OLD CROW, Yukon — Perched on the edge of the Porcupine river, Dana Tizya-Tramm pointed upstream to a stand of black spruce trees that jutted into the partially-frozen water. They were like lemmings marching off a cliff. Those at the tip were falling into the river, while those in back awaited the inevitable.
“Drunken forests,” said Tizya-Tramm, a cigarette between his fingers. He says neither he nor the elders remember there being such a pronounced lean in the past. It comes at least in part, he explained, because the earth no longer stays frozen year-round, even so far north.
This stretch of the Porcupine runs past the approximately 250-person community of Old Crow. The most northwest habitation in Canada — roughly 80 miles above the Arctic Circle — the town sits at the heart of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. September temperatures had already dropped below freezing, and Tizya-Tramm buttressed himself with tan moose hide mittens and a black puffy jacket. Embroidered on the right sleeve was “Chief.”
At just 34 years old, Tizya-Tramm has risen not only through elected ranks, but from the depths of addiction and trauma to become the youngest known leader in the First Nation’s history. And he’s used that mandate to aggressively combat what he says is among the most pressing threats to his people: climate change.
The shifting Arctic is squeezing the Vuntut Gwitchin on multiple fronts. Tizya-Tramm says less predictable caribou migration patterns have meant some villages can go years without a successful hunt, and the spawn of certain salmon species has dropped so low that fishing has been severely restricted in recent years.
“Nature speaks to us,” he said. “Just not in English.” With Tizya-Tramm at the helm, the community is listening. In 2019, the Vuntut Gwitchin became among the first Indigenous peoples in Canada to declare a climate emergency — a move that catapulted them into the international limelight. That same year they set a target of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and as they strive toward the goal, the First Nation has been working to build among the largest solar projects in the Arctic.
These efforts have put Tizya-Tramm and his community at the forefront of not only saving their own way of life, but establishing models and mechanisms that others can follow.
“Imagine having the first community that is completely off-grid,” said Tizya-Tramm. “We’re dropping a stone in the water and it’s creating a ripple effect.”
Declaring a climate emergency
There was a crack, then a splash. As Tizya-Tramm left the viewpoint of the drunken forest, the left two wheels of his ATV plunged through the edge of the river. He quickly jumped out, snapped a stick from a nearby bush and began scooping snow from underneath the buggy.
With a few hearty pushes, it sprung loose and he continued on — but with Arctic winters warming, it was unlikely to be the last time the Chief would encounter breaking ice. It’s among the many chronic and acute pains that a warming planet is inflicting on the Vuntut Gwitchin.
Climate change is even threatening the First Nation’s identity as “people of the lakes.” Scientists say that increased temperatures and higher precipitation have led to wetter conditions and thawing permafrost, which have contributed to the disappearance of dozens of large lakes in the region over recent decades. One study found that between 1950 and 2007, such “catastrophic drainages” became five times more frequent.
“The hunters and trappers in our community, our harvesters, they’re the experts out on the land,” said Lorraine Netro, a Vuntut Gwitchin elder. “They’ve been seeing and noticing the changes for the past 40 years.”
These slow shifts can mean immediate hardship. When there’s less meat or fish, there’s more shopping at the Arctic Co-Op, the sole grocery store in town, where all the goods must first be trucked from Winnipeg to Whitehorse and then put on a plane north. A gallon of milk costs (CAD) $13.99. A bag of chips is $8. Tizya-Tramm remembers seeing a watermelon for $80 once. His friend Paul Josie used to catch about 400 salmon each year for his sled-dogs — without them, he spends $5,000 annually on dog food alone.
One of the most expensive products in Old Crow, though, is diesel. Since 1961, the town has gotten its electricity through the use of gigantic generators, with fuel that’s flown in at a cost of nearly $11 per gallon. “It just becomes a significant negative dependency,” said Dave Lovekin, the director of renewables in remote communities for the Pembina Institute, a Canadian energy think tank. “Those communities deserve more than being locked into a decades-old technology.”
So it’s hardly a surprise that one of the first questions Tizya-Tramm was faced with as Chief was: What are you going to do about climate change?
It’s an issue that had been on his radar for years. As a Vuntut Gwitchin government councilor, part of his purview was the First Nation’s renewable energy efforts. While earlier feasibility studies indicated that solar was the best option, Tizya-Tramm inherited a proposed agreement that would have left the Vuntut Gwitchin owning less than half of the system. He helped renegotiate a deal in which the First Nation would own the entire solar array and sell the power back to the grid. The utility company would own the batteries and distribution network.
By the Vuntut Gwitchin government’s estimate, the system would provide the community with about a quarter of its electricity needs — especially during the long, Arctic summer days. That would save tens of thousands of gallons of fuel per year, which at the astronomical prices in Old Crow is worth over (CAD) $400,000 annually. But the upfront cost for the solar power system was staggering: $7-9 million. Finding funding would take time.
