Gwich’in-language short film explores connection with land in award-nominated series

“Our people and communities are thirsty and hungry to see stories in our language told from our perspective,” says filmmaker Princess Daazhraii Johnson. (Courtesy the Reciprocity Project)

A Gwich’in-language short film shot in Alaska is part of the award-nominated Reciprocity Project series that looks at the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their lands.

Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa (We Will Walk the Trail of our Ancestors) shows a grandfather teaching his granddaughter about the interchange between the community, caribou and nature and how those connections are honoured.

The film was made by Alaskans Princess Daazhraii Johnson and Alisha Carlson. Johnson, Neets’aii Gwich’in originally from Arctic Village, Alaska, says shooting in the Gwich’in language was a key part of the project from the beginning. 

“This was a community-based film and it was really important for us to do it in our language,” Johnson told Eye on the Arctic in a phone interview. “There’s a big effort right now to really revitalize it and make sure we’re perpetuating the language.” 

Carlson, also from Arctic Village, reached out to her family there where her grandfather, Trimble Gilbert, is traditional chief.

“We went directly to [him] for a blessing for the project and  to get his feedback about what reciprocity means to us as a people,” Johnson said. 

Gilbert appears in the film as do other community members.

“We come from a long line of storytellers,” Johnson said. “It’s just natural for us.”

“Our collective connection to the vadzaih (caribou) is spiritual, which is why it was so important to bring in the Gwich’in language to express this relationship, guided by the teachings of our Ancestors and our Elders,” the filmmakers said in their artist statement. “Every story we tell and everything we do is dedicated to keeping the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd safe from oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” (Courtesy the Reciprocity Project)

The name, Diiyeghan naii Taii Tr’eedaa, came from Johnson’s mother, who then suggested the English translation.

The Reciprocity Project series has been an official selection in film festivals such as Sundance, and was also nominated in the Best Short-Form Series IDA Documentary Awards that took place December 10. 

Johnson said the attention the Reciprocity Project has gotten has been gratifying and that for general audiences, she hopes it fosters better understanding of Indigenous people’s relationship with nature, away from buzzwords and slogans.

“I feel like the general public is often introduced to Native people only through issues, and so don’t see things like our joy and our humour, and, because of that, they don’t see our full humanity,” she said.

“I think the beauty of these films is, that without coming from an issue perspective, we’re saying ‘Look, we are human beings with these deep meaningful spiritual ties to the places that we come from.’

“We have to protect these places and we need people to understand and support us in these efforts.”

“I think we’re all grappling with what it is we’re passing down to our children,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson. “We all have this responsibility as human beings to pass along how to be good human beings and how to be in relationship to the land, the waters and the plants that sustain this beautiful Mother Earth that we all inhabit.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Canada: A film shows how Canadian Indigenous paddled over 500 km in a handmade mooseskin boat, CBC Radio

Finland: Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay brings film crew to Finnish Lapland, Yle News

Sweden: Award-winning novel set in Sapmi to get Netflix treatment, Eye on the Arctic

United States: American cartoonist says his new book on Canadian Indigenous history helped decolonize part of himself, CBC News

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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