Tulita-born Dene filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya is embarking on a two-year film project to preserve the stories and traditional knowledge of Dehcho Elders.
Starting in March, teachers, translators, audio technicians and filmmakers will travel to Dehcho communities to meet with Elders and capture their images and voices for generations of children to experience.
The project is a partnership with the Dehcho Divisional Education Council (DDEC).
Yakeleya, who will direct, has been producing award-winning films and television programs for decades.
“I’m happy to be home with my own people, contributing to my own people,” he said. “I want to be a positive force in the education of our students.”
The project will cover a series of topics from a Dene perspective, such as ancient migrations, the last ice age, spirituality, music and songs, war and conflict, special leaders, sacred places, governance and traditional law. After filming is complete, the stories will be compiled into a book and published by Durvile Publications.
“What the DDEC wants, and what people in the region want, is to research, develop and produce more locally relevant curriculum,” said Sharon Allen, a regional Indigenous language educator with the DDEC.
Allen described a need for more documentaries, recordings and books that focus on the culture of the Dehcho people.
“We have a lot of stuff written about us by others, but we don’t have enough from our own people,” she said.
“We have many Indigenous books and resources for students, and only a fraction of it is actually about this particular region. And of that fraction, most of it is by others, by people who came and studied us. So that’s why this project is going to be so unique.”
‘The strongest medium’
The group plans to document family trees and collect photographs and maps while producing the video series.
The multimedia approach is the result of careful consideration. Allen is working toward a master’s degree in curriculum development and her work specializes in decolonizing education.
“A lot of my job is to help educators Indigenize curriculum,” she said. “If you’re not Indigenous and you’re trying to incorporate Dene ways and Dene language into your teaching, you’re going to have difficulty, because this way of knowing is different than what it looks like on paper. It’s a spiritually connected way of living and knowing.”
While being on the land and speaking directly with Elders may be the best way to learn Dene history and traditions, Allen and Yakeleya say audio-visual elements are second best, as they place kids in the moment and let them see and hear the stories for themselves.
“Film is the strongest medium we can work with today,” said Yakeleya. “That’s why it’s so important that we create these digital and video records that will last forever.”
“Our language and culture is all-encompassing,” said Allen. “It’s all connected and we want them to see it, to hear it and to experience it with curriculum activities.”
Presenting the stories in film also ensures that intentionality and care can be brought to the information that is shared and the way it is presented.
“As the work will be a collaboration between Dene Elders, educators and media creators, it will be something made for our people by our people,” said Allen. “I wholeheartedly believe that this is something that the people of the Dehcho need for themselves.”
Rights to the content will belong to the DDEC and to the Elders involved.
“I’m glad intellectual property rights are part of the project, because so many Elders have never been credited for their contributions, but they deserve to hold the rights to this information that they’re passing on,” said translator Elizabeth Hardisty.
Reclaiming education in the Dehcho
Yakelaya, Hardisty and Allen all attended residential schools as children, and say the project is an effort to try and undo some of the damage caused by that system.
“The nuns made us feel ashamed, that our people were no good, that none of these things were worth knowing,” Yakeleya said. “And we know now how wrong that was. These stories are the root of who we are. We wants kids to hear: ‘This is what your granny and grandpa believed, it’s so important.'”
Hardisty, who will work on the project as a translator, says helping to rebuild a connection to language and history will repair some of the bonds that were broken between parents, children and grandchildren.
“I remember as a child overhearing an argument between a visiting priest from the Tłı̨chǫ area, who wanted to teach her the Lord’s Prayer in our own language, and a nun who didn’t want to allow it,” said Hardisty.
“I guess she won, because I never learned it.
“Our family was so broken by this. It would have been so powerful to have this information provided, information that I missed. It’s about restoring things that we lost. I want my children, and my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren to know who they are and where they come from.”
Allen says that in her 40 years in the education system, she has yet to see herself in what she was teaching or learning.
“We want to help the kids see that they have a rich culture and help regain a sense of identity,” Allen said. “The kids already feel that absence. I was a teacher and I’ve seen them frustrated at school, the lack of connection to the material. I think we’re going to get a great response from them.”
The group will work together over the next few weeks to map out the project and plan the year ahead.
“Collaboration is so important, it’s the way that we were raised,” said Allen. “Working in isolation as a language teacher is lonely. We like to drink tea together, laugh, talk… it doesn’t feel like work. Dene people never worked in isolation. That’s why residential schools were so hard.”
Yakeleya also credits DDEC superintendent Phillipe Brulot for his support of the idea.
“Philippe Brulot is a visionary,” said Yakeleya. “When we first started talking about this project, he told me, ‘the curriculum does not reflect the people of the Dehcho.’ I thought that was a bold and powerful statement, and it’s deeply true. And I hope superintendents across the NWT hear it as well.”
For Yakeleya, there is inherent empowerment in sharing what it means to be Dene, and in capturing the personal histories, prophecies, legends, medicines and spiritual practices that were forbidden for so many years.
“When it’s in the form of a story, knowledge is so much more powerful,” said Yakeleya. “We want to save it and make a valuable record for the people for all time.”