse of fur economy, the building of the Dempster Highway and subsequent disappearance of dog teams (WAHC 2002: 216; Wishart and Loovers 2013). This further implied that people began using different trails and places for hunting and trapping. Subsequently certain trails have become obsolete and overgrown.
Johnny’s father, the renowned late Chief Johnny Charlie, was troubled by the changes that he experienced and observed. One of his concerns was that younger Gwich’in generations would not know the land and how to read it, and indeed would forget the old trails that linked Fort McPherson with Lapierre House and onward to Old Crow. The Chief, who was a leading figure in negotiations with Canadian government officials to settle the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (finalized in 1992), thus began to re-open the Daghoo Trail. The highly respected Chief gathered several men to re-make the Daghoo Trail during an epic journey on snowshoes and an old Élan snowmobile.8 Following his father’s concerns, Johnny has been particularly active in breaking trails, making new trails, or re-making old ones.9 Johnny has explained to me his tendency to make many trail-markers in terms of the lack of intimate knowledge of many young Gwich’in of the country. Without these clearly cut trails, some youths might not be able to find the trails while traveling in unfamiliar places. Blaze-marks keep them on the right track as well as assisting more experienced travelers to stay on the trail in future years or at moments when snow covers the trail. Johnny’s concerns illuminate that Gwich’in have traveled considerably less, and subsequently their youth have seen considerably less country than their parents and the generations before.
This is not to say that Gwich’in youths and elders Gwich’in have stopped traveling, a number of Gwich’in youth have taken up trapping and hunting caribou remains a priority for many Gwich’in. These forms of traveling, however, often do not follow older trails as much hunting happens along the Dempster Highway. Traveling for ‘recreation’ also remains popular with Gwich’in, and many travel on well-established trails to their family camps for the weekends or during breaks. Among the youths, driving around on their snowmobiles for leisure or practice for upcoming snowmobile races is also very popular. However, many of these practices do not call for the same detailed knowledge of the land as those of the older generation of Gwich’in, nor do they necessarily involve making new portage trails or following older or overgrown ones. Furthermore, the younger generations might not be familiar with particular places and markers on the land.
While there are different markers flowing out of the movements on the land, I focus on the lobstick as a relational marker. The author Angus Graham asks the aging adventurer and miner George Mitchell “What is a lobstick, Mr Mitchell?” Mitchell has been well known in Fort McPherson, both because of the book The Golden Grindstone and because of the ingeniously successful surgery on his broken knee conducted by two Gwich’in women. The latter involved placing four caribou bone pegs and tying them together to Mitchell’s knee cap.
A lobstick?, Mitchell goes on to say, Why a lobstick is a tree that has had its branches trimmed in a particular way—it’s generally a big spruce or pine standing in a conspicuous place, and they leave the head on, but cut some branches below the head, and then perhaps another four or five rings of branches lower down, so to make a distinctive landmark. The idea is that people shall point to it and ask whose it is. They are only granted to celebrated Indians or white men: you can’t buy one, the Indians come and tell you’ve been granted one, and then you give them a banquet. I had four lobsticks—one on the Athabasca, one on the Mackenzie, one on the Wind opposite Wind City, and one up by the Pass, where I broke my leg. I think the one at the Ramparts belonged to some old chief.(Graham 1947: 134)
Although widely known in the Canadian North, lobsticks have not found much resonance in academic literature apart from some sporadic exceptions, including Carolyn Podruchny’s work (2006, 2010), the name of an interdisciplinary journal, and Richard Davis’s book Lobsticks and Stone Cairns (1996) that uses it as a metaphorical landmark for human accomplishments. Most recently, Podruchny with Frederic Gleach and Roger Roulette have written an interesting article on the history and significance of lobsticks linking this to European maypoles and aboriginal poles.10 The authors argue that “[lobsticks] thus become sites where identities were articulated and negotiated … [and] … those working in the fur trade drew on both indigenous and European traditions in creating lobsticks, and in doing so articulated a creolised identity” (2010: 26). In addition, following the authors’ argument, lobsticks would be considered multi-vocal expressions in which different meanings and understandings come together and are made visible through the making and the narrating (Podruchny et al.: 2010: 27).
