Published as part of our Indigenous Perspectives series featuring Indigenous-led initiatives to address and respond to climate change.
Climate change will hit the Northwest Territories (NWT) harder than most places in Canada. The Northern NWT has warmed more quickly than the rest of North America and the global average over the past 50 years, and scientists predict that the mean temperature will rise by between 4 and 8 degrees by the 2050s.
The changing climate threatens the health, safety, and food security of Indigenous communities such as the Sahtú. In an effort to deal with these changes, the Sahtú communities have turned to community-based traditional knowledge and science-based research and discussions as the basis for wise decision-making regarding what to do about climate change. The NWT government has also identified community-based monitoring and management as among the most important actions to inform decisions on potential adaptations.
Sahtú communities have turned to community-based traditional knowledge and science-based research and discussions as the basis for wise decision-making regarding what to do about climate change.
In the Sahtú, this type of work has been undertaken in the form of cross-cultural, on-the-land camps that create opportunities for learning and sharing across cultures, across generations, and across knowledge systems. This case study presents how this strategy has been successful in creating safe spaces for learning about the changes that everyone is seeing on the land in the face of climate change. It provides examples of what has worked during these camps, including:
- the building of relationships between community members and southern researchers;
- the learning and practicing of traditional skills such as fishing; and
- the learning and understanding of the land in their traditional territory.
It also identifies challenges that this work presents, including:
- the high cost of bringing people onto the land;
- designing schedules that keep all participants engaged; and,
- keeping people feeling safe and supported.
The Sahtú Region is an area of 280,238 square kilometres—about the size of Ecuador and arguably the most ecologically diverse landscape in North America. It encompasses the world’s seventh largest freshwater lake, Sahtú (Great Bear Lake); portions of Shúhtaot’ı̨nę Nęnę (the Mackenzie Mountains), Canada’s longest river system, Dǝho (the Mackenzie River); and the transition between dechı̨ ta (taiga forest) and gokw’i (arctic tundra).
There are five communities of the Sahtú region: Délı̨nę, K’áhbamı̨túé (Colville Lake), Rádelı̨hkǫ́ (Fort Good Hope), Tulita (Tulít’a), and Tɬegó̜hɬı̨ (Norman Wells). The Sahtú population totals 2,500, approximately 1,800 or 70 percent of whom are Dene and Métis. Within these communities there are roughly three dialects encompassing six varieties of Dene Kedǝ, “Dene language,” (also known as North Slavey), reflecting the diverse histories of the historically nomadic Sahtú families. The landscapes are reflected in the naming of the peoples and their language variants, including: Dela Got’ı̨nę (End of the Treeline Dene), Dǝho Got’ı̨nę (Big River Dene, people of the Mackenzie River, the second largest river system in North America); Shúhtaot’ı̨nę (Mountain Dene, people of the Mackenzie Mountains), and Sahtú Got’ı̨nę (Great Bear Lake Dene).
The cultural diversity of the Dene and Métis peoples arises from the region’s landscapes. Families traditionally travelled seasonally on the land and today many families maintain or are seeking to rekindle their ancestral stewardship roles with specific areas.
The Sahtú Dene and Métis are resilient peoples, and have successfully adapted to significant environmental, cultural, and socio-economic changes throughout their history. However, climate change poses a new and significant challenge. Sahtú regional priorities related to climate change adaptation are well documented through a number of recent planning and research initiatives. For example, caribou populations have been decreasing or changing their patterns, which has led to two community conservation plans rooted in traditional Dene laws for sustaining relationships with caribou (Ɂekwe/ʔəde). These are Délı̨nę’s Belarewı́le Gots’ę́ Ɂekwę́ (Caribou for All Time) plan and Colville Lake’s Dehlá Got’ı̨ne ʔəde plan.
Any research in the Sahtú should follow both community-identified research priorities and support community leadership of and participation within that research. Some of the recent research initiatives are discussed below.
The principle that any research should be community-led is what initiated the Nę K’ǝ Dene Ts’ı̨lı̨ (Living on the Land) Forum, a name which emphasizes and articulates the integral link between land stewardship and Dene and Métis identity and wellness. The forum also followed the holistic approach of Sahtú communities by seeking to integrate research with programs that support land stewardship, Dene and Métis identity and wellness.
