Indigenous Water Governance: Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council
Emma S Norman, Jon Waterhouse
Michigan Technological University, Great Lakes Research Center and Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council
Northern America
The Yukon River has a length of 3,185 kilometers from its headwaters in the Yukon Territory, flowing west through Alaska and into the Pacific Ocean. The river’s basin is even more striking, with 850,000 km2. The Yukon River is known as the “Great River” - the Yu-kun-ah (Yukonah) - by the Gwitch’in peoples of its inner watershed and the “large stream” – Kwiguik for the Yupik people who reside in the River’s delta. This River provides a unifying source of livelihood, economy, and sense of place for those that live up and down its banks. The extraordinary size of the river, diverse range of ecosystems, multiple political jurisdictions, and the number of communities that rely on it for their livelihood, makes communication and information exchange between member tribes a key goal of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Council.
The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) is a leading example in North America of an Indigenous grassroots organization whose purview spans multiple borders (Canada, U.S. provincial, state, and Indigenous nations). The YRITWC represents a collective initiative of seventy First Nations and tribes that reside within the watershed. The aim of the Council is to improve the health and wellbeing of the watershed and the people who live within it. Simply put, the Council’s vision is “to be able to drink water directly from the Yukon River” (YRITWC 2013). The mission lays out its mandate: We, the Indigenous Tribes/First Nations from the headwaters to the mouth of the Yukon River, having been placed here by our Creator, do hereby agree to initiate and continue the clean up and preservation of the Yukon River for the protection of our own and future generations of our Tribes/First Nations and for the continuation of our traditional Native way of life. To accomplish this, the YRITWC is very deliberate about their approach and has programs with five main tenets: 1. Understanding the Watershed through monitoring, measuring, and researching, and using this knowledge to clean, enhance, and preserve life along the River. 2. Education: Promoting environmental and traditional education for the Indigenous Peoples of the Watershed through educational programs, scholarships, internships, volunteer opportunities, and incentive programs. 3. Stewardship: Honoring the traditional heritage through good stewards of the Watershed and its tributaries, and restoring and preserving its health for the benefit of future generations. 4. Enforcement: Developing and enforcing strong state, federal, territorial, and provincial environmental standards to preserve the long-term health of the Watershed. 5. Organization: Providing greater organizational strength to the Indigenous Peoples of the Yukon River Watershed, both by assisting and improving Indigenous governments and by being a model of organization built on collaboration and mutual respect. (YRITWC, 2009) The YRITWC’s governance structure represents a commitment to inter-basin cooperation; consensus based decision-making, and integrated resource governance. To carry out its mission, as of 2014, the YRITWC has a dedicated staff of 14 individuals, and an Executive Committee that is selected through a process of consensus at the biennial Summits. The members of the Executive Committee represent the geographic area of those governments, rather than the First Nation or Tribes themselves, including: Yukon Flats, Tanana River, Innoko Confluence, Middle Yukon, Innoko Confluence, Dahka Tlingit, Vuntut Gwich’in / Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Northern Tutchone, Kaska, and Southern Tutchone. The representatives provide steering for the staff and volunteers to meet its mission – they are also instrumental in communicating the work of the Council back to its constituents Although by comparison with other international rivers the Yukon is relatively “untouched”, the river’s ecosystem is threatened by activities such as: commercial fishing, pollution resulting from resource extraction, deforestation along its banks and environmental issues such as global climate change impacts upon its ecosystems. The multijurisdictional (and transboundary) nature of the watershed in years past had complicated the governance of the watershed. While agencies at the federal, state, and / or territorial level had some regulatory responsibility for the watershed, no single group existed to manage the watershed in its entirety. Recognizing that need, the Council was established in 1997 as a treaty-based organization of Indigenous governments dedicated to preserve and protect the environmental quality of the Yukon River for the health of their communities and the continuation of a traditional way of life for generations to come. The YRITWC is a registered non-profit, which allows the organization to apply for grant funding and partner with agencies.
  • effective and successful
  • sustainable
  • environmentally sound
  • socially acceptable
  • inherently participatory
  • replicable and adaptable
The YRITWC is both innovative and highly collaborative -- the first of its kind dedicated solely to promoting the responsible management, use, protection, and enhancement of the massive watershed. The Council achieves these goals through a variety of methods, including educational programs, water quality monitoring, stewardship, and land-management practices. Central to its mission, the Council serves as a vehicle to involve the First Nations and tribal communities in direct decision-making related to the governance of the watershed and to provide a forum where member villages, tribes, and nations collectively can express their needs (YRITWC, 2009). Biennial Summits A central part of the YRITWC’s governance structure is to host biennial summits that represent the signatory Tribes and First Nation governments. The Summit is a place to reinvigorate its members and allies and to (re)align them to goals and missions of the YRITWC. The Summit also provides an opportunity to exchange information about activities, voice concerns, celebrate successes, realign priorities, and strengthen allies. The Summit provides the intellectual and administrative space to reflect on the YRITWC program activities (as executed through the five departments); it also provides the staff and director an opportunity to prioritize project areas, which will influence what grants and partnerships to pursue. Healing Canoe Journey Since 2007, the YRITWC has coordinated an annual Healing Journey to help connect people in ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ to the Yukon River. The Council describes the twinned goals as a way for people to know, feel, observe and experience the River. Connecting the River comes in many forms and is different for every paddler. The participants bear witness to and experience the health of the river through personal observation. Watershed Plan Indicative of YRITWC’s long-term vision is the development of the Yukon River Watershed Plan – which lays out a long-term plan for governing and protecting the Basin’s watershed. This Plan, led by the YRITWC, brought in experts and community members across the many jurisdictions that it represents.
  • legal and institutional aspects
  • involvement of non-state stakeholders
  • cooperation over transboundary ecosystems and freshwater protected areas
  • monitoring and assessment
  • other
The success of these projects links back to a clear vision and mission that is based on place. The focus on both cultural and ecological considerations provides a holistic and integrative approach to addressing transboundary water governance issues in a multijurisdictional and multicultural framework. Having the initiative led by Indigenous leaders whose traditional territory is the Yukon River Basin, provides additional mechanisms (and impetus) for not only working towards the goals of ecosystem protection (the River’s health) but also words towards goals of strengthening self-determination and governance practices.
Coates P. (2013) A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology, London: Reaktion Books Norman, Emma (2014) Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States and Indigenous Communities. London: Routledge. YRITWC. (2014) Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council. Available at: (Images available upon request)