Turn your universe into a university

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm pictured in Old Crow. Photo by David Thoreson.

Dana Tizya-Tramm was elected Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in 2018, and sworn into office in January 2019. In this conversation, he shares the path that brought him to where he is today and what he sees in the future.

Why did you take on this role in your community?

In leaders today, we need people who are in love with humanity, not with money, and that we have people that come from deeper mandates that traditional cultures provide us, as opposed to economical ones. All of the right stars aligned, and the opportunity was laid before me, so I met it
halfway. That’s the short version.

I have about 43 months left in office, and I am going to give it everything that I have because I am experiencing a four-year university course that is not offered anywhere in the world. I have incredible access, and I am directly approaching resources and people that hold esoteric knowledge and I have to release it across networks and directly apply it to people that can make things happen.

I’m flying around the world, speaking with people, and I’m somewhat of a matador. My job is to get out of the way of the truth of my people’s way of life and our community. I use that to access the best ways forward to address the socioeconomic gaps in my community and to project long term.

I will be completely honest about this. This job is incredibly demanding and I have some growing-up to do, but that’s why I took it, because nobody is perfect and I knew that this was an incredible undertaking. What this job has the potential to do is create a vacuum that can pull a mighty oak from a seed, and I’m willing to go through the pain and run the gauntlet and to meet this position halfway in an effort to understand that I will make both my community and myself better afterwards.

Can I can ask you how old you are?

I just turned 32 in March.

When you’re sitting around the table with leaders in the Yukon, nationally, and internationally, you’re probably one of the younger people. How does this affect how you approach your position?

For me, I know that the greatest power is in people coming together, not from drawing arbitrary delineations between each other. At the end of the day, what you look like or your age doesn’t have so much to do with it, it’s about the ideas that you offer.

One of the foundational rules of nature is to bank on diversity and to reward cooperation. When I come to a table, I’m definitely conscious of my age, but then again, look where the Baby Boomers got us. I have something to offer. There are a lot of youth, not just in my community, but also across the country that have not been engaged as leaders, but they have bold ideas. They will be inheriting this world.

Where did you grow up? What was it like?

I was a Riverdale boy. I went to Grey Mountain Primary, Selkirk Elementary, and F. H. Collins.

High school was quite rough. I was homeless for a period in Grade 8. I had severe drug addictions from an early age. I was actually living under someone’s stairs for a good part of my life. I was in that world quite deeply without much of a choice, which speaks to intergenerational trauma and what it means for Indigenous peoples today.

I was dabbling in cocaine at 13. I was a heavy pot smoker and drank like fish. That carried on for many years, but it came to a point where the people that I was involved with ended up in some pretty dubious circles. I won’t mention them, but I will tell you that there always has been a very real gang presence, including some big players on the national scene, in Whitehorse.

I came to a fork in the road when murder started to arise in my  social spheres, and I knew that I wasn’t capable of that. I made my decision, and I started to change my life. With the inertia of drugs, they will enter your DNA, not just your thoughts. They will seed in your soul. I knew I had to sober up.

On February 28th of 2008, I jumped on an airplane and went down to Vancouver, BC where I didn’t know anybody. I went through extreme withdrawal, but after about two weeks I was sober and have been working hard ever since to stay that way.

And then what happened?

The interesting thing was I lived in Vancouver for about five years, and it was like a rocket in the sky. It was amazing. There were new people, amazing concerts, clubs, everything you could imagine for a young person spreading their wings.

I first started out with a job—a very interesting one in a luxury construction industry. I built expensive, retractable awnings in Richmond for rich people. The fabrics were woven in Italy, and the hardware came from Sweden, and we slapped them together and customized them and screwed them into rich people’s mansions. I did that for a number of years.

I also helped to make world history in 2013, when apprenticing under a gelato master. I assisted in developing the number one gelato flavour in the world, and we won two gold medals in Bologna, Italy, which had never been done before.

That job was incredible. I really loved it. I had my own house. I had everything, great job, great friends and a great life. I was in the city. What kind of 25-year-old has their own house and is happy and pretty much healthy?   

For the most part, I had everything, but I still felt a hollow emptiness. I had never been surrounded by so many people in my life and felt so alone. It was my people and my culture and the vibrancy of the North that was missing—how we grow up with one another, the intimate ways in which we know each other, that we’re involved with each other, the strength of our circles for the good and for the bad. I would take that over being in a city full of strangers any day.

