‘To be well, you need to go back to the land.’ That’s not always easy.
The federal government is providing funding to help Indigenous people practise their traditions on the land during the pandemic, but some still face barriers.
On-the-land programs have been cancelled and not everyone has the resources or ability to head into the bush on their own, which some say will result in people becoming more disconnected from their culture.
Yunda Goghaa – which means “for the future” in the Dene Zhatie language – is an annual on-the-land program on the Mackenzie River. The 2020 excursion, led by the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) in partnership with Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, was cancelled this summer over Covid-19.
It’s one of many on-the-land programs unable to continue because it involves large groups and vulnerable populations, like cultural knowledge-holders and Elders.
That’s despite millions of dollars being provided by Ottawa to help northerners head out onto the land.
Kristen Tanche, DFN’s regional health and wellness coordinator, said: “It’s just not safe until there’s treatment or a vaccine to safely carry out regional on-the-land programs.
“It’s just something we have to accept. I try to look at things like the weather – when we’re on the land, you can’t control it.”
DFN has held annual youth ecology and traditional knowledge camps for more than a decade.
“All of our programs really fall under the Dehcho K’éhodi Stewardship and Guardian program, which came about back in 2014,” said Tanche.
The Dehcho K’éhodi was a response to the question of how conservation and land stewardship should look from a Dene perspective, Tanche said. Its principles are youth and Elder mentorship, the Dene Zhatie language, and Dene laws and values.
On-the-land programming in the Dehcho is guided by those principles.
“All these things, to me, really indicate wellness,” said Tanche. When you’re on the land and learning all these things, you’re probably in a healthy atmosphere. You’re probably away from alcohol and drugs.
“You’re probably away from the stressors from living in a city or town … but you’re also connected. You’re connected to the land, to your surroundings. You’re by the water – all of these beautiful things that strengthen your wellness as a person.”
‘It’s going to be really missed’
For Dene reclaiming their culture, on-the-land programming allows them to learn on their ancestral homelands.
“It is important beyond words,” said Coleen Hardisty, who participated in the first year of Yunda Goghaa two years ago. She is originally from Liidlii Kue and now lives in Yellowknife.
Hardisty’s first excursion with Yunda Goghaa was “life-changing,” she said.
“I was able to tap into spirituality which I hadn’t really allowed myself to access before.
“There’s a lot of laughter, stories, feelings of belonging, and camaraderie. It just felt so right. We were home and it was where we belonged the most in this world, I think. You can feel it in your core, in your whole body, that it’s a safe place.”
Hardisty added: “It’s going to be really missed, this summer.”
“I’ve always thought these kinds of programs are healing,” said Sheyenne Jumbo, a young Dehcho Dene woman from Sambaa K’e.
“The land gives you so much. It gives you everything you need.”
This summer would have marked Jumbo’s return to on-the-land programming after spending some time away. She recently completed a diploma at Aurora College in environmental technology, and plans to pursue a degree in northern conservation sciences.
She hopes to use what she learned to bring together western and traditional science in the Dehcho.
“These programs help with my self-confidence,” Jumbo said.
“Gathering with traditional knowledge-holders and the Elders, hearing their stories and teachings, can be so empowering and really clarifies roles within a community.”
Urban Indigenous centres, resource-sharing needed
Getting out on the land demands resources and time. Buying a vehicle, canoe, or equipment to survive out on the land adds up.
“When you don’t have a mode of transportation, it’s almost impossible,” said Hardisty.
“If I had grown up on the land, and I knew how to trap, how to survive, and all these different bush skills, then – you know – maybe a lack of vehicle wouldn’t be as much of a barrier.”
Hardisty suggested an online equipment-sharing platform, similar to the Yellowknife Facebook group Salvagers Unite, may help support urban Indigenous people to reconnect with the land.
“We’re community members and we need other people to survive in this life. You cannot live alone as an individual, you’d go nuts,” she said.
She also envisages urban Indigenous centre where like-minded individuals can gather, away from the land but connected with culture.
“I want to see something celebrating Indigenous culture in the middle of Yellowknife,” she said.
“The trees give you oxygen, medicine, and all of these things you need to live. Yet we’ve separated ourselves from that.
“We’ve got concrete instead of grass, walls around us instead of hide or canvas, which our ancestors had in the past. I think that affects more than we realize.”
Hardisty concluded: “Land is life. Water is life. The farther we are away from those things, the more disconnected we’re going to feel, because we can’t live without them.”
Editor’s note: Kristen Tanche, the Dehcho First Nations’ regional health and wellness coordinator, is the reporter’s sister.