“In the footsteps of the Ancestors,” reads the opening subtitle of a new children’s book set on the Tłı̨chǫ Dene lands of the North. The book will have a virtual launch on Tuesday evening.
Part coming-of-age novel, part compilation of Tłı̨chǫ teachings, Journal of a Travelling Girl takes place in 2005 and tells the story of 11-year-old Jules, a young girl adopted into the community of Wekweètì.
The book follows Jules along the Trails of the Ancestors trip, an annual tradition where community members retrace the trading, hunting and trapping trails of previous generations. The journey ends in Behchokǫ̀, where the historic Tłı̨chǫ Agreement is coming into effect.
Author Nadine Neema said the idea for the story came from John B Zoe, chief negotiator, after he read an article she had written in 2005 about the agreement.
“He said, ‘It would be great if you wrote a children’s story to teach the youth about this important time,’” Neema told Cabin Radio. “It was something that was asked of me and I took on the challenge to do it.”
Written with feedback from Zoe, the book is aimed at youth aged nine to 12, Neema said, and “combines truth and fiction.”
The book draws heavily on the author’s own experiences on the Trails of the Ancestors journey, which gives both characters and readers insights into Tłı̨chǫ knowledge.
Tammy Steinwand, the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s director of culture and lands protection, provided guidance during the writing process.
Steinwand will feature in Tuesday’s launch, joining Neema online to discuss the significance of the canoe trip documented in the book.
According to Steinwand, it’s an important way of keeping the Tłı̨chǫ culture and ways of life alive.
“Wherever the annual gathering is to be hosted, that’s where the other three Tłı̨chǫ communities paddle into,” she explained.
“We’re following the trails of our ancestors and these routes that they have taken in going up to these different areas, before they were communities, as they followed the caribou and other animals as a way to make their living, as a way to survive out on the land – even way up into the barren land.”
Following the trails
Those on the journey learn the traditional names of sites important to the Tłı̨chǫ people and the stories that go with them, Steinwand said.
Some participants make discoveries that are deeply personal, like finding the grave site of a great-grandparent or a cabin their grandparents had used.
To Steinwand, it’s crucial that the tradition keeps going.
“When we’re in our communities and people are in front of the screen all the time, sometimes you forget about these important teachings, these important ways of our people,” she said.
Though not Tłı̨chǫ herself, Neema has made the canoe trip twice: first in 2012 as a lone canoeist, then again in 2013 with the whole group. She had been the band manager of the Dechi Laot’i First Nation in Wekweètì from 1999 until 2002 and was close to many of her companions on the journey.
Neema said she paid particular attention to young people on the trip for the first time.
“I was observing the youth a lot, how they were experiencing this trip, and trying to see it through their eyes,” she said.
“You don’t realize how difficult it’s going to be. It’s a wonderful experience but it requires a lot of effort and discipline, and you really learn to carry your own weight. I watched them go from little kids to take their place in this trail, and that really inspired the arc of Jules’ journey as well.”
Archie Beaverho, a Tłı̨chǫ artist and painter based in Behchokǫ̀, illustrated the book.
He says designing sketches for Neema’s story came easily and naturally: it took him less than two weeks to finish the project.
“It’s just amazing, the way we work together,” Beaverho said. “I’m really happy with how we made the book together.”
The next generation
Beaverho has also been on the canoe trip, an experience he enjoyed. He hopes reading the book will encourage younger people to do the same.
“They’ll look at the book and then they’ll probably think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go next time … and make a story of this,’” he said.
Steinwand, who has made the trip four times herself, said it’s hard to describe the power of the experience.
“For the people that have gone through it, you’re going to see the smile on their face and sparkle in their eyes as they talk about it,” she said, “because it’s so special.”
Journal of a Travelling Girl launches on Tuesday with a Facebook live stream hosted by the Yellowknife Book Cellar and publisher Heritage House.
Starting at 7pm MT, the stream includes readings from the book and a Q&A with Steinwand and Neema.
Though new, the book has already gained traction in NWT schools. The Tłı̨chǫ Government has paid for shipments to Tłı̨chǫ schools and Steinwand has contacted the NWT government to see if the work can find a home within the territorial curriculum.
Steinwand is researching how to translate the book into Tłı̨chǫ so kids can learn the language while reading the story.
“I’m hoping it inspires all youth to write their stories,” author Neema said. “I think inspiring other people to be creative is always a wonderful thing to achieve.”