I was offered a career—$90,000 a year, stocks in the company, and two years of university training in Bologna, Italy. Also, my boss wanted me to open up a gelato shop in L.A. That was a huge ... It was like the golden ticket. You’re going to the Willy Wonka chocolate factory. That was financial security. It was everything. In a place I love, making gelato. He gave me two weeks to think about it, and I hadn’t struggled with something that long since coming off opioids.  

I finally broke it down to its core. I knew deep down inside that I couldn’t base the trajectory of my life off of money alone. I remembered my grandfather, “Old” Peter Tizya, who the Elders say would be the last man to run a dog team from Dawson City to Old Crow. The amount of knowledge that he had because he was such a proficient hunter and trapper, and as his grandson, there was an entire world in between us.

I realized that over money, over careers, and over success, the most important thing to me was to not be that missing link between my grandfather and my grandchildren. So, I jumped on a plane, and on January 13, 2013, I landed in the community of Old Crow—back to my homeland.

Then, what?

Then, I really spread my wings. I worked on getting my bush legs. I went out hunting. I went out on the land. I went out snaring and snowshoeing. I had an insatiable hunger. I went out every chance I had. I would go out cutting wood. I would go out with the Elders. I would help people. I just continued, basically kept my mouth shut and my ears open, and the universe played me like a violin.  

These wonderful experiences slid across my soul and sparked some of the most incredible years of my life. To be out there in the cathedral of the wilderness and feel the touch of eternity on my being, in the silence of the woods, on some of the most ancient lands of my people. I dug my roots and attached to a people, some of the oldest peoples in the Americas, and I realized that in living through this and peeling back the misconceptions of contemporary society that in the city I was a tumbleweed. I was blown around by pop culture, by economics, by all these superficial and contemporary ideas.

In my homelands, among my Elders and my people, my roots dug so deep into the earth that I was able to reach for the stars. It gave me a foundation. I learned about my great-grandparents and about their grandparents, and their wishes and I realized that I was part of a much, much larger context. Everything that I had today was owed to their hard work, to their fortitude, and their ability to project far into the future for the wellbeing of their grandchildren.

You’ve experienced a lot and you’ve struggled. What would you say to young people who are struggling now?

There is no such thing as good and evil. Those are human conceptions. We have to ask ourselves why nature would create the innocent lamb but also the ferocious tiger.

If we feel good or bad about something, which is subjective, the one thing that stays the same no matter how you feel about something is your opportunity to learn. If you can find a place in your heart and in your life where you’re honest enough with yourself that you can always learn, no matter
what happens, you will turn the universe into a university and begin a whole new trajectory.

As tough as we all try to be, it’s actually all about love. Love, you either have it or you don’t, but it’s always accessible. I think there’s a reason why I bring this up, it’s that, in my opinion, the highest act of love is forgiveness, and I mean true forgiveness. How often do we practice that with ourselves? Do we truly forgive ourselves? Do we forgive each other? Do we forgive our forefathers for putting us in this situation? I think the more that we can truly develop this ability and push our insecurities out of the way to experience and allow ourselves to feel love so that we’re able to forgive ourselves and each other, I think that is the strength that we need to untie the tightest of knots to release us from our shackles and allow us to attain the futures we truly deserve.

What are you focused on when leading your community?

There are a couple of things, but if I can boil it down to the simplest one, I would say balance. We have been extremely unbalanced.

In my community, I can actually see where the waves of colonialism have crashed upon the rocks of my people. When your grandfather navigated by the stars and landmarks, and who worked by seasons and migrations and a grandson who can find dry wood using Google satellites—that is an 
incredible transition and one that has happened too fast. What does that mean for a people of the land to be suddenly struck with a modern world? How does the GDP equate with natural values?

I can see my people stuck between our traditional way of life and a contemporary world. This is a vital time for Indigenous peoples to amalgamate our traditional principles into a contemporary form because it has always been about adaptation. That was our strongest leg to stand on in one of the harshest environments of the world. I must ask myself: Is the trajectory of the nation’s pursuit of development going to swallow our traditional territories? Will television, the great homogenizer and bulldozer of cultures, flatten out the beautiful contours of the landscape of our cultures?

The truth is that everybody is a leader. I have that title, and all it means is that I have the ability to get into doors and sit down in meetings, but I can only do so much. The people, we have to work together. It’s a 50/50 balance. My job is to bring as much back to my people and my community as possible, and give them what they need to define what Gwitchin means in 2019. To bring back the tools that will allow them to strike the balance in their lives and on our traditional territories.

