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Thaidene Nene – a trip to NWT

Lutsel K’e
Dacho Catholique and Rodney Lockhart-Drygeese of Lutsel K’e, enjoy a picnic near the site of their great grannie’s old home. Photo: Ellen Adelberg

Earlier this week I returned to Ottawa, jetlagged and bleary-eyed, from a trip that I will never forget to visit the people of the Lutsel K’e Denesoline First Nation. This community of 350 live for most of the year in the town of Lutsel K’e, perched at a scenic juncture on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake by the Snowdrift River. My colleagues Alison Woodley, also based in Ottawa, and Kris Brekke, who works for CPAWS-NWT chapter, were fortunate enough to be invited to the community’s annual spiritual gathering. Located at a spectacular beach on the lake stretching for about a kilometer at the mouth of the Lockhart River, the gathering occurs at the same place where for millennia the Lutsel K’e Dene, members of the Chipewan nation, have spent time especially in the summer, harvesting fish, berries and mammals including bear, moose and caribou.

It looked like Varadero North – before there were ugly high rise hotels! Sand soft underfoot, but in the place of palms, lichen and black spruce spreading out from the beach up the gentle rise of a hill. The days were long, hot and sunny. Here families set up camp sites  with canvas Prospector tents held up by limbs of locally felled black spruce, surrounded by camp chairs and screened gazebos. The Dene found our campsite amusing and I am sure pathetic, with our little backpacking tents, logs to perch on in place of chairs, and one blue plastic food barrel of provisions.

Generous folks like Florence Catholique, a former chief and doting teacher and grandmother to her own and many other children of the village, offered us delectable freshly caught lake trout for suppertime grilling. In return we gave her chocolate from the south, and bags of freshly picked blueberries we gathered at a place around the bay that her family took us to by boat. The berries were super abundant and bursting with flavour. The boat that took us there was piloted by JC Catholique – Florence’s brother, but scouted by their 80 something year old mother Madeleine Catholique. She knew it from her youth, which was spent on the barren lands as they are called, with her parents, following the patterns of migrating caribou. Madeleine, I might add, out-picked us by at least 3 to 1.

Children dashed about at the gathering in absolute joy, frolicking on the beach and in the refreshing – ok, really refreshing - lake and river waters. Generations within large extended families caught up with each other. Everywhere we were made to feel welcome . At night, outdoors or in the arbour – a large wooden structure on the campground – children and youth practiced dizzying hand games and drum dances learned from their parents and older community members. A Roman Catholic chapel had also been built on the site, and daily mass was held.

One night, mass was interrupted by the sight of a black bear nosing about a nearby outhouse. The chapel emptied. The priest was upstaged. Within seconds,  groups of youth and older men were giving chase with guns and ATVs. I am sure no bear made a hastier retreat ever from a campsite!

Lutsel K’e

JC Catholique and nephews with Kris Brekke, Alison Woodley, learn the history of an old fort at Reliance, NWT. Photo: Ellen Adelberg

Alison, Kris and I were at the gathering because CPAWS has started this year to help to promote the Lutsel K’e Dene’s vision of protecting their land forever, by creating a new protected area under the Canada National Parks Act. Our time last week was spent getting to know some more community members after an initial trip we made to Lutsel K’e in March. We drank in their experiences, and learned just how close they still are to this stunning, northern land, and how challenging their path is towards a balance of traditional and modern life.

The kids may wear Addidas and Nike and sport iPods, but they’re also learning their native tongue, and how to fish, to hunt, to berry pick, to skin and prepare animals after harvest. We look forward to sharing much more with you about this amazing place and the spectacular conservation opportunity it offers in the months to come!