During the fur trade era, the lobsticks became an amalgamation of European and Aboriginal traditions and often were given by voyageurs or Aboriginal people to bourgeois men and occasionally women with whom they had been traveling. The bourgeois men and women, the elite class of HBC-officers (Podruchny 2006; Podruchny et al. 2010), felt honored by the personal monument and place-name in the land and in payment were obliged to provide drinks and/or food for the voyageurs that assigned and made the lobsticks (see also Cameron 2008; Fitzgibbon  2004; Heming 1921; Mair  1999). Archdeacon Robert McDonald exemplifies that lobsticks were not only designated for the aristocratic elite, within Gwich’in territory there was a large number of different lobsticks: Gwich’in leaders (Vihkwatrul’s), HBC employees (Alexander Murray’s and Antoine Hoole’s), Gwich’in women(Janet Barber’s), naturalists (Robert Kennicott’s), and for the government (McDonald 1862–1912). Often these lobsticks seems to have been markers for McDonald during his travels to set up camp nearby. Interestingly enough, these lobsticks have become obsolete and those that remain alive in Gwich’in narratives are connected with their own histories.
The Gwich’in Atlas account five different lobsticks (njoh). Gwichya Gwich’in elder Annie Norbert and distinguished Gwichya Gwich’in Chief Hyacinthe Andre of Tsiigehtchic argue that the lobstick could serve to mark good fishing spots or good berry patches (Heine et al. 2007: 34). Contrary to George Mitchell’s argument, lobsticks were sometimes bought and given as a gift. For example, Chief Hyacinthe bought a lobstick at Pierre’s Creek and gave it to his wife Eliza. GSCI Research Director Ingrid Kritsch, responding to an email correspondence between me, GSCI Executive Director Sharon Snowshoe and herself concerning lobsticks, mentions that William Teya discusses the same lobstick as George Mitchell. She cites from her work on place names: “Chuu Tr’adaojiichuu or Chuu Tr’idaodiich’uu (a.k.a. Peel Canyon…)—during our river trip in 1996, William Teya mentioned that there used to be a njoh on top of a cliff on the right bank of the river, but it’s no longer there” (Kritsch et al. 2000: 106). Although I am not familiar with this lobstick, I was told on several occasion of a place called Lobstick (Njoh Ndįį’ee), which is several miles down the Peel from Fort McPherson. In my field notes I paraphrase Mr. Colin after we stopped there: “Lobstick is where Eskimos and Gwich’in had fights a long time ago.” The connection between lobsticks and former Inuit-Gwich’in wars is visible in adjacent Gwichya Gwich’in country. Gwichya Gwich’in elder Naatchuu shares with Pierre Benoit the following story: “I have seen that tree … I know where they cut some of the brush with a knife. The Eskimo climbed up there, and then he looked at the people staying across Pierre’s Creek—a lot of people, you know, they had two big smokehouses … there was quite a bunch of them there. From there the Eskimo watched them. And when they got a chance, well, they just went across. It was dark at night, but most of the Eskimo were killed. That’s the last fight they ever had” (in Heine et al. 2007: 35). Chief Hyacinthe agrees that lobsticks are “like a landmarks. You climb up and you look around” (Heine et al. 2007: 34). Ingrid Kritsch, in the email correspondence on lobsticks, refers to another lobstick, called Njoh Ndįį’ee: “[The] place name refers to a Lobstick standing up—location is on the Husky Channel (no oral history attached)” (Kritsch et al. 2000: 172).
The Lobstick at Bear Creek
Lobsticks are not merely reminiscences of the past. A known lobstick, more recently made, stands on top of the hill at Sucker Creek behind Hannah and Gladys Alexie’s cabin. During one boat ride up the Peel with Mr Colin in search for berries, an iron land-survey marker at his father-in-law’s old cabin opposite the Tl’oondih healing camp, and his father’s camp opposite Sucker Creek (Daats’at Chihvyah K’it Gwichoo), Mr. Colin pointed out the Lobstick and mentioned that Walter J. Alexie’s kids (actually Robert Alexie Jr.; see Kritsch et al. 2000) have made it.