I see industry and governments misappropriating the idea of energy, thinking that oil is the only energy that exists when, for instance, you have the Porcupine caribou herd that convert nutrients from lichens and cotton grasses, encapsulate them in their flesh and deliver them in an ebb and flow along migratory routes throughout the Gwitchin Nation, that’s like cold fusion. All you have to do is leave it alone. To drill in their calving grounds is like trading cold fusion for a tank of gas. Both of them are forms of energy.

This allows us a long-term view, which is exactly what Indigenous ways of knowing are based on. This isn’t just a clash of colonialism against my community. My community has ideas that are able to spread like wildfire across the country if people have the heart and space in their minds to hold them.

When you talk about integrating the traditional way of life into the contemporary world, what does that look like?

One example is our solar energy project, which is one of the largest solar energy projects in the circumpolar North. When completed, it will be converting photons to electrons through a photo-voltaic system and delivering the electrons onto a micro-grid system right beside berry patches that are doing the exact same thing. This is the beautiful synergy of how traditional principles can be realized in a contemporary world. It takes ingenuity. It’s complementing western best- practices with Indigenous ways of knowing, and that requires finesse, ingenuity, and adaptation – something that my people have in spades.

The solar energy project is a disruptive business model. We will be selling electricity back to the utility instead of spending money to fly diesel to our community. We have turned a big problem into a real solution. This solar energy project will be satisfying 24% of my community’s energy needs. In one project, this will be producing around $410,000 a year, and is projected at the end of 25 years to have produced about $10.5-million for a small village of 250 people. Instead of paying to put carbon into the air. Isn’t that incredible?

This is a quarter of my whole entire community’s energy needs. We will be able to shut off our diesel generators from early March to late September on sunny days. The beautiful thing about this is that the mandate for renewable energies is so strong from my people.

What do you see when you look into the future?

I want to line up enough renewable energy projects so that our diesel generators are only used for backup, or they become museum pieces.

I want on-the-land health and wellness camps that will combine our community’s traditional ways of living with modern practices. I want to be as dynamic as possible, working with the community to find these solutions.

I want our self-government agreements taught in our high schools. The Umbrella Final Agreement is the North Star when it comes to Indigenous relationships with colonial governments. It’s not perfect, but it is probably the best document out there. We are doing a major disservice to Elijah Smith and to all of the work of Indigenous peoples across the Yukon when these documents are left out of the schools. That also goes for non-Indigenous peoples.

Our children should leave high school knowing about our corporate structures, our Constitution, our Governance Act, and the documents that are the foundation of our democracy.  Also, I want to engage the youth like they’ve never been engaged before. Over money and over even diesel or solar, our youth are our greatest resource. The amount of kinetic energy that lies in their lives needs to be tapped into, and they need to be channeled through our governmental structures because we have the ability to work with our treaty partners, as well as with the Yukon territorial government to make all of our futures better. I think that’s a really beautiful thing.

I wish more people got to see what I see standing on the shoulders of giants. I come into the office and that self-government agreement is there. We don’t have to do that work. That work has been done. The most beautiful question, and as written by Hunter S. Thompson, is: “What comes next?”

I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’ll tell you one thing: I would die a happy man if education was free for my people and for the Yukon Territory. I do not see any benefit to having any fiscal barriers to education. Every sector of our country would be raised, and democracy demands an 
educated populace.

The interesting thing about education is it’s a tool, but the interesting thing about tools is they can wield you, just as you wield them. If you’re conscious of what you’re getting into, the most important way forward is to engage the colonial system and not to resist it. Get right inside of it and change it from the inside. That’s how you defeat your enemy. You love them. You forgive them, and then they don’t have power over you anymore.

Whether the education you’re receiving is from the animals and the lands or from the books and the professors, they’re two different value systems and two different forms of knowledge, but they are value systems and they are knowledge. It’s what you do with them that’s important.

Three images: 1) Dr. Michael Ross explaining power lines and systems in Old Crow, April 2019. 2) Solar farm frames in place prior to panel installation, April 2019. 3) The first few panels are installed.
Top: Dr. Michael Ross explaining power lines and systems in Old Crow, April 2019. Bottom left: Solar farm frames in place prior to panel installation, April 2019. Bottom right: The first few panels are installed.

Note: The Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College partnered with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government to help set up the solar project in Old Crow.