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Learning The Dehcho Way in Denendeh

Alina Enggist- Steering Committee


Our collaborative of funders is a primary driver of philanthropic support in the Arctic and very few of us are based in the North. To develop relationships with Northern communities, we need to establish reputation and trust, build networks, and find shared values. Most importantly, we must invest time. The AFC organizes “learning trips” for our members into indigenous Northern communities across the Arctic so that we can learn about the people, cultures, and community priorities in the North.The idea is that we can travel and learn together, meet with each other’s grantees, gaining new perspectives and witnessing firsthand the impact of grantmaking on the ground. This year, we traveled to Denendeh (the land of the Dene) and the traditional territory of our Executive Director, Itoah Scott-Enns, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. We journeyed through Tlicho territory on our way to the Mackenzie River before traveling by boat with Dehcho First Nation Chiefs, hearing stories and learning about what land stewardship means to the Dehcho people who have been practicing it since time immemorial. The Mackenzie, or the Dehcho (Great River) flows swiftly north for 1,700 km and empties into the Arctic Ocean. We traveled from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson via canoe and motorboat over the course of three days. 


We were sure to take care in correctly communicating with community leaders, making proper introductions, and learning and following protocols. The group received a briefing on the political, social, and environmental context of the regions we were traveling through and discussed topics such as land claims, self-government, land stewardship, water stewardship, and leadership. We learned early on that to the Dene people, “taking care of the land means being on the land.” They draw strength from a deep connection to the land and a long heritage rooted in being keepers and knowers of the land.Dene cultural heritage (and survival) today depends on maintaining a connection to the land so that the language, customs, stories, art, foods, and relationships remain vital, practiced, and reinforced.


In the land of the Dene, meaning is formed by being rooted in a place and the stewardship that results in this relationship between man and land. Dene territory in the N.W.T. stretches 210,000 km2. We had the honor of travelling with the Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian who explained it this way when we were flying over his territory, “Visitors often say that when they fly over our land, it looks like nobody lives here, like it’s empty. In fact, this is the biggest compliment you can give a person from this area, because it shows that for thousands of years, from time immemorial, we have not defaced our land. There is no mark or scar or damage.”In fact, the Dene people have played an active role in keeping the land and animals healthy. What a stark image of contrast this conjures up when thinking about what the land looks like when we fly above the places we call home. All you see are the marks of man—roads, buildings, industry, lights, pollution, a built environment, and at the margins, or squeezed in between, are bits of nature and hints of what used to exist. Whereas we look down on this and think, “here is a landscape that shows advancement and achievement,” they look down on a landscape devoid of any evidence of man and think the same. 


As we traveled through Dene land with the Dene people as our guides, we heard stories that told of a pride in survival: surviving disease, enduring and thriving in the harsh climate, and overcoming the devastating legacy of residential schools, and restoring pride in their culture. There had been an extreme and intentional disruption to their way of life and to the other Indigenous peoples across Canada. Native children[ISE1] were removed from their families and sent away to church-run residential schools where they were subject to physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. Many never returned. The conditions were abhorrent. It was an unveiled attempt to expunge language and culture. Residential schools only ended in the North in 1992. When we arrived in the community of Fort Providence, we were taken to a place overlooking the river where a monument stood in place of a former residential school next to an overgrown field containing the unmarked graves of thousands of children who had died here. There had been an attempt to list the names, ages, death dates, and places from where these children were taken. Although several hundred entries are etched into the grave marker, the most common word that appears is “unknown”. It will take several generations to heal, but we saw several clear instances that show it is happening through the empowerment of community leaders, teachers, and youth as well as strong partnerships with government agencies, local organizations, and foundations.We heard over and over again about the idea of this “healing journey.” Itoah explained that everyone here was on a healing journey. No person or family had been untouched by the trauma of the residential school legacy.


