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The Dene Way

The Dene Way

Here's what happens when a group of young, skilled, educated people decides to stop talking at start acting.
By Samia Madwar
Sep 20
2015
From the September 2015 Issue

To tan a moosehide properly, you need to have a respectful relationship with a hunter, or to hunt the moose yourself. You need to know the right time to hunt so the animal’s hide is in just the right condition. The moose needs to be healthy, and that means the land it’s harvested from needs to be healthy. After long days of cleaning, scraping or stretching, your muscles are sore, your arms feel heavy, and your back aches, but out of respect for the hide—and for the tradition—you cannot project any negativity. It’s challenging, labour intensive, and personally enriching, and you can only learn all this through experience.

You also need the right tools—knives and scrapers, among others—to do it. Normally, these are passed down within families. But Tania Larsson, like many of her peers, had to start with nothing. 

“There’s a gap now in our generation,” says Larsson, a Gwich’in/Swedish arts student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I didn’t have tools from my family. It was kind of hard. I had to borrow tools from people, and usually you don’t really do that, because your tools are so precious.”

So with a little support from her friends, she arranged a toolmaking workshop with Yukon-based master knife-maker George Roberts, who has produced hundreds of knives, handles, ulus, sheaths, and leather pouches. For a chilly week in May 2014, as the ice broke up on the Yukon River, Larsson and nine other students—including elders—learned to carve, drill, grind, scrape, sand, and polish. They lovingly turned metal, wood, bones and antler into more than 50 tools that they could go on to use for moose- and caribou-hide tanning. 

When she proudly posted photos of her and her peers’ work to social media, Larsson started getting calls for interviews. The word was out. 

The group of friends who had helped her coordinate the workshop—a few of whom also attended it—were Dene Nahjo, a then newly formed organization of 10 young NWT leaders. The tool-making workshop wasn’t supposed to announce their existence to the world. But it was exactly the sort of activity many of their friends yearned for.

“So we were like, ok—I guess this is it,” laughs Kyla Kakfwi Scott, one of the founding members. Along with Larsson and her sister Nina, the group includes Kyla’s husband Amos Scott, a Tłı̨chǫ filmmaker who wrote, created, directed and produced the television program Dene: A Journey; Dëneze Nakehk’o of the Lidlii Kue First Nation; Eugene Boulanger, a Tulita Dene designer; Mandee McDonald, who’s Maskîkow from Churchill, Manitoba and the program manager for Dechinta Bush University; and Daniel T’seleie, Director of Lands and Environment with the Dene Nation. Nearly all Dene Nahjo members now live in Yellowknife. And like Tania and her fellow toolmakers, they’re all trying to bridge the gaps in their cultural education.

“A commonality of this generation,” says Kakfwi Scott, “is feeling like we don’t have access to something that should already be a part of you, and then also feeling like that’s a unique experience.”

Previous generations, like her father’s, had some grounding in their traditional culture. “I was born and lived in Fort Good Hope in a log cabin without running water for a year. And that’s part of my experience,” says Kakfwi Scott. “But for the most part, I’ve lived in Yellowknife, really far away from my traditional territory.” That disconnect means it’s harder for her and others with a similar experience to access elders who, with their skills, could be invaluable teachers. But even youth living in communities can have trouble reaching out to someone who might not be family or a close friend and asking them to pass along traditional knowledge. 

“We’re committed to, as individuals and as a group, anything that we do, doing it in a good way, and in keeping with Dene values and principles and way of life.” 

You could say actually the idea of Dene Nahjo began when Kakfwi Scott and Dëneze Nakehk’o and his sister were kids, sitting on the floor, playing underneath tables during Dene National Assemblies and other meetings. Kakfwi Scott’s father Stephen was NWT premier for three years, her mother, Marie Wilson, a former journalist, head of CBC North, and commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nakehk’o’s father, Jim Antoine, preceded Stephen Kakfwi as premier, and also served as chief of the Liidlii Kue First Nation.

They grew up around similar people, gaining similar experiences. They found likeminded friends, many of whom, in seeking ways to fill the gaps in their cultural education, discovered they weren’t alone. Tanning moosehides became a movement. It spurred the need for toolmaking. It ultimately led to Dene Nahjo.

The group began crystallizing in 2012 and early 2013 during Idle No More. In November 2012, a few members drafted a statement of support for the movement. They organized demonstrations and drumdances, shutting down traffic on Yellowknife’s main street. But it wasn’t enough.

“We quickly had the conversation evolve into: ‘then what?’” says Kakfwi Scott. They weren’t quite sure what their overarching goal was, or what they’d be able to accomplish in their spare time, given that this would be a volunteer commitment on top of full-time jobs, full-time studies, and, for some, raising kids. But they easily agreed on how they would do things—and that, more than anything, defines Dene Nahjo.

