UpHere Logo

Tastes Of The Tłįchǫ

Tastes Of The Tłįchǫ

Chewing the fat with Dene elder, raconteur and renaissance man, Joe Mackenzie
By Herb Mathisen
Jun 02
From the June 2016 Issue

The first years of Joe Mackenzie’s life followed a pattern familiar to his family for generations, with every movement revolving around food. In fall, his family would head north by dog team to Germaine Lake and set up camp. The men would continue north to the Barrenlands to hunt for the caribou that would feed the group and provide them with skins for shelter, rugs and clothing. “When they went out, they’d have fish if there was no caribou,” he says. “And they’d know the fishing holes too—just like gas stations all the way to the tundra.” They would return south in summer to trap muskrat and beaver and stock up on fish.

But each time they returned, more and more people were settling permanently around what’s now Behchokǫ̀, NWT—an hour’s drive west of Yellowknife. And then, at the age of 8, Mackenzie’s life changed—like so many children, the residential school system and the foreign four walls of a classroom replaced the long winters in the bush with his family. When he completed school at 19, he decided to go back on the land with his father to relearn what he’d lost at school.

Mackenzie, 65, has retired from a career as a wildlife officer. He tends a net outside his home with help from his grandsons and continues to go out on his father’s trapline most winters.

Where did you grow up? Most kids my age grew up in the bush. In those days, in Behchokǫ̀, nobody stayed in town. Just some people that came in—we called it French Point, they were a little bit mixed blood people from the south—they stayed. And the RCMP and everybody else like that. But most people stayed out in the bush. The summers were in Behchokǫ̀, but then in the fall time, right after it freezes, we were gone until June.

What was life like in the bush? My father, they used to go up for white fox all the time. One time, they kept on going and going and the dogs were getting hungry. They can’t go trapping if there’s no caribou because they needed bait. So dad said, “Well, let me check up ahead.” He left camp and went by himself. He never came back that night and all the next day. And next night, still nothing. So they got worried and said, “In the morning, before daylight, we’ll go looking for him.” 

Sometime during the night, he came back and said, “Hozìi got'ii don’t fool around.” Hozìi means Barrenland, got'ii means like, say, if you’re from Canada, you’re Canadian. People were getting ready and he came in. “What happened?” He said, “I shot six muskox.” A big roar, everybody’s happy. They can feed their dogs and trap now. He brought back as much as he could for the dogs and all that to eat. Hozìi got'ii —Barrenland people—don’t fool around. It was against the law at that time to shoot muskox. Can you imagine that? So there was all kinds of stuff like that. I was pretty proud of my father.

You went to residential school in Fort Smith. What did you do when you finished? Instead of continuing on in post-secondary, I went out on the land with my father for at least ten years—ten winters. Looking back, I’m glad I did that. Going to residential school that long, I was already pretty lost, so it kind of gave me the grounding that I needed to do other things.

To reconnect? Yeah. You think you’re okay, but… there are some that their parents don’t think life on the land is that important or that residential school didn’t affect them. For me, it’s really so embedded in me. I don’t know how to express it, but I have to be out there a lot of the time, so I kind of call it being intimate with the land.

Was it difficult to return? You’re away that long at school and there’s kind of distance maybe, say, between me and my father.

I’ll just say something that maybe will shed a little bit of light about how it was. Right now, my son will tell me, “I love you, dad.” I can’t say that. It’s hard for that love to come out. So that’s the way it was between me and my father—we were just working partners. Not much father-son, eh? 

I’m pretty good out on the land, but I see some guys, they’re slick because they never went to school. Some people think I’m slick, but you should see those guys. [I only really learned] after I started going with my dad, just me. It’s not just trapping, you had to go hunt too—shoot caribou and fix it and all that. That’s what they say, watch and learn. But boy, it’s not that easy.

Just like skinning caribou, once you know how after a while, it’s like, shit I can do that. I can do a moose. I can do buffalo. It’s very similar. Now I’ve got a buddy there in Rae, he hardly went to school. He’d look at a Ski-Doo part. He’d just look at it and he could figure it out. They’re really good with their hands.

You and your dad would travel by dog team? When I started with him, it was just dogs. The Ski-Doo was just starting to come. We would fish at North Arm until early freeze-up, in the early ‘70s. My dad had to have 3,000 or 4,000 fish [for the dogs.] He wanted the big, white jumbos, eh? We would take ten on a stick and put it on the drying rack. It doesn’t dry, it just gets the blood out, so we would get a few thousand and then if we were going to go trapping we would load up the sled. We’d have our tents and sleeping bags and caribou rug from the year before and a little bit of groceries. Enough bannock to try to make it till Christmas, and some lard, and that was about it.

We would go and then the dogs would eat fish every night. Midday, we had something to eat. We’d get the fish [and make a fire.] It thaws out and we’d just scrape the cooked part on top and just eat it like that on a piece of bannock. 

Did the dogs eat anything else? Sometimes when people used to go out, they stayed there an extra week just to feed the dogs caribou. The meat was better for them they always say, especially if it’s fat. Like the front legs they would just throw to them. They freeze all the hindquarters and the backstraps and all that for the trip back.

At Christmas, we’d come back and the stores would have tallow, this lard, but it’s hard. We used to cut it in half and give one to each dog. Straight fat. It’s good for them.

Photo by Hannah Eden/Up Here

How did you prepare the caribou to eat it? Before, you cooked on the fire, that’s about it. And then pots came in and you boiled it. You ever heard about George Tuccaro? He said, “I wrote a cookbook. It’s called ‘Just Boil It.’”