In the winter of 2007, I experienced first-hand making a lobstick. By now, I had become fairly familiar with Bear Creek and its surroundings. In fact, people jokingly started referring to Bear Creek as “my country” in the same way they would with other Gwich’in who have spent a considerable time at a particular place. Moreover I had been traveling, working with (e.g., apprentice in cutting trails, blazing trees, and building the log cabin), and living with Johnny Charlie on the land at Bear Creek and other places. During the building of Bear Creek cabin in January 2007, Johnny told me to make a lobstick. At that time nothing came of this and a few months passed before we returned to Bear Creek for the second Rat River Trapping Course. With the Course almost ending, Johnny reminded me again about the lobstick.
The moment occurred when I was cutting a new trail and blazing trees alone with Johnny. He wanted to have a new trail made a few river bends upstream from the two cabins. The portage trail would bypass parts of the treacherous Rat River with its undercurrents and overflows, and would shorten the time taken to reach Horn Lake from Bear Creek. We had been intensively working the entire day. A rhythm had developed between us; Johnny would go ahead and set out the trail by breaking trail, cutting trees and blazing trees with the chainsaw and I would follow by fine-tuning the trail and blazing more trees with my new ax. I had lost my previous ax during a recent trip crossing the mountains from Bear Creek to Fort McPherson and the new ax had not yet received the same sharpening treatment by other Gwich’in men. The relative bluntness had already annoyed me while cutting trail and I had been using Johnny’s ax for some parts. The process had gone well and we managed to cut out the approximately two mile trail. Rather exhausted, we walked back to Rat River when Johnny told me to climb into a large spruce tree and blaze near to the top branches and then downwards. He had decided that now was the proper time to make the lobstick. The tree was a lonesome spruce and marked one of the two beginnings of the newly cut trail around the river bend, close to John Kay’s wood area. Indeed, the way the branches had grown madethe tree particularly suitable for becoming a lobstick. I climbed with some difficulty into the tree with my ax. Johnny was standing below and sometimes would give minor directions how I should proceed with cutting branches, but mostly would leave me to my own judgment and ability.
Cutting thick branches with only a small reach and bending your body around the tree was far from easy or pleasant. To add to my discomfort, my fur hat got caught and fell down several branches. I was getting fatigued and thought about finishing the job at another time. Johnny noticed my predicament and asked me if I was tired. I knew that giving up was not a real option and that making a lobstick was, like making trails and living on the land, a Gwich’in test of endurance and confronting hardship. Although exhausted and a bit irritated by the cold wind that was freezing my recently exposed ears and penetrating my work-mitts, I continued striking the top branches and working my way down. The task became even more difficult when my work-mitts stiffened because of the mixture of sweat, heat, and cold. The grip on the ax became thus increasingly slippery. Meanwhile, Johnny kept himself moving and warm by inscribing in the tree “07 Pete” with his chainsaw and cutting some willow around the trail. As time wore on I finished the top, but later realized that I might not have made the proper lobstick in accordance with Chief Hyacinthe’s drawing. I had taken off two thick middle branches and they could have been demarcated as lobstick arms, which look like the large claws of lobsters. Climbing down and getting back to the ground, Johnny told me that traditionally, young Gwich’in boys would make lobsticks to show their endurance and fearlessness. Like the young Alexie up the Peel River who also had made a lobstick, the lobstick commemorates these relationships and the strenuous task, strength, and endurance of making one. Making a lobstick had indeed not been an easy task. Without my fur hat, my ears had begun to freeze and my hands had become extremely cold as my working gloves were not enough to protect against the cold wind. My muscles were also tired and started shaking, as did my feet. But there it was: a lobstick. Afterward, while walking back, we stopped and Johnny told me to walk into the bush and make some trail. Although we were both fatigued, I led Johnny into the thick brush making a thin trail in the deep snow. On the last day of the Trapping Course, Johnny told me to take a photo of the lobstick and pronounced: “this is the last time you might be at Bear Creek, this way people will remember you.” Indeed until now I have not been back to Bear Creek, but have often traveled there in my mind.
