Anthropologist who helped document Gwich’in place names, culture gets honorary degree

Anthropologist Ingrid Kritsch is about to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta next month for her extensive work documenting and revitalizing Gwich’in culture in the NWT and Yukon over 30 years.

In an interview with CBC’s Northwind, Kritsch said much of that work was accomplished with the hard work of elders who want to preserve their culture and language for future generations.

“I’m really, really thrilled that the elders worked really hard with us. They were totally behind us. They guided our work from start to finish, really.”

An honorary member of the Gwich’in Nation, Kritsch has worked alongside elders and land users on upwards of 120 research projects.

“I’m so thankful I’ve been blessed with so many years working with so many wonderful elders, with my colleague and dear friend Alestine Andre, Sharon Snowshoe, Kristi Benson,” she said.

Ingrid Kritsch worked with Alestine Andre on the Gwich’in name place project. Andre is seen here interviewing her father, Elder Hyacinthe Andre about the named places around Nihtavan Diniinlee, in 1993. (Gwich’in Tribal Council)

Two weeks ago, she got a call from the senator’s chancellor at the University of Alberta, but she had to keep the news quiet until this week’s formal announcement.

“I just was flabbergasted.”

Her work began in 1992 when Andre and Kritsch were hired by an archaeologist for the NOGAP Archeology Project, which was in anticipation of oil and gas development in the Beaufort Delta.

The archeologist wanted to understand the Gwich’in and their traditional use of the area.

Andre and Kritsch worked with elders to document trails, place names, stories and knowledge of the area, mainly where a proposed pipeline might be put through.

But elders in Tsiighetchic and Gwichya Gwich’in said that was only part of their land use area.

They were worried the knowledge of the area was being lost.

“They invited us back next summer to continue with another area, their traditional lands,” said Kritsch.

“That’s really how we got started, was through the project.”

The foundational project was based on place names, traditional land use and stories behind the names.

Over three summers they worked in Tsiighetchic, then worked with Tetlit Gwich’in in Fort McPherson, people in Aklavik and Inuvik – projects that led to about 2,000 named places being documented in the traditional land use area in the NWT and Yukon.

This resulted in other projects like published books, articles and exhibits.

They also put together an online atlas with Gwich’in place names in partnership with Carleton University’s Geomatics and Cartographic Research Center.

Researchers worked with Elders and land users to document place names in an interactive map. (Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute)

The atlas is interactive and users can hear the name of a place and learn the history behind it. It also includes more than 20 maps downloadable from the atlas website.

This work helped designate nine new national and territorial historic sites in the Gwich’in area.

“That was one of the projects I think I’m most proud of and that had a lot of impact.”

The project was hands-on and brought them out on the land with elders and youth.

Caribou clothing project

In another project Kritsch was involved in during the early 2000s, they recreated an 1880s article of caribou clothing for men that was in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

With 42 seamstresses, they created more than five replicas of that clothing, and four of them are on display in the Gwich’in area.

Another is at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center.

Kritsch emphasizes that the work elders did was with the intention of making it available for their grandchildren and generations to come.

Building connections

Kritsch said as a non-Indigenous anthropologist, she felt a responsibility to do her best to build connections, and to be passionate about her work.

Kritsch said Gwich’in communities made her feel at home.

“I feel like I’ve been brought into a very wonderful extended family and I’m very thankful for that.”

When Alestine Andre heard the news, she told Kritsch, “I’m so sure our Gwich’in elders and land users who worked with Ingrid are wearing their big smiles, many dancing with jointly, some kicking up their heels or tapping their toes, some drum dancing, tea dancing, chanting love songs all over the heavens at this recognition. “

Kritsch’s daughter and husband have also been a part of her work, with her husband at home taking care of their daughter, who sometimes accompanied Kritsch on her field work.

She said her dad, 89, will also be at the ceremony for her honorary degree.

“I’m looking forward to meeting Rick Mercer,” she laughs – he’ll be there accepting an honorary degree too.

Ingrid Kritsch will get her honorary doctor of law degree on June 15 at 10 am

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