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Back to my mountain home

Returning to the bush gave me a new lens on Yellowknife

I spent all of August in my home community of Tulita, ‘where the rivers meet,’ surrounded by the mountains that watched over me as a child. It seemed the whole month was celebratory: a wedding, land claims anniversary, hand games tournament. There was something going on every week and I was in the thick of things. No time to rest. I would have to return to Yellowknife for that. But what took the most out of me was more than two weeks on the land helping build a moose skin boat. It was tough physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.

Physically, the project required using muscles that I did not think I had, and getting used to the name “Get Wood” once again. Setting snares was an effort; there was no energy to walk even a little hill, never mind wobbling over rocks trying to get water, or carry a log over moss. It was like learning to skate for the first time.

Mentally, it was a reminder just how little I knew out on the land; little things such as what is the best spruce bough to use for a bed, or what kind of wood to burn to dry the meat? I struggled with my own Shuhtoatine, or Mountain Dene, language. So many words and phrases I had long forgotten. There were times I felt like even the younger people knew much more than me. The experience was not kind to the ego!

Spiritually, I realized on a daily basis just what a tiny speck I am along Begahde, or the Keele River, never mind the Mackenzie Mountains, or the universe. Thirty seconds out of camp and the forest and quiet engulfed you like fog, and you were all alone. I wanted to make noise to scare off bears or other animals. At nights, lying in bed, there were none of the sounds I am used to in Yellowknife – trucks whizzing by, furnaces going on, or children playing. In the bush, I felt alone in a vast universe. The world felt like a scary place.

Emotionally I felt most comfortable, but even that was a struggle. I knew the Shutoatine language enough to take part in the daily conversation, but when the deeper topics like spirituality or sacred areas came up, I felt like I was entering Kindergarten. I laughed at the funny stories and was so happy to hear the Elders tell stories and legends, but my emotions ran from high to low regularly.

It was not always like this.

I was born along the Turehij de, which runs into Begahdeh (Keele River), at a time when my family travelled to Tulita in a moose skin boat. Except for a year in residential school when I was eight, I lived on the land with the Shuhtoatine. No matter what time of the year, the mountains were home. There was silence when you wanted it, when you didn’t want it and every other time. There was peace being with the animals as they played and sang with the joy of being alive. There is nothing that quite compares to lying on your blanket and listening to the birds in spring, nothing like watching a rabbit run a few steps, stop, listen and then just sit there; or hearing wolves howl in the dark, or the pitter-patter of rain drops on the tent as you try to fall asleep deep in the Mackenzie Mountains.

I learned how the animals took care of you, and how you cared for and respected them in return. I learned early to pay respects to the land or water when we arrived in a new area. I was taught at an early age to feed the fire and pray. The Elders spoke of the kind of songs to sing in the mornings. One of my fondest memories was waking up and hearing the older people outside joking and laughing, singing songs about the beauty of being alive and songs for the land. All my life I never found those teachings anywhere else.

Then I went to residential school and upon graduation entered the wage economy. In the mid-1980s I moved to Yellowknife. I have lived in the NWT capital ever since. Although I spoke my language and went out on the land regularly, I slowly but surely became an urban Dene. Yellowknife is home to the biggest Aboriginal population in the NWT, but still it is very easy to get caught up in the driving, the phone, TV…and become isolated. It was hard to see people on the streets who did not say hello or greet you, or were looking for money all the time. It was hard to go to a drum dance and just see Aboriginal people. Where is everyone else? I’d wonder. With thousands of people in Yellowknife, it is very easy to get lost.

In the city, work meant going to a place at a certain time and leaving at a time and going home. Then after supper, watching TV or taking part in a sport, then to bed. People were friendly, but if you did not know a lot of people, and if English is your second language, living in a city of 20,000 is not easy, especially when you do not drink or play bingo. I took part in sports, theatre and volunteered. I adjusted to the ways of the city. I made it my home.

In August, I had to adjust again to living on the land. I had to learn how not to feel alone, or afraid, in the place where I grew up. Then one day the magic happened. I felt at home. I don’t know how, when or why, but I was comfortable. Very comfortable, enjoying the physical work and being out on the land by myself; the loveliness of the trees, the sounds of the river and the wisdom of the people taking care of one another. I cannot recall the last time when I had a better sleep.As I said to a friend, the time I spent on the land was like re-reading a book I’d read when I was child. It opened my eyes, ears and heart. It reminded me why I am so proud to be Aboriginal, Dene and Shuhtoatine. Growing up on the land was not easy, there were tough times when there was little food, or pain from losing someone, or leaving a family member in town, but what I remember most is the beauty of nature and everyone being so happy, joyous and free. My ancestors were healthy, independent, strong-willed and hard working.

They used to say all you needed was a good axe, sharp knife and a three-pronged needle to build a moose skin boat. The rest of the material would come from the land. Many days after working on the moose skin boat in August, we sat having coffee, tea or broth and wondered how did our ancestors build their boats in four or five days without modern conveniences like a chainsaw?

I thought the time on the land took a lot out of me, but now I know it replenished me. It made me stronger, prouder and more serene, knowing once again I come from great people. I thought of my sister who died in May, and my parents and other mountain men, women and children and felt a lump in my throat when the moose skin boat was finished. I shed a tear when it was put in the water as I recalled my last trip with my grandparents down this river.

Now I know why I had to come back to Yellowknife to rest. Still, it was another adjustment. Driving back on the highway, the cars, and semis whizzing by, trying to get to wherever as fast as they can. Then I had a flat and nobody stopped to see if I needed help. The noise and clatter of the city – construction, sirens, planes flying over – was constant. But for some odd reason the noise did not bother me as much. My home and bed felt very comfortable. People in Yellowknife, like Tulita, looked beautiful, and they seemed to be doing all right. Then it occurred to me that the two weeks along Begahde was more than a traditional experience, it gave me a new pair of glasses and a new hearing aid. I noticed more smiles, more music, laughter and the hugs were pretty cool. Very cool indeed! The days reminded me of why Elders sing in the mornings and laugh the loud, long belly laughs.