Cultural revitalization is at the center of each of the initiatives we learned about and how communities are finding strength from within. Revitalizing traditional language skills and reconnecting youth and families with the land is a uniform priority across the territory. We met with local leaders in education, conservation, and land use planning as well as several chiefs, youth activists, and spiritual advisors who took time out of their important work to talk to us about their priorities and the various avenues and tactics they were employing to revitalize the people and place most dear to them. Lois Philipp, the principal of the Deh Gah Elementary School in Fort Providence (in the same community where the former residential school once stood) talked to us about their language immersion program, special programs to settle conflicts in traditional ways, health programs to combat depression, exercise bikes in each classroom to encourage self-regulation, and a robust on-the-land program where children receive months of cultural education in traditional camps before leaving primary school. 


We camped one night at one of the school’s camps on the river bank at a place they call Telemia, and after a traditional smudging ceremony we were told stories about the area. The next day on the Dehcho, a guide hooked a 25-pound pike in one cast with a barbless hook, then, while it was butchered, we were told which pieces were reserved for the elders, which were good for preserving for the later seasons, and which pieces to give back to the river. We looked at the big fish’s liver to read the river’s health, then we ate it.Down the river, former Grand Chief and Keepers of the Water member, Sam Gargan, took us to the remains of a log cabin where he was born, one of 17 children, and gestured toward a far field where 1,000 tents once gathered in summers past to celebrate the long hours of the season. We foraged for berries, and Chief Gargan still knew where the sweetest bushes were. People showed us (they didn’t just tell us) how they knew how to live on their land, hunting, fishing, navigating the rivers, knowing the names of the places and what had occurred there, reading the signs of nature and recalling the wisdom of their elders. 

Dahti Tsetso heads up the Dehcho K’ehodi Program (“Taking care of the Dehcho” in Dehcho Dene Zhatie) and explained how the Dehcho First Nation (DFN) is working in collaboration with their ten member communities to develop a regional stewardship program. The Dehcho First Nation decided to go ahead and create their own land management plan (and not wait for the federal or territorial government) that took into account their indigenous traditional knowledge, sacred and hunting places, and cultural resilience priorities.They remapped their territory and conducted hundreds of interviews with elders in order to create a comprehensive land use plan that includes areas slated for development, new protected areas, and areas to be developed for ecotourism. Philanthropic support has been critical in helping them to develop the program and will continue to be an important partner as they seek to implement their own environmental stewardship priorities.


DFN also works closely with the Dehcho-AAROM (Aboriginal Aquatic Resources & Ocean Management) Program. The head of AAROM, George Lowe joined the trip and spoke to us about the work they do monitoring the health of the region’s water and fish. Dehcho-AAROM consists of a network of community-based water monitors in every Dehcho community to meet community-identified water monitoring objectives. The data collected by the communities through this program is being channeled to the Mackenzie Data Stream, a collaborative data initiative funded by The Gordon Foundation, an AFC member. This initiative is small scale, ready for expansion, and is a good example of a way to provide skills, jobs, and stewardship within the Dene territory.


We were hosted in the community of Jean Marie River by Chief Gladys Norwegian, who shared her community’s vision for sustainable economic growth. They are hoping to take advantage of the impacts of strong forest fire seasons of recent years (an impact of climate change) and revive their old wood mill to harvest the burnt wood. They also are seeking to implement a long term plan to develop visitor trails through their traditional routes that would help to support a local eco-tourism industry. As fellow Steering Committee Member Steve Ellis of Tides Canada Foundation put it, our job is to locate place-based values and reflect them back to people. He cites the need to shift from a deficit economy to an asset economy.Steve who works closely on the ground with indigenous people across Northern Canada, says the starting point should be figuring out what the communities want and what they are good at, and then helping to build a local economy around that. The energy and the expertise needs to come from within. 


Over the course of this week-long learning trip in Dene territory, there were several themes and values that often came up, expressed in different ways through different stories and varied encounters: the idea of conservation as reconciliation, the healing journey, community-led conservation, and place-based cultural capital. The words that seemed to sum up what we had been exposed to were: resilience, respect, continuity, and empowerment. In discussions with the other funders, we spoke about the wish to empower people to locate and use tools to enable them to be stewards and carriers of their land and cultures. Investing in people is so important. For a future that is resilient, regenerative, and self-enterprising, funders and communities need to collaborate to make those ties stronger, more meaningful, and more valued.

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