They never wasted anything. Probably the only thing they didn’t eat was the hooves, the hair and the hide. And when people eat caribou, they don’t eat just the meat by itself, it’s always on the bone. Then with a hindquarter, the whole meat would come off. They keep cutting, keep cutting, thin, until you had a big slab. It takes a lot of skill to do that. And then they hang it and dry it. 

What are some delicacies?  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those sacks made of caribou legging—hair on the outside but on the inside is the hide part, all cured. They’d cinch the top. That’s where they’d keep their lunch: the bannock, maybe a piece of boiled meat and boiled tongue and all the goodies. I remember me and dad used to come back before Christmas and the dogs would just come up to the house. It’s not like today, you know, you come back [and hear] the Ski-Doo. It was just quiet, the dogs would come in and they were happy. It was familiar. They’d have a little holiday. And then my sisters would run out, and they’d look for the etsì˛—the pounded meat bag. They would look for that and run into the house with it.

Me and my woman, we finally got married last summer. So I had one of those [bags] made. We put that ring in there, but we had caribou tongue and bannock in there. We came to church and one of my little nephews was carrying it—people didn’t know what was happening. So my best man was trying to take the ring out. We gave him the bag. “What the hell’s he doing with a drymeat bag?” So he reached in there. “What? Caribou tongue?” He put it back in. “Bannock?” He finally found the ring. It was funny.

And she didn’t say, “No thanks, I’ll take the caribou tongue instead?” No, the priest wanted it!

The other day, one of my younger sisters made rice and then some ligaments. It would be tough just to chew, but if you boil it for a long time, it’s soft and you can chew it and swallow it. Really, it’s just an acquired taste. They didn’t throw anything away that’s maybe edible.

When I boil caribou, it’s on the bone. All the meat we eat is on the bone. I’ll eat the meat and marrow from the bone, but I try to keep the potatoes and vegetables away because the taste is really good if you’re used to it and you don’t want to bugger it up by eating potatoes and vegetables.

You know, the old-timer wouldn’t eat vegetables or potatoes with his traditional meal—caribou, fish or ducks. Because he wants the taste. But that’s kind of disappearing.

You don’t mess with it. Just eat it on its own? Yeah, especially if it’s got fat on it. And when you cook it on the fire too. I think that kind of eating is going less and less. So really, that taste maybe wouldn’t stay with those young people now like the way it does with, say, someone like me. I think to get that back, you’ve got to have the environment—you’re out on the land, you’re eating fish on the spruce boughs or something like that and you really enjoy it. You’re not worried about sitting at a table with plates and all that, eh?

Is it an appreciation for all the hard work that went into hunting and preparing the food? Well, I don’t think really people look at it like hard work. It’s just kind of natural. We don’t think that way, eh? It’s probably hard work, but it’s just… you’ve got to eat fresh meat.

Is there still a lot of people who dry meat in Behchokǫ̀? Yeah. When we make drymeat, before I used to just eat anybody’s drymeat. But if it’s dried in a house with no woodstove, just a furnace, you can tell. On and off. Not steady heat, that dry heat from a woodstove, eh? So it tastes kind of damp. 

Really? Yeah, it’s different. 

What else did you eat in the spring? One of the greatest foods this time of year, when you used to trap muskrats and shoot them, was muskrat tails. Boy, they were good. You wet it and then you put it over the fire. Then all that leather just puffs up and then you scrape it and you end up with meat and the bone inside. You make a couple cuts and the meat comes off the bone. So this muskrat tail meat you cooked on the fire—boy, it’s ever good. You’ve gotta try it! 

What’s it like? It’s a little bit chewy, but not hard-chewy. Just enough. You put a little bit of salt on it. 

How have things changed over the years? The big change is people eating caribou year-round because of freezers and fridges. Before, there used to be a community freezer and if you had meat, it was mostly those big canvas bags—that’s how we packed meat on the Barrenlands. You would fill those up with drymeat and then take some once in a while during the summer.

A family would have two or three freezers full during the summer. [That’s] four [Tłįchǫ] communities, Yellowknife, Dettah, Fort Smith would come. So the impacts, they were getting pretty heavy.

What else has changed? When we’re out there, we’re always there for a reason. Not recreation. But now, we mix them both. But like fall fishing—there was a reason behind everything. The main thing was to gather fish for the dogs for the winter. And then Ski-Doos came.

Lots of changes are happening with how you prepare your food, too. Right now, I set a net for pickerels. Before, people didn’t eat that.

They were for dogs back then? Yeah. Later on, we started fileting them. I know a lot of white people like them, but it’s bland. It’s a bland fish, so spices can dress it up any way you like, right? But we never used spice and all that before so we never bothered eating it. Just whitefish, it’s got a taste to it. Whitefish, trout, suckers, loche and jackfish.

You do culture camps, showing kids how to prepare and eat fish, muskrat and beaver. Do you find kids are interested in learning that today? Some of them, boy, they like going to that culture camp—especially if they’ve got supportive parents. But some of the kids, [all] they learn is from the school, because their young parents or their grandparents never went in the bush.

What’s the best meal you've ever had? One time, me and dad were gone for a few days and a black bear showed up in our camp. It wasn’t too far away so I shot it and killed it. My dad skinned it and then we cooked the ribs on the fire. I remember to this day, it’s the best ribs I ever had. It was so fat. Bears have a parasite that’s no good, so it has to be cooked well. But it had fat on the ribs, eh? It was really nice tasting ribs, I tell you. Holy.