“I wasn’t giving solutions, I was giving problems.” said Tizya-Tramm, who recalled a community meeting after he became Chief during which the group discussed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s bleak assessment of where the planet was headed. On the way home, he said he had an “epiphany.” What if he declared climate change an emergency for his people?
Tizya-Tramm cleared the idea with a lawyer and within a week the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation had approved the declaration, which stated that “climate change constitutes a state of emergency for our lands, water, animals and people.” This made the Vuntut Gwitchin one of the first Indigenous communities in Canada to make such a move.
“I didn’t expect it to take off like it did,” said Kris Statnyk, the Gwitchin lawyer.
As news of Old Crow’s announcement spread, the town became a rising star in the climate world. Later that year, the Gwitchin built on the momentum when they voted to target net zero emissions by 2030. And, Tizya-Tramm was invited to speak around the globe, including at the COP25 international climate negotiations in Madrid in 2019, which he ultimately found disheartening.
Back home, Tizya-Tramm found that money for the solar project was now much easier to come by. “It went from knocking on doors, to them already being open when we approached,” he said.
The funding came primarily from the provincial and federal governments — support that Tizya-Tramm emphasizes was certainly deserved. Aside from suffering under years of colonial oppression, he said the First Nation is helping Canada achieve its goals under the Paris climate accord.
Watching the Vuntut Gwitchin’s climate renaissance, Tizya-Tramm couldn’t help but see a personal parable. “It’s a terminal diagnosis,” he said of climate change. “The entire world as a species needs to make the journey I did as an individual.”
From the depths of addiction and trauma
In late 2007, Tizya-Tramm was living in Whitehorse, a two-hour flight south of Old Crow. He was caught in a ruinous routine. Every morning he would wake up, spin around to the record player at the side of his bed, neatly arrange lines of cocaine on the turntable, and snort. Then he’d go to work, come home around 5 o’clock, cook crack, smoke it and sleep. The next day, repeat.
Tizya-Tramm was born into a history of Indigenous trauma. His dad is German and his mom was Gwitchin. She was raised in the era of residential schools — a government funded, church-run initiative that sent some 150,000 Indigenous children, often forcibly, away from their communities to institutions where assimilation was the mandate and abuse was rampant. In a 2015 report, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission described the system as “cultural genocide.”
“I used to tell people the Canadian flag is Indigenous blood on a white flag,” said Tizya-Tramm.
By 13 his parents had divorced, and Tizya-Tramm was attending school either high or on hallucinogens. He then progressed to dealing drugs himself, building a client base within his friends. Then there was the fighting — both in school and outside of it, where he would face people far older.
“[Someone] would basically point and say, ‘Go get them.’ And I would,” he said. He recalls people getting hit over the head with socks full of pool balls and making homemade weapons, such as lead-filled ski poles. “It was serious to the point where I certainly feared for my life.”
Tizya-Tramm’s mother sent him to live with a relative in Vancouver as an escape from the trouble. But while his trajectory improved, he missed his friends, and within a year he was back in Whitehorse where old habits kicked up. He robbed and was robbed. On a few occasions he was stabbed. Then a suicide attempt became multiple attempts.
“My stepfather committed suicide over a cocaine addiction,” Tizya-Tramm said. “I knew I was next.”
By February 2008, Tizya-Tramm decided it was time to head back to Vancouver if he wanted a chance to survive. He was so high, he missed his initial flight. The next day he finally boarded the plane, shaking through withdrawals.
As the cocaine worked its way out of his system, he says he didn’t talk for two weeks. He eventually found a job in luxury construction, only to lose it to the Great Recession. It took months before he finally settled into a position at a local gelato shop.
“My trauma response is information,” said Tizya-Tramm, who can move effortlessly between quoting Buddha, the principles of quantum physics and the intricacies of the stock market. For gelato, he quit smoking to better train his palate and threw himself into his second chance. “Everything he touched, he made it work,” says then-owner James Coleridge. “His struggle was balancing his zeal for nature with the world of concrete.”
“I was totally disenchanted with the city,” confirmed Tizya-Tramm. So in January 2013, Tizya-Tramm booked a flight for his return to Old Crow, when temperature highs average -8.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I knew he wouldn’t be prepared, so I grabbed snow pants and a warm jacket,” recalled his sister Erika, who welcomed him back. After he struggled into the tight gear at the airport, they snowmobiled home and made a fire. “He just didn’t look back and planted his roots,” she says.
