The First Citizen Scientists: Dinjii Zhuh Knowledge and the Advantage of Uncertainty

How I, an anthropologist and dog trainer, learned the value of 'You'll have to ask someone who knows' from Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in) Elders.

Kristi Benson on a skidoo trail outside of Inuvik, NWT. Photo: Yoenne Ewald.

Special Correspondent

I lived with dogs for many years before becoming a dog trainer. Although my first dogs were easy to live with, about ten years ago I found myself in a new, and tricky, situation. Through a relatively random sequence of events, I had come to live with a load of racing sled dogs. These dogs—athletic mixes of northern dogs and leggy hounds—were much scrappier than my first dogs. Much scrappier. Much. I was at a loss for how to handle it—my first dog hadn’t been snarky, and my family never had dogs. The establishment where my dogs had come from was in the small Arctic town where I lived for a few years, and the typical dog musher there had used a combination of yelling and physical punishment when fights erupted. Although that stopped the fights in the moment, I could see that it wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to be: peaceful living, and no more scraps.  

I was living in the Arctic when I began my work with the Gwich’in Tribal Council doing cultural and heritage work with the communities of Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik (where I lived), and Tsiigehtchic. These communities are nestled among the mountain ranges, broad tundra and taiga plains, and massive river valleys which form the homeland of the Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in peoples). For many thousands of years, the Dinjii Zhuh have moved across their lands following complex seasonal rhythms, making a living with the resources at their fingertips using tools and items crafted expertly for both efficiency and beauty. 

‘Indigenous Knowledge’ refers to a body of information, narratives, and acceptable practices shared among Indigenous peoples who have a broad and deep experience about our world: the cycles, the capacities, and resilience of all natural systems, including cultural and human ones. This body of knowledge is constantly evolving with new inputs, both from paying close attention to the world and through learning from other knowledgeable people. It has been thousands of years in the making, and relies on an exquisitely reciprocal system of knowledge sharing via story-telling and experiential learning. 

I have been lucky enough to work on numerous research projects with Dinjii Zhuh, including projects to gather and record knowledge about key animal species: Vàdzaih (caribou), for example, along with sheh (grizzly bear), nèhtrùh (wolverine), and many types of łuk (fish). During the hundreds of hours I have spent sitting with Elders and other knowledgeable people, I marvelled at the ability of the human mind to retain, filter, and contextualize information. My research partners were able to speak competently and confidently about migrations, animal behaviour, feeding habits, preferred habitat, and much more. They recalled details from travels many years in the past— sometimes many decades—and were able to tie minute observations to broad cycles. But just as interesting for me as a dog trainer, Dinjii Zhuh are upfront and cautious about where their knowledge ends: if I asked a question about a topic, location or pattern they had only passing knowledge of, I’d get some variation of “you’ll have to ask someone else about that”. 

Two dogs play by the river. The First Citizen Scientists
Two dogs play on the banks of the Mackenzie River. Photo: Kristi Benson

Why might that be of interest to me as a dog trainer? Most of the families that I help in my work with dogs aren’t first time dog owners. They have lived with a handful of dogs over their lives. Sometimes they have only the memories of a childhood dog, or sometimes they have lived with and loved several other dogs over their lives. This familiarity with a small number of dogs has consequences, and sometimes the consequences aren’t useful. For example, there is the “my last dog” syndrome:  My last dog didn’t need help learning to ‘go’ outside. My last dog didn’t bark at strangers. My last dog didn’t jump up. In a sometimes worrisome corollary, they’ll also experience frustration if the way they changed their last dog’s behaviour doesn’t function with their new dog. My last dog stopped barking when…. My last dog stopped pulling on leash when…. Although dogs are remarkably forgiving when it comes to living peaceably with their human family, the very fact that dog trainers exist means that not all dogs and not all families do find an easy peace. 

A new, modern dog training movement has taken root in the last thirty years, based on the idea that dogs deserve treatment based on cumulative, and interrogated, knowledge. Behaviour change experts draw on scientific principles and research across disciplines, share experiences from training thousands of dogs, and frame their work with a strong ethical stance. In the same way that Dinjii Zhuh Elders could describe a trail—even a complex trail from a summer fish camp crossing many miles and many landscapes to a fall hunting camp shared with other families—based on the successful travel between those two locations hundreds or even thousands of times; dog trainers use training methods and protocols that have been tested on hundreds or even thousands of dogs, and have carefully charted all the steps needed to get from point A to point B. Dinjii Zhuh knowledge isn’t based on a single journey...or even a handful, it’s based on collective experience, and a knowledge-sharing platform that is both formalized and fluid. If the fall freeze-up is early one year, Dinjii Zhuh travellers have standard, well-known deviations to take: a portage trail between two river valleys, or a rest at a comfortable location until travelling conditions change. They can also make predictions based on similar geography and weather, and try a new route as needed. A well-tested dog training method also has this flexibility and adaptability. 

3 dogs run towards the camera. Article on Indigenous Knowledge and lessons for dog trainers
Three dogs in the landscape near Inuvik. Photo: Kristi Benson

In the end, it was just such a thing that helped me and my sled dogs to live a more peaceful life together. I simply reached out and asked an expert what to do. I relied upon her knowledge and experience and was able to change my dogs’ behaviour (and emotional state). I used Pavlovian conditioning to get from point A to point B: my dogs learned to enjoy situations that were previously upsetting to them (and I learned that a few non-injurious fights are not unexpected, given that I lived with feisty dogs). 

Dinjii Zhuh Elders are comfortable expressing “I don’t know, you’ll need to ask someone else” when asked about things they have only encountered a few times. They know that relying upon knowledgeable people with broad and cumulative experience is useful, appropriate, and can even be lifesaving. Łąįį (dogs) deserve the same regard from us: recognizing the limits of our knowledge and asking for help is both respectful and caring. Getting from where you are now to where you want to be simply doesn’t have to be a journey made alone. 

Special thank-you to Dr. Crystal Fraser for reviewing the piece and checking the Gwichyà Gwich’in animal translations. Animal translations were originally from Gwichyah ts'at Teetl'it Gwich'in Ginjik Gwi'dinehtl'ee': Gwich'in Language Dictionary 2003. 

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