“The observing traveler sees many different kinds of trails,” begins the anatomist and paleontologist Roy L. Moodie (1930: 51) his article on ancient trails in Texas. He goes on to say, “We have only the trails to study” (Moodie 1930: 53). What Moodie brings to our attention, like anthropologist Tim Ingold (2007), is the importance of trails as practices of living. However, we need to take Moodie’s argument one step further and not only study the trails but also “travel the trails,” as Harry Simpson tells Tom Andrews and his Tłįǫchǫ research companion John Zoe (1997: 160). For the Tłįǫchǫ elder, like the Gwich’in with whom I have been working, the trail traveled is a direct link with the ancestors, the stories, the things and materials (e.g., wood and animal skins) with which one works.
In the above examples I have intended to touch on what such traveling entails in Gwich’in country in terms of making trails and markers. The land, then, as Slobodin and others noted, should cease to be considered as a wilderness without human and animal (and spirit) movements. Instead, the land comprises a wide variety of trails and markers that the observing traveler needs to be aware of and study. The work conducted by the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, and the subsequent creation of the online Gwich’in Atlas, and the Vuntut Gwich’in are testimonies of such studies. “Knowing the land” (see Anderson 2000; Heine et al. 2007), and being able to read the land, entails being aware of, and attentive to, markers that have been used for signifying trails or locating important events. A careless or indifferent woodsman, then, could fell these markers. For the Gwich’in elders as well as other Gwich’in, many of these markers remain significant and tell of historical events and previous movements of Gwich’in people. This was precisely what Chief Johnny Charlie Sr. seems to have had in mind; to know the land one has to “travel the trails,” keep the old trails open, and know the places and markers. His son Johnny has come to the same conclusion. It has been in this capacity that Johnny commenced teaching me how to break and make trail in our shared travels to and around Bear Creek, and subsequent request to make a lobstick.
The lobstick exemplifies the creolization and incorporation of different traditions and practices. The written name and shape of the lobstick seem to correspond more with the fur trade and Euro-Canadian traditions while the marking of a trail or fishing spot and the assignment by a relative or teacher to a younger person to affirm the latter’s relation with the other and the locality seem to correspond with aboriginal traditions. However, rather than trying to uncover which aspect belongs to which tradition, one may view the lobsticks as amalgamating the Euro-Canadian fur trade history with aboriginal history and as expressions of partnerships par excellence. Furthermore, the personal experiences of making a lobstick also enable answering philosophical questions. At first sight, lobsticks seem to be particularly individualistic with the assignment to one specific person or institution or historical event: a conspicuous tree at a particular place. But, as should have become clear with the previous elaboration of experiences and histories at Bear Creek, and during field work more generally, the lobstick becomes clearly placed within the field of relations and, indeed, becomes an extension of the self into the locality. As Johnny mentions, “This way people will remember you” and thus ties my being with the locality and the shared experiences of breaking and cutting trail, building a log cabin and a bridge, traveling, and living together at the old Bear Creek cabin. The lobstick at Bear Creek is a marker for others at the start of a new portage trail, and of my knowing and being through the experiences in this particular locality with a particular boss and mentor, Johnny Charlie Jr.
The author acknowledges the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, the community of Fort McPherson, Johnny Charlie Jr., Ingrid Kritsch, Alestine Andre, David Anderson, Tim Ingold, John Ziker, Tatiana Argounova-Low, the anonymous reviewers, Khadidjah Mattar, Simona Trozzi, and Alessandro Pasquini. He further acknowledges the YGDRASSIL Fellowship, ERASMUS bursary, the NSF, the RAI Urgent Anthropology Fellowship, and the ERC Advanced Grant Arctic Domus for their financial contributions in the development of this paper. This article is a revised version of parts of the author’s PhD dissertation and from an earlier published article on lobsticks and Bear Creek. The author is grateful for the permission of Kendall Hunt to build on a previous article on lobsticks (Loovers 2014) in the current form. This article is dedicated to my Teetł’it Gwich’in teachers.
