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A week with the Ni Hat’Ni Dene Rangers

In mid-July, I spent a week with this season’s two Ni Hat’Ni Dene Ranger Crews outside of the community of Lutsel K’e, on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, NWT. Ni Hat’ni Dene translates as “watchers of the land” from Chipewyan, the local Dene language. Each summer, two crews of local Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN) members keep watch over the land and water of the East Arm.They conduct water and fish sampling, survey visitors to the area, clean up any garbage that has been left behind, and live on the land.One of the most important parts of the program is that the more senior rangers teach the younger crew members about traditional Denesoline ways of life.

2014 is the eighth year that the LKDFN has run the Ni Hat’NiDene program, and whileit has continued to evolve since its inception, the vision behind the program remains the same: to look after this part of the LKDFN traditional territory, and to pass knowledge down to the next generation.These same ideas form the basis of the community’s vision to establish Thaidene Nene, the Land of the Ancestors, the proposed protected area around and beyond the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.

This year has seen significant changes to the Ni Hat’Ni program. A decrease in funding has meant less money available to spend on fuel for the boats. This means a smaller travel radius for the crews, which impacts their water and fish sampling and their ability to interact with visitors. Additionally, the extreme wildfire season that we have had this year in the NWT has caused decreased visibility on the lake due to the intense smoke, and serious safety concerns, with shoreline access severely limited in certain areas.

The flight to Lutsel K’e from Yellowknife takes about 45 minutes, and I love it because you get to fly low enough that it’s like looking at a map, as you look out the window at the land and water spread out below. This summer the view was unusual and worrisome, with the flight path following the flank of an enormous forest fire (see photo).

I traveled with Ali Kincaid, who is on contract with CPAWS to do Thaidene Nene communications. Upon arrival in Lutsel K’e, we were whisked off to the Ni Hat’Ni camp, set up about 20 minutes north of the community by boat. A week at the Ni Hat’Ni fish camp includes setting gill nets by boat; waiting a couple of hours for dozens of whitefish, lake trout and ciscoes to fill the net; pulling the net; sampling lake trout tissues and organs for age and health (samples are sent to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and processing all fish for eating or smoking over a fire to make dryfish (delicious!).

Ali and I helped out with camp set-up and duties, but we were also there to provide a beginning-of-season refresher on written and oral communications skills. In between gathering spruce boughs for the teepee floor and de-scaling whitefish, we practised telling stories and interviewing visitors. Unfortunately, the smoke sent us back to town after a couple of days, but we were able to spend the rest of our time at the Thaidene Nene office, practising journaling and blogging with the crewmembers, and working on a video project.

The crews took turns traveling throughout as much of the East Arm as possible this summer. Until mid-August, they conducted fish and water sampling in different areas, and visited with travellers on the lake, taking advantage of the opportunity to tell visitors to the East Arm – the people who love this beautiful area the most – about the plans for Thaidene Nene.

You can read the Ni Hat’Ni Dene crews’ weekly journal entries on the Thaidene Nene Facebook page – and take a few minutes to visit the Thaidene Nene website to sign the petition and write a letter of support for its establishment to government decision-makers.