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Gonàowòo – Our Way of Life

Itoah Scott


Edanet’e. Itoah siiyeh. Tłicho got’ine eyits’o dechinlaa got’ine gots’o ahte. My name is Itoah and I come from the Tłı̨chǫ Nation and the treeline people of Denendeh. The land of the Dene, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I have been taught my whole life to try and live life in a good way, be proud of my culture, and to serve my people. In my language we call this Gonàowòo – our way of life.


The caribou is the beating heart of the Dene culture. When a caribou is harvested an offering is made to the land to give thanks and the meat is distributed to family and community members. Any part of a caribou that is not eaten, is used for jewellery, clothing, art or tools. Our Dene Drums are made of caribou skin and they say the beat of the drum makes the caribou spirit happy. To have the drum we need the caribou and to maintain our relationship with the caribou we need the drum. This is Dene philanthropy. 


Our relationship with the caribou represents reciprocity, respect, resourcefulness and responsibility. We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. 


Philanthropy comes from the Latin word philanthropos, which means human-loving. While work guided by a love for humanity might look different from a way of life guided by a love for caribou, I know at the core of who we are as Dene people and what we do as the philanthropic community, is about shared understanding, respect and resilience building.  


When I came into this work three years ago, I realized quickly that there is very little understanding about philanthropy in Northern Indigenous communities. The world of philanthropy is a bit of a mystery and it was for me even before I started. So I try to find ways to bring Gonàowòo into my everyday work at the Arctic Funders Collaborative. I try to connect the concepts of philanthropy that are inherent in Indigenous culture to the philanthropy that many of us in the sector know well, which is the world of grantmaking and one heck of a lot of paperwork.


One of the things that drew me to philanthropy was the opportunity to work from an international lens. What are the lines on a map really, besides limitations that humans have imposed on ourselves? Indigenous peoples in the North and the ecosystems on which we depend transcend modern day borders. The ever-melting Arctic seas, winding rivers, bowhead whales, porcupine caribou, and salmon – are all borderless, and philanthropy can be borderless too. This is an important asset we have to offer because we simply need to support transboundary solutions to address our transboundary environmental challenges. 


We are very privileged in philanthropy because we have the resources to be able to focus on the solutions.  We can support community-based ideas to build solutions for issues of an international scale, but from the ground up. We can deploy resources across different sectors and regions to develop multi-dimensional and integrated approaches to complex challenges. We can help communities to share their stories, perspectives and knowledge so that innovation can be transferred across regions and nobody needs to reinvent the wheel. We can offer the flexible and risk-tolerant support to transboundary issues in ways that governments and other organizations confined to political boundaries cannot. We can come to the table with networks and knowledge holders from grassroots to policy-makers to facilitate cross-sector collaboration. But we must carry this privilege as responsibility. 


So how do we ensure that we are supporting community empowerment instead of imposing and oppressing, as many before us have? It’s simple, we need to listen. If you quiet yourself, open your minds, and just listen, you will start to hear the Indigenous voices and stories. You will hear the Gwich’in pleading for the protection of the porcupine caribou calving grounds in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. You will hear the Inuit in Nunavut and Greenland asking for co-management authority over the Pikialasorsuaq.


They are not just asking for the authority over conservation responses. They also have the ideas to make the long-term, sustainable, Indigenous-led management of their territories or wildlife resources actually feasibly. Through stewardship programs, self-governance, policy development, cultural revitalization, and sustainable economies they can make philanthropy’s shared conservation goals reality.


Sustainable economies are a critical factor here. We cannot make conservation martyrs out of Indigenous peoples and ignore their needs for economic opportunity. If we are going to help take down industries, we need to be there to help build new ones. It is absolutely necessary for communities to have jobs, businesses, and economic opportunities that will make it feasible for them to resist extractive industries. Conservation and economic development can come hand and hand and the good news is that philanthropy has the resources to nurture both using grantmaking and investment dollars. But they need supporters willing to take a risk and collaborators willing to follow their lead.


A foundations’ leadership, mission, and geographic interests change all of the time. But the Dene relationship with the caribou will continue long past any foreseeable conservation outcome that any funder could plan for. The Dene’s relationships with our lands and waters cannot be replicated by science or government policy and no one carries the historical responsibility and cultural motivation that we do to steward our environment. This is why Indigenous-led stewardship of Indigenous territories is the most effective approach to conservation and to protecting biodiversity. 


Of my fellow Spotlight Speakers, Danielle Levoit, spoke about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. I have been learning what it means to make space for Indigenous leadership in philanthropy and how that can really maximize the impact of philanthropic resources. Who better to make decisions on resources dispersed in Indigenous territories than those who understand the local landscape, have the ideas and knowledge, and are the true experts of their own homelands? Many funders are already finding creative ways to do this by investing in Indigenous-led funds, offering core and general support to Indigenous organizations, making space for Indigenous leadership on staff and boards, and redesigning how grantmaking looks when the the love for man meets the love for land. 


I am very grateful for my colleagues at the AFC. They have made space for my leadership and other young Indigenous leaders across the Arctic. And we are now entering a very exciting time in Northern philanthropy when “Indigenous” and “funder” are now synonymous with the creation of the new Arctic Indigenous Fund. This exciting initiative that will see inspiring young Indigenous leaders from across the Arctic exercise full authority over their own philanthropic fund. 


Resilience is a hard word to translate in many Indigenous languages. For many Indigenous peoples, resilience is not just something we are, but who we are, how we are, and where we will always go. Resilience is the caribou, our land, our culture, our communities. Philanthropy as an act of love - for man or for land - in a world full of struggles…and Donald Trump, is resilience too. Resilience is Gonàowòo, our way of life. Masicho.

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