This week, dozens of Indigenous women leaders are gathering in Yellowknife for an event organized by Dene Nahjo, a group of young northern activists intent on translating the philosophy of Idle No More into action.
The group started in the winter of 2012 as the Idle No More protests, in support of indigenous sovereignty and protection of the natural environment, were slowing down. Melaw Nakehk’o, a founding member of Dene Nahjo, was one of the lead organizers for the demonstrations in Yellowknife.
“She went by herself in minus 40, so we decided then we would never allow any of our group to lead a movement without having support,” said Nina Larsson.
As Idle No More began to lose momentum, the group of friends, family members and coworkers that became Dene Nahjo began brainstorming ways to translate the movement’s energy into tactile results.
“We agreed that there needs to be some kind of action, but we can’t just be shutting down intersections so people can round dance and draw attention, because that gets old after the second time,” said Kyla Kakfwi Scott. ”People, rather than learning about the issues, will get stuck on ‘my issue right now is I’m trying to go for lunch and you’re preventing me from getting there.’”
In May of 2013, a group of roughly 15 people met at Sah Naji Kwe Lodge outside of Behchoko. They settled on a name for their movement: Dene Nahjo, which means Dene Way of Life or, as Dene means “the people,” simply The Human Way of Life. They also established a relationship with Tides Canada, a nation-wide charity that supports organizations working for social and environmental justice. They’re now funded largely by Tides, which also does their bookkeeping and provides legal advice.
Not just talk
It took a while for the group to chart a course, said Kakfwi Scott. “Trying to start off with that giant purpose was going to mean we were going to do nothing except talk about what that giant purpose was going to be, and we did not want to be another organization that just talked about things.”
What emerged is more of a support network than political advocacy group. Members take on projects that interest them and tap into the group’s collective resources and skills to help pull them off.
Over the last year and a half members have organized a traditional tool-making workshop in Whitehorse, several moose hide tanning camps, and now the indigenous women’s gathering, their biggest event to date. A northern leadership conference is in the works for sometime next year.
“We have one rule, we always want to do it on the land, we want to promote culture, language and on-the-land activities,” said Larsson.
Non-Aboriginal people are welcome and several of the founding members are not Aboriginal. However, the organization has an explicitly decolonial agenda that promotes traditional learning and Aboriginal cultural revitalization.
“It’s an interesting dynamic living in Yellowknife, because I can’t go out and rediscover my family’s trails and places on the land without spending $1,600 to get myself back to Fort Good Hope,” said Kakfwi Scott. “So we’re trying to create that opportunity here by reaching out to and building connections to make that possible.”
“Most of us are parents” she added, “and in some cases our kids are old enough that it’s also not a conversation about I didn’t learn my language from my dad. My daughter is 11 and so it’s past being about me and my needs and it’s about her needs.”