Kohl (1860: 244–247) includes a similar account for the Anishinaabe or Ojibwa. A prophet, or medicine-man, has a vision of the arrival of the white men and their technologies. The medicine-man, accompanied by a group of men, travels downriver to investigate his vision and stumbles on a clearance in the forest. The trees are cut rather smoothly. The men ponder whether the trees have been cut by a Giant Beaver. The medicine man, instead, explains that he envisioned white men using long knives (axes) to cut down trees. The Anishinaabe men are struck with awe and terror at the ease with which the white men could cut down trees. At the clearing the men also found wood-chips which they put in their hair. Finally, the French are caught up by the men and the medicine man’s prophecy of ships and guns becomes clear.
Ingrid Kritsch (personal communication) explains that 500 place names have now been officially recognized by Yukon and Northwest Territories Government. Mapping place names is foremost a political tool to illustrate the historical presence of indigenous people on their traditional lands, reclaim these lands, and revitalize language and culture (Aporta et al. 2014: 240).
Slobodin’s interpretation of the use of the land as home is striking but not uncommon to hear in the North. Teetł’it Gwich’in have on different occasions stated that they are home while being on the land. The notion of domus, which I consider as a ‘place of making homely’, can be helpful, as it places an emphasis on making and the relationality of home. The domus is not bound to a fixed structure (the walls of the house), or refers to the inside of a house, but rather involves the binding between persons (humans and/or non-humans), materials, and environment (see also David Anderson et al., forthcoming). This resonates very closely with the Gwich’in notion of “country,” which indicates places where humans and animals (and other beings) move, make their homes, and live.
The purpose of our trip was to break trail (making a new trail through the snow) and to bring some equipment to Bear Creek. Johnny’s intention, in collaboration with his employer, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Teetł’it Gwich’in Renewable Resource Council, was to build a new Bear Creek cabin on higher ground since the 1970s cabin had been prone to flooding due to spring floods (see Loovers 2010; Wishart and Loovers 2013).
Johnny would often recount this collision to others and myself. He elaborated that firstly I had managed to get off the trail with a snowmobile that had a wide track and thus rendered easiest to travel in deep snow. To go off track was deemed impossible. I secondly had made another impossibility possible by hitting the ‘only’ small tree along the trail in that particular strand of the trail.
On the mountains or plateaus, where the trees are scarce, singular trees are often used as landmarks for trails. In the past, clumps of moss or sphagnum were placed on small tree tops to mark the trail (Alestine Andre, personal communication). More recently, Gwich’in have started using for example pink fluorescent tape, metal reflectors, wooden stakes, cans, pieces of clothing, or jerry cans. One particular kind of marker is a spruce tree with a forked-top. A Gwich’in elder mentioned that the fork is made with an ax when the tree is still small. I refer to one such marker in my field notes: “Spruce tree with a forked top often indicates a particular landmark. The one behind the island just after Nigha Van (creek) Tshik point on the left going up is indicating the old trail that people walked … for berries.” Forked spruce trees can also be formed by lightening. At the Mouth of the Peel, Mr. Colin showed me a knotted willow close to Peter Thompson’s cabin. He mentioned that children used to make a knot in a young willow and that these knots could be found in some old willows at Mouth of the Peel. Other markers are animal places. At Basso Creek, for example, there stands one lonely tall spruce tree with a branch sticking out at the top. Gwich’in elder Fred explains that in the spring and throughout the summer and early fall, an eagle would be around the tree and use the top branch as a look-out post. The tree had remained standing as it was Eagle’s place.
After his father’s death, Johnny and his younger siblings have taken over the organization of this annual event to honor their father’s legacy. I have accompanied them on four occasions, in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011.
In recent years the Teetł’it Gwich’in Renewable Resource Council has been hiring Gwich’in to cut out certain trails, such as the Charlie Rat Trail, Husky Lakes Trail, and Stoney Creek Portage Trail.
In Algonquian tradition, wooden poles were an important part of ceremonies enabling communication between human and non-humans. In other instances, such as for the Gwich’in, modified poles or trees were markers for trails or fishing localities. Europeans had been using maypoles for religious and social reasons. The anthropologist George Frazer’s classic The Golden Bough ( 1957) includes a detailed analysis of the importance of trees in the lives of people across the globe and history. He describes in some depth ceremonies that take place on Whitsuntide surrounding maypoles.
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