“We need what is in young people's hearts to be the medicine that this world needs”
Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm is a firm believer in the power of Indigenous people for playing an essential role in the solution to the climate crisis. From his small community of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon Territory — home to 250 people — he passionately advocates for paying careful attention to the often-underestimated wisdom and knowledge of the land that Indigenous Peoples inherently possess.
Tizya-Tramm wants to see more Indigenous-led renewable energy projects because he knows that Indigenous Peoples are the most capable of listening to what the land is telling us. "Historically Indigenous communities have been left behind, but right now, there is an opportunity to bring them to the table. It is easier than people think," he says. "The term 'leader' is a misnomer since one does not need to be a politician or a chief to be a leader. Leadership is within all of us to embody. We need real leaders at the table now more than ever."
Old Crow has the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) plant in the Yukon and Tizya-Tramm, one of the youngest Vuntut Gwitchin Chiefs in the history of the First Nation, played an important role in bringing it to the community.
Sree Vyah, or the Old Crow Solar PV Project, is completely owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Through Tizya-Tramm's leadership and perseverance, a 25-year Electricity Purchase Agreement was reached with the local utility, ATCO Electric Yukon. The deal, made possible under the Yukon's Independent Power Producers Policy, was structured so ATCO can purchase the electricity generated by the solar array at a rate approximately equivalent to the cost of diesel generation. As a result, Old Crow's greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 680 tonnes of CO2e per year, and over $400,000 will be unlocked for the community annually. The novel business model will begin redirecting stable, long-term income to Old Crow.
According to an Aug. 17, 2021 press release, Old Crow recently went quiet when the diesel generators shut off and the full electrical load was met by solar power. For Tizya-Tramm and others in the community who worked to see the project become reality, this silence is a powerful statement in itself.
"Once Old Crow goes online this year and the diesel generators turn off,” he affirmed, “it will not just be completely silent — it will also be the loudest political statement of renewable energy for Indigenous communities in Canada."
Despite his leadership role, Tizya-Tramm explains that the Sree Vyah is most important as a concrete demonstration of community action. "Sree Vyah was completed by the community for the community," he says. "All it takes is one mirror to reflect light into the kaleidoscope of a community resulting in positive change and real movement. This is what happens when you empower Indigenous people. This is just the start."
It doesn't matter who is sitting across the table — whether the Prime Minister or representatives of a US Administration — Dana always brings up the objective truth that all we have to do is leave the environment alone and let it be.
"The beautiful thing about truth is that it's like a candle."
"You can carry it into a dark room to illuminate it, but you cannot do the opposite. This truth of the land and Indigenous people is a strength. It is something precious that must be treated with respect and handled properly; otherwise, it can be lost."
When Dana Tizya-Tramm speaks, it is very easy to see how he has attained the level of success and respect in his community.
His words are eloquent and articulated as if they were written by a philosopher and rehearsed beforehand. But he is just speaking his mind, off-the-cuff.
As the Vuntut Gwitchin Chief, people sometimes misunderstand Tizya-Tramm's main job requirement. "It is not to find the solutions, they usually already exist," he says, "my job is to find the resources and the right people with the solutions and bring them together."
After signing of the initial power purchase agreement for the solar project, Tizya-Tramm said that it was akin to the opening of a door. "Vuntut Gwitchin translates to 'those who dwell among the many lakes'. In our culture, there is no private land ownership; everything is owned together," he explains. "My signature signified the past coming into the future and Indigenous Peoples staying true to their principles. Indigenous successes are not just important for Indigenous Peoples; they have opened doors for other Yukoners and Canadians too."
Despite having a very troubled upbringing and a general distrust towards adults, Tizya-Tramm still thinks deeply about the connections to his grandparents and their legacies. His grandfather was a hunter and trapper born on the land near Old Crow. After his children were taken from him and forced to attend a residential school in Dawson City, he and his wife moved there so they could be closer to them. This meant he went from being a proficient hunter and trapper to working as an illiterate janitor at the residential school.
After seeking permission from his wife and from the elders to return to Old Crow, he hopped on a dogsled team and made the 400-kilometre journey home from Dawson City. He did this three times, every time arriving in Old Crow with more than he had left with, due to trapping and hunting along the way. Alas, he would have been the last person ever to make the journey.
Tizya-Tramm could not accept being the missing link between the legacy of his grandfather and his great-grandchildren, and because of this, he ultimately decided to move back to Old Crow himself. There he learned the ways of his ancestors, stocked shelves, focused on cultural revitalization, started a youth organization called the Youth of the Peel, and eventually became a Gwitchin Council member and Chief in early 2019 at the age of 31.
Tizya-Tramm's great grandmother, Katherine Netro, used to say that it is essential to go out into the world and bring the world back to the community. He believes that she started a cycle and now sees himself doing the same thing. That is, going out into the world and bringing back experiences to pass along to the next generation.
After being asked what he would say to Indigenous youth and the younger generations that are interested in climate change, governance, and leadership, he responds with:
"You must challenge yourself. You need to permeate through navigate political and personal truths and focus on the objective ones. Read the facts. Read the IPCC Assessment Reports. Realize that you did not cause the climate problem, you are not responsible for it, and you cannot control it. But you can still learn to love the planet. Learn to release your negative emotions and not hold onto them. It is not about fighting. It is about taking hold of your own inertia and steering it towards solutions. We need courage. We need what is in young people's hearts to be the medicine that this world needs."
Reflecting on his intimate relationship with the land, Tizya-Tramm leaves us with this last piece of wisdom: "All you need to do is stand at the doorstep of all this wonderment of creation, watch a herd of caribou run across the horizon and become overwhelmed with the entire experience pouring out of you, because your heart and mind cannot hold onto it all. Once you do this, all you can say then is, thank you."
Dana Tizya-Tramm is grateful to be able to experience the land and for the awareness of how special it is. He is looking forward to teaching his children and their children about finding this gratitude.
In taking action on climate, this Arctic community wants to be a beacon to the world - CBC News
He’s the youngest Chief in his First Nation’s history. Now he’s leadingtheir fight against climate change. - The Washington Post
Old Crow chief wants to inspire global climate action - CBC News
Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm at the 2020 Global Climate Action Summit
Bringing Old Crow To The World - Up Here Magazine