Robert Alexie Jr., president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, took his last steps on June 9 surrounded by his beloved blue mountains across the Peel River from Fort McPherson.
Alexie was elected president of the tribal council two years ago, but to the community that gathered last week to mourn his death, he was considered a chief of the people – a true chief of the Gwich’in Nation.
“Robert was a strong leader,” said William Koe, chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in in Alexie’s hometown of Fort McPherson. “He didn’t say much, but when he said something, people listened.”
Alexie was a strong yet quiet force, known just as much for his achievements as a negotiator of the Gwich’in Regional Land Claim as he was for his softspoken nature and dedication to youth.
The Mackenzie Delta came to a standstill Saturday afternoon to honour his life, and tributes poured in from across Canada.
More than 500 people attended his funeral in Fort McPherson, including family, friends, colleagues and dignitaries.
Those that spoke talked about the shock of his sudden death, his work strengthening the Gwich’in Nation and the need to carry his legacy into its next act.
“When we woke up it was raining, but it was still sunshine,” said Joseph Tetlichi at the feast following Alexie’s funeral service. “I think that’s what Robert wanted.”
Tetlichi, like so many others, spoke about Alexie’s ability to move seamlessly from meetings with bureaucrats in Ottawa to tea with elders at camps along the Peel River.
“As a Gwich’in person, I’m really happy that he was my leader,” Tetlichi said. “Robert has really touched a lot of us in a lot of ways.”
Old Crow Chief Joe Linklater said Alexie spoke of a vision for the Gwich’in people of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories at a strategic planning session earlier this year in Yellowknife. He dreamed of a united Gwich’in, working together towards common goals.
“He was a man of few words but always swift action,” Linklater said.
One of Alexie’s greatest passions, along with writing and photography, was strengthening the capacity of young people so they could one day lead the Gwich’in self-government.
“Twenty, 30, 50 years down the road, he wanted us to be a self-sufficient nation who can depend on each other, help each other, and be the best nation that we could be,” said sister Gladys Alexie. “Today I want you to do my brother proud. Get your education, do the best you can. Help this dream become a reality.”
Gwich’in youth Bobbi Rose Koe said she hopes people remember Alexie for the work that he did and the way he led his people.
“He was straightforward, truthful and he didn’t act like he was better than you. He was like any other person. He wasn’t like the president.”
Koe said she always tried to sit next to Alexie in meetings to watch the way he worked and to try to learn from him.
“He taught me that I could do anything. Anything is possible,” she said.
Vuntut Gwich’in Norma Kassi also spoke of Alexie’s legacy and said now is the time to band together.
“He’s going to continue to be a good leader. Not only this side, but over in the mountains. He’s going to wake up the ancestors and say, ‘Hey, our people need help,’” she said.
“We cannot do this alone. We have to work together, stand beside each other, hold each other’s hands,” Kassi continued. “We need to walk side by side. We’re coming to some very strong changes, just like our ancestors did before. Those teachings are going to come back more important now than ever before.”
Alexie attended Peter Warren Dease School (now Chief Julius School) before transferring to Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik to complete his high school education in 1974.
He worked at airports throughout the North as an observer communicator and flight service specialist until 1981 and in 1984 completed a two-year public and business administration program.
He returned to his home community of Fort McPherson and began his longstanding service to the Gwich’in people as band manager of the Tetlit Gwich’in Band Council. He was later elected chief in 1989 and served two years until he was appointed chief negotiator for the Gwich’in Regional Land Claim. It was signed in 1992 and was the first of its kind for a Dene group.
He served two terms as vice president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council before working as executive director of the Gwich’in Land and Water Board from 1999 to 2012.
In 2002 he published his first novel, Porcupines and China Dolls, which dealt with the effects of the residential school system. In 2005 he published a second novel, The Pale Indian, which told the story of a young man returning north after being raised by a white family.
He is survived by his wife Renie and children Krista Lynn, Branden, Travis, Caroline, Tony and Alison, as well as his father, sisters, brothers, grandchildren and countless others.