Amidst the painful legacy of Canada's Residential Schools, a powerful story of resilience emerges, strengthening communities through traditional teachings and perseverance. Despite the imposition of Residential Schools as part of a broad set of assimilation efforts to destroy the rich cultures and identities of Indigenous peoples, survivors share their stories and devote their lives to preserving and teaching their cultures. Elder Walter Peter of the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun in Mayo, Yukon, embodies strength and resiliency. A survivor of Residential Schools, Walter is known throughout the Yukon for his commitment to sharing Northern Tutchone language and stories of Dooli (Traditional Law). He is often invited to attend local community events where he proudly fulfills his responsibility to teach the next generations, reminding everyone in his community of Dan Ke (Our Ways). As stated by Walter, "Our stories are not fairy tales, they really happened", and they act as a powerful source of teaching.
Photo: Andrew Serack Photography, Elder Walter Peter, First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun 30th Anniversary of Self-government Celebration
The following excerpt is from Dän Hùnày Our People's Story. This book shares the history and life of Indigenous people from Mayo, Yukon, written by the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun Elders with Susanna Gartler, Gertrude Saxinger and Joella Hogan. At the time of the interview with Walter Peter, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was completing their work and the subject was discussed almost daily on Canadian radio and television.
He tells how going to school was like working, but under terrible conditions:
I started working at an early age. Since 1955. I was going to school. You had to work too there, scrub floor on your hands and knees with brush. Big room, big, big, big. Dormitory, stairway, hallway, big school playroom. Keep changing every month, keep changing different chores. You do dormitory, then next month you do stair way, three storey, eh! From that you got to get every corner with toothbrush too. It was strict there in the school. Treat you worse than jail. Awful place. Then I start working there ever since 1955, right through five years.
Walter Peter was only thirteen years old when he decided to run away:
I never came out, I ran away. Yeah, some of us run away. It took us three days to get back to Mayo. Some time you walk long ways, some time you hitchhike.
When the principal came, he came to my mom place down here: 'Where's Walter?' My mom said: 'What are you talking about "where is Walter"? You took him!' He said: 'No. He ran away.' She said 'What? He ran away? How come you guys didn't tell me nothing?' Yeah.' You don't tell me nothing, you come here look around for him, you don't say that he ran away? Why didn't you tell me? You see that door? Get out!' To the supervisor and policeman: 'Get out.' And then my mom said: 'When Walter come back, he's not going back. He's staying here. Get out, don't bother. Go.' They didn't even bother trying to take me back.
Although his mother was able to protect him from having to go back, the negative repercussions proved to be far-reaching, making it difficult to learn in school for example. Many members of this generation as well as their children and grandchildren have to deal with the intergenerational effects on their healing journeys today. It has been a long and difficult road for this dark chapter of Canada to become known. The lack of acknowledgment for so long is what has been additionally damaging for many survivors.
Photo : Walter's mother, Lucy Peter preparing a hide in Mayo, Yukon
Today, as one of the few remaining Elders from this generation in our community, Walter stays busy by attending local events, enjoying visits with family and friends and participating in projects that serve to protect the Land, revitalize language and share culture. These projects include translating an entire documentary series featured on APTN called Yukon Harvest, helping Carleton University document oral history and language with the use of hologram technology, providing tours and history lessons of Old Village, and offering support in the local elementary school as part of the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun Heritage Department's goal of teaching hands-on cultural programs to students. Walter is also a part of The Yukon Soaps Company Elders Circle, helping to share harvesting protocols and language translations. These are just a few ways Walter helps keep the teachings of his ancestors alive and thriving in the academic setting. To him, these teachings go beyond the classroom. Living your culture never stops - you carry it with you no matter where you are.
Photo: Elder Walter Peter's hologram as part of the Yukon University's oral history project
Walter’s story would not be complete without mentioning tagé (river). Today, one of Walter's favourite activities is attending the Moosehide Gathering near Dawson City. He has many friends in this area and tries to visit as often as possible. The trip to Moosehide requires a boat ride approximately three kilometres downriver. He cherishes his time on the water and he is known as a skilled riverboat man. Deeply rooted in his culture, he possesses an innate connection to water, particularly rivers. His skills in operating and navigating boats are the result of generations of ancestral knowledge handed down to him from his father. Walter played an important role as an Elder during the remarkable Protect the Peel campaign that resulted in the protection of over 68,000 square kilometres of wilderness. Yukon's Peel Watershed is one of the largest unspoiled natural areas left in North America.
Photo: Walter shares stories with Youth about traditional boats made by the Northern Tutchone people
By maintaining a connection to his culture, he found strength. Thankfully, he refused to let oppressors take away his identity. His role in our community and throughout the Yukon is one that deserves to be shared. We honour his dedication to teaching and proudly spread his message of reciprocity. The land keeps us strong - when you look after the land, the land looks after you.
In honour of Uncle Walter, Proud Northern Tutchone Elder, Teacher, Knowledge Keeper and Riverboat Man
Taking family by boat to Fish Camp at Fraser Falls Yukon