Tizya-Tramm and his wife now live in Erika’s old house, a light blue abode at the base of Crow Mountain. He met Zen Law, 37, on an international dating site and wooed her all the way from Singapore to Old Crow. These days, the couple’s home is strewn with baby blankets, clothes and toys. “This is the first child between our people in about 80,000 years,” quipped Tizya-Tramm, referencing the prehistoric land bridge between continents as he bounced three-week old Geneva on his lap.
“All the trees are your grandparents,” he told her, staring into the tiny face of the Vuntut Gwitchin’s future. “What tree might come from this little seed?”
The path to Chief
Tizya-Tramm’s first job after returning home was as a shelf-stocker at the co-op. But when he wasn’t working, he was outside — gathering wood and floating it down river, hunting caribou, running a dog team, or just taking his wall tent out into the Yukon wilds and trying to survive. He says the longest he spent in the wild was a month.
Once settled in, he again found himself gravitating toward leadership roles. In 2015, he started a river-guide training program to advocate for preserving the Peel watershed, which stretches across over 60,000 square kilometers of the northern Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Within six months, he says he raised tens of thousands of dollars — and before long, a community member had nominated him for the Vuntut Gwitchin council.
“I looked at the first block of signatures, it was all elders,” said Tizya-Tramm, who saw the support as a calling. “Of all the darkness the world has shown me, I chose to be a medicine to that hate and that poison.”
Once on council, Tizya-Tramm’s experience with the Peel watershed led him to the natural resources portfolio, where he helped the First Nation oppose a plan to allow development in the watershed. (In 2019, the Canadian Supreme Court sided with First Nations and conservation groups.) Soon, though, he faced an even stiffer challenge.
When President Donald Trump took office, he proposed energy exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The Vuntut Gwitchin revere ANWR because it is the calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, on which the community relies. “You could get 10 years of oil and gas. But you’d destabilize a two million-year-old ecosystem,” said Tizya-Tramm, who suddenly found himself traveling to D.C. to push against the policy.
Despite meetings, lobbying and pleas, the Trump administration continued to move forward with its plans to open ANWR to drilling. While President Biden has since reversed course, Tizya-Tramm had doors slammed in his face at the time. “It felt like sand was slipping through our clenched fists,” he said.
Still Tizya-Tramm pushed on, and before long he was once again in a position to climb the First Nation’s political ranks. In late 2018 he entered his name into the election for Chief. After the first ballots returned, he was handily behind. But as the second round of votes came in, his fortunes swung toward victory.
“I’m the tip of a very old twig, on an ancient branch, a part of a prehistoric tree with its roots deep in the earth,” said Tizya-Tramm of his place in his people’s history. “That gives you f------ strength.”
The stillness of solar
Old Crow’s solar installation sits on the far side of the airstrip that runs the length of the town. Snow came so suddenly and steadily this year that the sun had yet to melt the flakes on the 2,160 monocrystalline panels.
Tizya-Tramm pointed to the cranberry bushes poking up between the rows of arrays. “That’s an example of how you can create that balance between our tradition and our innovation,” he said. “Man has yet to create anything as renewable, sustainable and advanced as nature does naturally.”
The solar project is called Sree Vyah, or “sun snare” in Gwich’in. The Vuntut Gwitchin government estimates that it will save roughly 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year, equivalent to the emissions of almost three rail cars full of coal.
Perhaps as critical to Tizya-Tramm as the electricity, however, are the agreements the First Nation negotiated, which he says could serve as models elsewhere. “You’ll begin seeing this in all rural communities in Canada,” said Tizya-Tramm. “And it started here.”
The Vuntut Gwitchin know that solar is just part of the path to net zero. The government is also exploring a wind tower on Crow mountain and a biomass plant that would burn the willows that grow across town.
These projects would help bear the electric load in winter, when the sun may shine for mere minutes each day, and would be another major step in weaning the town off diesel. But the process will take time, and it will probably encounter snags. That was certainly the case with Sree Vyah.
One early iteration had moving solar panels to track the sun, but the test installation kept freezing. And just when funding materialized, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Parts and people became difficult to find as the community went into lockdown. It took until this August for the system to reach full commercial operation.
The final pieces that workers installed were the batteries. There is enough storage capacity to power the town for about an hour, as it switches between renewable and fossil fuels.
Standing at the solar array, Old Crow’s diesel generators whirred noticeably in the background. The snow and clouds were cutting into the panels’ effectiveness. Other days are better though, and over the last few months the system has been so productive that it’s enabled an average of about nine hours of diesel-free time per day.
The generators initially went quiet on August 2. Aside from maintenance, it was the first time they had shut off in more than half a century.
“I left my office and heard silence,” said Tizya-Tramm, who remembers the person in charge of the generators excitedly flagging down passersby in the street to alert them to the stillness. “My heart just went lighter.”