First Nations have found physical and spiritual sustenance in the Peel watershed for thousands of years and continue to keep those traditions strong as they balance their way of life with modern development. The Peel Watershed is the cultural homeland of four First Nations:
Archaeological evidence shows the Peel watershed has been occupied for millennia. Trails and trading routes, such as in the Wind River valley, along with place names like "bubbling up burning rock," provide a window into the culture and history of the region.
In traditional times, summers were typically spent with the family at fishing camps; autumn was a time for caribou and moose hunting; and winter was an opportunity to gather, dry meat and hunt caribou. During the Klondike Gold Rush and with the arrival of the Hudson's Bay Company, traditional lifestyles changed to take advantage of economic opportunities.
The three Yukon First Nations with traditional territory in the Peel watershed settled their land claims under the Umbrella Final Agreement in the early 1990s. In the lower Peel watershed in the Northwest Territories, the Tetlit Gwich'in have their own agreement, the Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, which specifies trans-boundary rights in the Yukon, including water quality and quantity and natural resource harvesting.
These land claims carry the force of law and have the strength of constitutional agreements. Industry, federal and territorial governments are obliged to adhere to the terms of these agreements, including formal consultation on renewable and non-renewable resource disposition and development.
The Final Agreements led to creation of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. Appointed by both territorial and First Nations governments, the commission prepared – with extensive public input – a recommended land-use plan for the watershed now under consideration. The affected First Nations are engaged in formal consultations with the territorial government. The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Tetlit Gwich'in seek protection for 100 percent of the watershed, but are prepared to accept the recommended land use plan for 80% in legal conservation designations.
We want our people to protect the Peel Watershed, which means the Watershed remains as it was created, with a high level of protection for the land and water and our heritage, and all living things, where we can continue to practice our traditional way of life and care for the land, water, air, wildlife, and medicinal plants.
First Nation Elders from Mayo and Fort McPherson
To journey through this land is to journey in time. You can almost touch the human past – the sense of a primordial homeland is very strong.
Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nations (Margaret Atwood, in Three Rivers: the Yukon's Great Boreal Wilderness, 2005)