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Q&A: Dëneze Nakehk’o on hosting Operation Morning Light

Last modified: January 12, 2023 at 11:08am


The podcast Operation Morning Light has now published the seventh and last part of its story about Cosmos 954, a nuclear-powered Russian satellite that fell into the Northwest Territories in 1978.

The series, named one of the best podcasts of 2022 by the Financial Times and described as “captivating” in a review by The Guardian, was recorded in Fort Resolution and Łútsël K’é.

Operation Morning Light – accessible via Apple, Spotify and other podcast services – is hosted by Dëneze Nakehk’o, a journalist from Fort Simpson currently based in Yellowknife.

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Nakehk’o co-wrote the story with Michael LaPointe, whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The project was produced by Canadian artist and podcast producer Aliya Pabani.

Nakehk’o spoke with Cabin Radio about the process of creating the series and his experience as an Indigenous journalist working in the North.


This interview was recorded on January 10, 2023. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Caitrin Pilkington: I read a story online that mentioned when Michael and Aliya first reached out to you on Twitter, you thought they were scammers!

Dëneze Nakehk’o: Although we live in the age of social media, I don’t have a strong social media presence. Basically just Twitter. I feel like if I’m harder to find, I’ll just hear from the people that really wanted to work with me in the first place. And even on Twitter I get spammed, I get bots and stuff. Sometimes I get requests from people. Sometimes I engage and sometimes I don’t.

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This particular time, it happened to be Michael LaPointe. He’s a great writer, and part of his research and his work is reading all these random reports. So he was reading this UN report on nuclear disasters, and how no two countries have ever collaborated to clean up after a nuclear accident ⁠– but there was an asterisk. And so Michael found the footnote, which said: “Except for Cosmos 954, in the Northwest Territories, Canada, where there was a joint operation with the United States and Canada to clean up a Russian satellite.” And he was like, what the heck is this? How come I never heard about this?

So he started poring through everything he could read about it, and he noticed that in the final Operation Morning Light report after the cleanup, there was not one Indigenous voice or perspective. So right away, that was the pathway forward for the story. And as he was trying to find that Indigenous perspective, he came across the Dene Nahjo website and was reading through bios. When he saw that I had some broadcast journalism experience, and that I would be related to some of the people that were impacted by this, he decided to approach me.

So yeah, he started to DM me, and I thought it was spam, but he was pretty persistent! I felt like I was being stalked, a little bit. [Laughs] But eventually I responded and we started to talk. Right off the bat, he wanted to be partners in the storytelling, co-writers.

I had two stipulations. One, I don’t want to be tokenized. It’s happened to me in the past. Sometimes, you just kind-of put a brown person in front of something to kind-of check a diversity box off your list or to add some authenticity to your project. So I’m very cognizant of that ⁠– when people are trying to utilize my person to further their own means. Second, the stories of the Dene are really important to me and I wanted to share that with a wider audience. I want people to know about the Dene and our ways. And Michael was very on-board with that.

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In the podcast, you talk about some of the environmental impacts that this satellite had on the environment. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but only one percent of the satellite was ever actually recovered. So 99 percent of all that debris is still here. And over the years, that has had an impact on the fish, the caribou, all the animals. On the podcast, people told us about the weird things they started seeing, like a three-eared rabbit, a fish with two jaws, and a drastic change in caribou migration patterns. Also, in the early 1980s there was a giant cancer spike in the community. One family in particular, a very traditional family in Łútsël K’é that had always lived on the land, the whole family died from cancer, even the young kids.

So something clearly happened, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause. Because not only did we have this Russian satellite, we had runoff from the tar sands, mines all over the place… so this is a story with layers. And the satellite is one layer, but there are many layers before, of contamination and people not taking care of the land, and many layers afterward. So it’s really hard to say “this is because of the satellite.” It’s an international story and it’s a cosmic story, because it connects us to the stars. It’s a big puzzle, and every person’s story is a piece of that puzzle.

What was your approach to hosting, whether that was decisions you made about your tone of voice or the script? What did you hope that listeners would take away from the story?

It was a really interesting process, and I have to give credit to producer Aliya Pabani. I’ve been a broadcaster before, and the biggest issue was that I kept falling into my newscaster voice. So Aliya worked really hard with me to sound more natural and like myself. Both Pabani and LaPointe are incredibly talented and skilled at what they do.

And it was nice to work with the companies that made this happen, Imperative Entertainment and Vespucci. They really believed in the project and they really gave us a lot of leeway to tell this story in the way we felt was right.

So yeah, I know I’m the one being interviewed here, but I want to stress that it was a really collaborative experience, and I think we all really appreciated one another. I like to joke and say it was a Pearl Jam high five.

What was it like telling a Canadian story but working with an American production company?

We were able to have a different lens to look at this country, an outsider’s perspective. As Canadians, we kind-of see ourselves as bland. We often focus more on the things that are happening in other places. And when things happen here, there’s kind-of a colonial mindset, which leads to those things being ignored or not seen as special.

We also had an opportunity to be critical of this colonial state, and their response – or lack of response, I should say – to this incident. But also, we kind-of poke at the prime minister, we poke at the CBC, and in general some of the absurdities, the ignorance and the kind-of old-school colonial arrogance that permeates our society, which was really at its height back in the 70s. People were really thinking of us as Indians out on the land, primitive, not worth paying attention to. There’s still radioactive debris out there and it’s almost like we’re not important enough for them to clean it up or to take care of us. With this story, we wanted to hold space for the people who live in those communities to have their voices be heard and bring some attention to what they’re dealing with.

