Lands and Environment Opinion

Following the path of our grandparents: A community response to caribou decline in Délı̨nę

The Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę Gotsę́ Nákedı (Sahtú Renewable Resources Board) will hold a hearing in Délı̨nę, Northwest Territories on March 1-3 to consider conservation measures for the Bluenose East caribou herd. This hearing will be unusual in that not one, but two proposals are being considered; the expected proposal from NWT Environment and Natural Resources, and Belarewı́lé Gots’ę́ Ɂekwę́, a proposal developed by the community of Delı̨nę. The latter is the first community caribou conservation plan in the Northwest Territories, possibly in all of Canada. The following is written by Walter Bayha, a community leader who was instrumental in developing the plan.

When they were younger, my children sometimes complained about going out in the bush. They didn’t understand my grandfather, and why he was so happy on the land. I would say to them, “That is his home. Just like your home where there is everything you need, he has everything he needs on the land.”

When the Berger Inquiry went through the NWT, the message was clear. People didn’t have technology or telephones to talk to each other, but you heard the same thing from the Inuvialuit region to northern Alberta. Like my grandfather, they were talking about how everything they do, their whole identity, comes from their relationship with the land.

Our community plan, Belarewı́lé Gots’ę́ Ɂekwę́ (Caribou For All Time), comes from the same place. Everything we have achieved, including the Sahtú land claim agreement and our self-government agreement, all come from the same place of wanting to make our own decisions about how we relate to the land. It is the very essence of being Dene, and we share this with Aboriginal peoples across the North.

Délı̨nę also has something else – the vision of Ɂehtséo Ayha. We call him the Prophet, but really to me my ancestor Ayha was a spiritual leader. In his vision he saw that the Dene way of life would change, and it has. He also told us not to change our way of life, or we would be sorry.

That is the common element in all that Délı̨nę has done. Whether it’s a land claim, self government, or an ɂekwę́ plan, we make things happen because we have a vision before us.

The problems with ɂekwę́ reminded us that we had gone off the trail our grandparents had set for us.

When it comes to Belarewı́lé Gots’ę́ Ɂekwę́, we are driven by that same vision and the words of Ayha. The plan is built on Dene values, Dene traditional ways of hunting and respecting ɂekwę́. We use Dene terms because they are loaded with meaning that doesn’t exist in English words. We are returning to the way our grandparents hunted, including harvesting other foods from the land, like moose, fish, and tǫdzı (boreal woodland caribou). Ayha said the land would provide us with everything we need.

There are so many outside influences, governments, other First Nations, but the vision reminds us that we have grandparents, we are a people, and we can make our own decisions.

I had a great career with the Wildlife Service, and I learned many things. But what the institutions teach you is different. I could not talk about the land the way my grandparents looked at it. In an institution, we don’t think that rocks and everything are alive, the way my grandparents did. So it was working in this institution that I realized that I can and I do think like my grandparents.

For our grandparents, the ideal thing would be to live out on the land the way their grandparents did. Today we have these institutions, the Sahtú land claim agreement, the co-management boards, even the band council. And it is true, they are not from our grandparents. How do you even name those things in our language?

However, I also think our grandparents were very progressive. I think they would have said: What’s most important is a good relationship with the land and our environment, and that this relationship is supported, not by an outside government—not the territorial or federal government—but our own government.

For us, Belarewı́lé Gots’ę́ Ɂekwę́ is a way for us to test this. Can we take the things our grandparents have always known and use our own ways and our language to make a plan that speaks to the institutions as well?

We knew we needed to make this plan to help ɂekwę́, because the problems with ɂekwę́ reminded us that we had gone off the trail our grandparents had set for us. We know this because we have the vision. That is what is driving us. Do we wait until these things happen? Or do we go ahead now and say “This is what we want to do” and make things better?◉

Photo credit: istockphoto/RONSAN4D

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