Norma was raised and educated in Old Crow, the most northerly community in the Yukon. She is a citizen of the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (People of the Lakes) and a member of the Wolf Clan. She gained her depth of traditional, scientific and ecological knowledge in Old Crow flats where her grandfather, mother and the land were the bearers of this invaluable, ancient knowledge, which was passed on to Norma at a very young age. This knowledge has woven her into the land of the Vuntut Gwich’in and has given her an understanding of her homelands and the beings with which the land is shared.
Encouraged by her Elders, Norma entered politics shortly after leaving school. In 1985, Norma was elected into Yukon’s Legislative Assembly as Member for Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, a position she held until 1992. During this time, Norma was selected by the Elders of the Gwich’in Nation to act as a spokesperson on behalf of the Gwich’in people for the preservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. This caribou herd is the lifeblood of Norma’s people, including those living across northern Alaska and the Northwest Territories, and they are now at serious risk due to the recent opening of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development.
As a spokesperson, Norma travelled extensively throughout the world educating many people about the critical and inseparable relationship between the Gwich’in people and the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and about the devastating effects of the proposed industrial development. Her audiences have included grassroots Americans, United States Congressional members and Senators, world leaders, Indigenous communities throughout the Arctic and across North America, as well as appearances on Canadian, American and British network television. Stemming from this work, Norma had the opportunity to produce, direct and narrate several documentary films. Today Norma still finds herself educating people about the critical and inseparable relationship between the Gwich’in and the land.
From 1995 to 1998 Norma was the Environmental Manager for the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN). In this capacity, she headed the CYFN Northern Contaminants Program and was Chair of Centre for Indigenous People Nutrition and Environment – CINE. The latter was with Dr. Harriet Kuhnlein, then Director of CINE at McGill University, where Norma initiated and conducted dietary studies of Yukon First Nations in collaboration with Dr. Kuhnlein and others.
While Norma’s work is global, she has never lost focus of her community and other Yukon First Nations communities. In 2007, she co-founded the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research (initially called the Arctic Health Research Network-Yukon) with long-time northerner and researcher Jody Butler Walker. The goal of AICBR is to promote community-based northern-led research aimed at improving the lives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of the north and promoting the health of their environments. Together, Norma, Jody, and the AICBR team have been instrumental in facilitating opportunities for Yukon First Nations communities and others to learn about and develop the capacity for taking action in the areas of diabetes prevention, injury prevention, and food security.