Gwich’in Tribal Council and Nihtat Gwich’in Tribal Council move a beloved hand-painted sign in NWT to where many consider the true end of Dempster Highway
Kristine McLeod remembers driving past and watching when Inuvik, NWT’s iconic “End of the Dempster” sign was installed in 1992. Then she was only nine years old and didn’t fully understand its significance. But over the last 28 years, he says, “It has taken on a whole different meaning to the community.” The hand-painted shield splashes into elements of Gwich’in and Inuvialuit culture, as well as features of the northern landscape: drummers, dancers, Aurora, the caribou, the terrain of the Beaufort estuary, and the delta braid, a geometric pattern traditionally used to decorate dresses and parks. The sign shows welcome messages in both Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun.
For nearly three decades after receiving guests, the plywood landmark breaks down and has to fall, giving way to a modern lamp at the entrance of Inuvik. But the old has sentimental value to the community, so its life goes on. In April, Inuvik City Council appointed McLeod, now deputy head of Gwich’in Tribal Council, along with his brother, Nihtat Gwich’in Council Chairman Kelly McLeod, responsible for removing and restoring, installing and installing the old sign. it’s in a new place. While it may no longer be the first thing visitors to Inuvik see, Kristine says, the nearly 30-year-old government will become a kind of object – “a piece of history that our children and future generations can enjoy for years to come.”
The creator of the sign, Max Morin, was an RCMP officer stationed in Inuvik in 1991. His family arrived in the city on a summer day at 3 a.m. while the sun was still in the sky after their 12-hour drive on the famous Dempster Highway. The views had been breathtaking, he recalls, and he hadn’t needed any of the three spare tires he was told to bring on the trip from the highway near Dawson City, Yukon. As they approached Inuvik, he followed the welcome sign, but it never came.
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While in town, Morin, a member of Saskatchewan’s Canoe Lake Cree First Nation, saw a drum performance at the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Center. “When I heard the drum, the music and their dancing, I had goose tastes,” he recalls. She was always artistic, and the performance inspired her to paint a sketch of the drummers and the glittering colors of Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky. He took the painting to the city office and got the green light to paint a 16 x 24 foot welcome sign. He used Home Hardware’s exterior wall paint to set colors outside of his work hours while his one-year-old son was sitting in dry parts. He wanted to capture the culture of the community by producing a landmark that declared, as he says, “this is Inuvik, what a land it is. A song. Northern lights. Animals that live there.”
The Dempster Highway itself has historic links to Gwich’in. The oral history collected by the Tribal Council shows that Joe Henry, the man who first led the surveyors to map the beginnings of Dempster in the Yukon, was identified as Tukudh Gwich’in. These links are still alive, not only because the road passes through the settlements of Gwich’in and Vuntut Gwich’in, but also because “many of our Gwich’in companies maintain the highway to date,” Kelly McLeod says.
For anyone visiting Inuvik or returning to Inuvik, conveying these words meant that “The End of Dempster” meant crossing the finish line of a 737 km odyssey – a gravel strip that crosses giant rivers, two mountain ranges and of course the Arctic Circle. “This sign really means you did it and you made it home,” says Kristine. Its proposed new location on the other side of the city is what some see as the real end point of Dempster, the starting point of the newly completed Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk motorway leading to the Arctic Ocean.
The sign is expected to be re-installed by the end of the summer, and young people in the community will help repair plywood boards that have shone in the sun and cold, painting some parts to make the faded colors rise – all under Gwich’s direction. in artists.
Back on the other side of town, the new lamp rises about 350 feet up and around the corner of the original stood. Designed by Fathom Studio in Nova Scotia, it features a striking sculpture of metal treasures arranged as a ribbon formation to mimic the Mackenzie River and Aurora borealis art, which serves as art, a welcome sign and public infrastructure (with a built-in seating area at the bottom). It was the subject of criticism when the renderings were revealed: some thought the project should have targeted local artists, even though a public contribution had been invited before the tender was held, and Fathom consulted with community elders and city staff. But the new sign has many of the same elements as the old one – caribou, polar bear, words in three languages, and a delta braid written at the bottom. And when both projects are completed, the city is between the symbols of the present and the past. As Kristine laughs, “There’s nothing wrong with having two characters.”
This article will be published in print in July 2021 Macleanin a magazine entitled “Signs of the Times”. Order your monthly print magazine here.