“We’re committed to, as individuals and as a group, anything that we do, doing it in a good way, and in keeping with Dene values and principles and way of life,” says Kakfwi Scott. 

The organization is now officially supported by Tides Canada, a Vancouver-based charitable fund that promotes environmental stewardship and social justice. When Dene Nahjo meets, members pitch project ideas and agree on which ones to carry out. And most of that work happens in members’ living rooms, at organized cookouts, or during weekly conference calls after they’ve had dinner and put their kids to bed.

The phrase Dene Nahjo, or “doing things in a good way,” doesn’t translate precisely into all the Dene languages spoken by its founding members. But it was chosen carefully with the guidance of an elder Sahtu Dene speaker and a young Dene Zhati speaker, and the idea translates easily. When the group makes a decision, they do it like their mentors did.

Tania Larsson files metal at the toolmaking workshop hosted by George Robert in May 2014. Photo: Kali Spitzer

“It is a very traditional way of doing business,” says Nakehk’o. “I’ve listened to Kyla’s dad, Stephen, talk about all the leaders that he looked up to. Chief Johnny Charlie from Fort McPherson; Alexis Arrowmaker; Paul Wright from the Sahtu, and my dad as well. He talks about these leaders with great reverence. He said that whenever they’d go to a meeting, there’d be one issue. And then everybody would go around the table to talk about that one issue until everyone has their say and everyone comes to an agreement on this one subject. Sometimes those discussions would take all night and into the next day. But once everybody feels all right about it, everybody moves forward together. So it’s like a consensus. I really like that about our group.”

“There was a lot of pressure to make a big bang” when Dene Nahjo launched, says Kakfwi Scott. The group resisted. They didn’t want to be overwhelmed, to burn out.

But in a way, the Circumpolar Indigenous Women’s conference was that bang. Hosted by Dene Nahjo last November, its 100-some attendees included elected leaders but also athletes, artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, environmentalists, and educators. 

Over four days, women would network, inspiring business ideas, artistic collaborations, friendships. In a plenary speech, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier spoke about their power as individuals to effect change, greeting members of the audience she recognized by name. It was intimate. It was as personal as it was professional. 

Throughout each day, there were scheduled breaks, massages, yoga sessions. Attendees were encouraged to bring their children. At the public gala on the second night, performers drumdanced, throatsang, and told stories, packing one of Yellowknife’s biggest stages, in the Explorer Hotel.

The conference proved what Dene Nahjo was capable of. And they’ve only grown since then. In August, the group hired a program director as its first full-time staff member. They’re planning a leadership development course that follows a traditional Dene model, and maybe a circumpolar indigenous men’s conference. Some of the attendees at the women’s conference are considering hosting their next installment elsewhere in the circumpolar world. They’ve been approached by other regional organizations for partnerships, and recently supported the organizers of the Gwich’in Youth Council Strategic Planning Session. And they’ve hinted that if one of their core members decides to run for office, they’ll all offer their support. 

“One of the challenges for our generation of leaders is how broad the burden of leadership is,” Kakfwi Scott reflects. “Because we … don’t have access to that same range of cultural experiences and land experience [as previous generations did], and yet, to lead, that’s an essential thing. You have to have your language. You have to have that skill. At the same time, to lead effectively, you have to have some expertise in bookkeeping, and business, and understanding of the economy that we’re in. You have to have some understanding of the extractive industry, because that’s what everyone wants to be focused on. And you have to have some expertise in a whole crazy range of issues across cultures. And that’s a lot.” 

Nakehk’o’s mother once told him it would take a couple generations to recover from the toxic effects of residential school. But his opinion differs. To him, time alone won’t heal the wound. The Dene Nahjo members all belong to the first generation that came after residential school. And with that comes an active responsibility.

“Most of us are parents,” says Kakfwi Scott. “My oldest kid is 12. And that was something that was a big moment for me when we were first organizing. I had this shift of realizing I’m still trying to make space for the things I feel like I’m missing, trying to grow up into being a well-rounded Dene woman. And yet, that’s not what my job is now. My job is to make sure my daughters have that.”

When Kakfwi Scott introduced Sheila Watt-Cloutier during the latter’s book signing this past spring, she held her daughter Sadeya’s hand. When Dene Nahjo hosted David Suzuki, who stopped in Yellowknife last fall on his nation-wide Blue Dot tour, all the Dene Nahjo children were in the audience.

“Being part of this group is shaping what our kids are growing up to be,” says Kakfwi Scott. “My six-year-old will look at different pictures of moosehide tanning and identify what the tools are for and what style we’re doing, whether it’s Deh Cho style or Good Hope style. That is amazing to me.”