It’s amazing to me that the North has a reputation of not much happening when there’s Port Radium and its connection to the Manhattan Project, there’s Giant Mine having enough arsenic stored away to poison the entire watershed of North America, there’s Cosmos 954. Why do you think it’s so rare that these stories get commercial or artistic treatment?

Canada is seen as a northern country, and I think our Canadian identity is tied up into this delusion that we’re a rough and hearty northern people, that we’re an Arctic country. But you know, most Canadians are not. They’re scared of the cold and of the north. So it’s a false identity that people hold on to.

The reality is that the rest of the country has never really paid attention to us or cared about us. Like, even our name is not really a name, it’s a directional description from the perspective of Ottawa. It’s as if you had a daughter and were like, “Yeah, this is my daughter, her name is Girl.”

We’re seen as this frozen frontier that’s only good for resources, just to extract these natural resources, leave a big mess and get out. That’s one of the main pillars of the mentality – and I don’t like mentioning his name – the legacy of Christopher Columbus. According to Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States, Columbus is the origin of this attitude of the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress. That attitude is still with us. So you can call things deplorable but you tolerate them, you justify them – because, you know, jobs, the economy, money.

The Spanish were looking for gold back in the day, they did a lot of horrific things to the Taíno and Arawak people in the Puerto Rican islands. Fast forward 500 years and people are still looking for gold. You mentioned Giant Mine, and I mean, they roll up, take what they need, and leave 237,000 tonnes of frozen arsenic trioxide beneath us, and a teaspoon is enough to kill a human being. That’s an atrocity, that’s pretty deplorable, but we needed those jobs, it was important for the economy… so these attitudes are still with us, because we live in a capitalist system that puts resource extraction and the economy over everything else.

This mentality has become so normalized in our society that we lose our perspective on the significance of these kind of events.

Taking us back to what you said about the complexities that go with being an Indigenous person working in media – like being tokenized, and how weird it is when your very identity is perceived as a kind of resource for people to extract – how do you deal with that? What is the difference between being tokenized for projects and feeling truly respected by your colleagues?

It’s easy. You just walk up to someone and say, “Hey, how are you doing?” You have a conversation with that person like a human being. It’s actually pretty easy, but it’s something that’s foreign and quite difficult for many people.

To be a colonizer is to be a caller of names. When they first came here, they didn’t say, “Hey, who are you?” They just rolled up and were like, “Hey, you guys are Indians, right?” and we were like, “What? We’ve never even heard that word before, what are you talking about?” And they were like, “Yeah. Indians.”

Part of the colonial experiment is telling people who we are and what we are rather than asking. So in my life, I’ve been an Indian, and then a Native American, and then Aboriginal, and then First Nations and then Indigenous. And I’ve been called a lot of other off-colour names in between, usually in Alberta. But none of them are Dene.

No one has actually come to us and said, “Who are you? What would you like to be called?” and just had a conversation. And it’s still like that in a lot of ways, which has created this weird echo chamber feedback loop where lines are drawn and you’re either on one side or another, it’s divisive. Anger and violence is the opposite of curiosity, and they’re the only tools the colonial system has in its toolbox. You know, if you look at law enforcement, we can see the way they deal with a variety of complex issues, especially those affecting people of colour, with violence and aggression.

If you get angry and violent, you’re kind-of buying into this colonial mentality. When it comes to navigating these spaces, you have to learn – as an Indigenous person, as a person of colour, as a woman – you have to have coping mechanisms and survival skills for your own mental well-being. And you develop, like, armour and protection as you navigate everyday life, and that armour is always with you, to make sure you don’t get hurt.

But even if you’re protected, or ready, and something happens, it still hurts.

And you’re right about the resource point, because colonialism is a violent extractive force, not just in the context of oil and gas or mining. It’s a system where you extract the resources, leave a big mess, and the money and resources go somewhere else and don’t stay here. And that applies to our cultural practices and knowledge and appearance, which can be utilized by companies and organizations for their own means and benefit without bringing any kind of benefit back to the North.

Indigenous folks always have to be on guard. This is the reason why our stories are so important. Hopefully, the more projects like this one are out there, hopefully that will lead to more understanding and appreciation so people can realize we are our own distinct people, we are Dene. And just like any other group of people all over the world, we want to be acknowledged and recognized as human beings, recognized for the territories that we come from. So that’s why it’s important for me to keep doing this work, to try to share that with a wider audience. Hopefully, the podcast can leave some people with the understanding to be able to go from saying, “oh that’s the place where those Indians from the Northwest Territories live” to “The Dene live there, and their land is Denendeh.”

What’s the feedback from Łútsël K’é, Fort Simpson, and the rest of the NWT?

I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback, but the thing that means the most to me is those little head-nods of acknowledgement from Elders. That makes me feel like I’m on the right path. Production-wise, it was a lot of work, so now that it’s done we just want to get it out there. Now that all the episodes have dropped, if people want to binge-listen to it, this is their opportunity. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this so I’m not sure what to expect.

Hopefully, people will honour the stories that were shared with us and not be too flippant, because some of them are incredibly sad and had to do with cancer and loss.

Down south, I hope there will be a little more understanding and appreciation for Dene ways and that they realize that we’re actual people here, and what we’re dealing with when it comes to land incursions.

Chief of Łútsël K’é James Marlowe reached out to me. Richard Edjericon, the MLA for that region, reached out, and that meant a lot. I’m just happy the story is out there, and hopefully it can create some momentum and hold some space for the people who never got a chance to talk about this.