Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council


The YRITWC is comprised of 65 Tribes and First Nations in Alaska and Canada who are united in using their governmental powers to protect the physical and cultural integrity of the Yukon basin. These indigenous governments span four distinct cultures, languages and geographies: T’lingit in the headwaters region, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan in the middle river, and Yupik/Cupik Eskimo in the Yukon River delta and Bering Sea coast. Historically, these groups often clashed and at times were openly hostile, fighting over resources and territory. Even in contemporary times, cooperation was rare, allocations of commercial salmon harvests pitted one group against the other, and regional and international borders fractured communication and potential coalitions.

The YRITWC completely changed this dynamic. In the face of collapsing salmon runs, declining subsistence resources, epidemics of cancer and suicide and destructive development proposals, the YRITWC transcended historical divisions and inspired unity with a focus on clean water and watershed management based on traditional knowledge and common values. The Native communities came together in 1997 and discovered they had much in common and a real reason to work together: the Yukon River and their respective cultures were deeply threatened, and there would be no salmon to fight over if there was no clean water and habitat to support them. The only solution was collaboration across borders, languages, traditions and generations. This collaboration was formalized through the enactment of the Inter-Tribal Accord, essentially an international treaty that defines the operating parameters of the YRITWC and commits all indigenous governments that sign the Accord to consult and cooperate on all matters that have the potential to impact the cultural or ecological integrity of the Yukon River watershed.

The Yukon River watershed is the third largest basin in North America—about twice the size of California—and supports the longest inland runs of Pacific salmon in the world. Much of the region has no roads and can only be accessed by plane, boat, snow machine or dog sled. All imported items are flown in and gasoline costs over $7 per gallon, thus, the indigenous peoples are heavily dependent on locally harvested subsistence foods such as fish, moose, caribou, rabbits, and birds. Tribal and First Nation governments are often the primary local presence, yet state, territorial, and federal governments in the US and Canada regularly challenge indigenous jurisdiction and skew the economy toward outside development interests. Individual communities have benefited greatly by having a larger entity—the YRITWC—on which they can rely for technical assistance and outreach.

People from all cultures and regions within the watershed have become aware of each other and their respective issues. They are now friends, political allies, and partners on everything from applying traditional knowledge to identify adaptive strategies addressing climate change, to conducting water quality monitoring throughout the watershed with training and equipment provided by the YRITWC and the United States Geological Survey. Our collective reach is much further, more effective, and achieves economies of scale in a remote and expensive region where the long arm of government has been mostly used to extract resources for multi-national interests and undermine local empowerment.