The Sahtú Renewable Resources Board is one of three co-management boards created by the Sahtú land claim agreement to manage the land wisely. The Board, along with other partners, has used the Nę K’ǝ Dene Ts’ı̨lı̨ Forum to help articulate community and regional research priorities as well as local and regional research governance. It is also used to provide opportunities for building local and regional research capacity to support the development of Indigenous talent, knowledge, partnerships for reconciliation, and respectful relationships.
The Forum invites academic researchers, territorial and federal government departments, and industry representatives with active or proposed research projects in the region to attend meetings and discuss their work, its benefits and implications. The Forum has established long-term collaborative relationships with a number of researchers from diverse institutions and disciplines, reflecting local values that recognize land stewardship as a complex topic inextricably linked to questions of culture, language, identity, economy, and wellness. The Forum’s purpose, as defined in its terms of reference, is “to provide advice and coordination support for traditional economy, on-the-land activities.”
Linked to the Forum is the actual on-the-land aspect, which the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board has coined Cross Cultural Research Camps. They follow a similar format to the Forum but are done on the land. The model aims to provide interactive experiences from on-the-land practices and dialogue with traditional knowledge holders combined with science-based research and monitoring techniques and methods. This “two-eyed seeing,” as it is sometimes called, brings a lot more significance and understanding to the discussions and decisions regarding land stewardship, climate change, and the connections the communities have to these areas. They also provide a greater learning environment for all involved.
The camps consist of participants from multiple generations, multiple cultural backgrounds, and different academic and knowledge-system backgrounds. This integration ensures culturally appropriate and holistic approaches that build environmental leadership; honour, foster, and mobilize Indigenous knowledge; support and involve family units including youth; and create opportunities to support Dene and Métis wellness, healing, land stewardship, and career development.
“The Board’s strategy included decolonizing, Dene Ts’ı̨lı̨, the other side of the same coin, also on-the-land orientation, so centred on the land as much as possible…we also have youth centred…those are key elements of the Board’s strategy. Oh, and community-driven conservation planning. That’s the approach.” —Deborah Simmons,Tulı́t’a
The overarching goal of the camps is to create an environment where experiential, on-the-land learning helps to facilitate co-production of knowledge that is grounded in the traditional knowledge and experiences of community members. Community members, researchers, and partners use the time on the land to better integrate current and planned research initiatives, identify research and capacity needs, and support new and innovative research to address these concerns in the Sahtú. The collaborative nature of the camp’s activities is designed to add value to the research and to encourage open discussion and knowledge sharing between community members and researchers.
The overarching goal of the camps is to create an environment where experiential, on-the-land learning helps to facilitate co-production of knowledge that is grounded in the traditional knowledge and experiences of community members.
The Sahtú Renewable Resources Board has been holding these types of camps for nearly a decade and continues to learn how to improve them every time to allow for greater learning by participants, greater self determination by the Sahtú communities and simply more effective and efficient ways to share, communicate, live, and work together when out on the land.
Below are several examples of Cross Cultural Camps that have been hosted.
The Dene Ts’ıl̨ı̨School Experience: Toward a Sahtú Youth Network
In discussions with youth in the five communities, they expressed a need for more on-the-land opportunities. In particular, they wanted opportunities to be out on the land with elders for a longer period of time so that they are able to learn about the land and develop their bush skills. Three distinct intentions emerged through this dialogue: to 1) develop community capacity by involving local Ɂehdzo Got’ı̨nę (Renewable Resources Council) in the development and implementation of the Dene Ts’ı̨lı School; 2) strengthen the connections that youth have with their traditional culture; and 3) help to foster leadership skills among youth.
The camps were held at Dǝocha (Bennett Field) during 2017-2018. The first workshop gave rise to development of the cross-cultural Dechı̨ta Nezǫ Gots’udı́ (Living Well on the Land) approach to safety planning. The second workshop provided an opportunity to assess implementation of the plan’s first iteration, expanded the plan to include cultural and spiritual safety components, and focused specifically on safety planning for activities during the fall season.
In addition to the pre-camp planning workshops, daily leadership meetings provided time for the instructor team to discuss learnings from the previous day and refine the approach and plans for the coming day’s learning activities. Learning was necessary for both non-Indigenous resource people and elders/mentors. Non-Indigenous resource people are challenged to understand, respect and support spaces for learning that are tailored for Dene and Métis youth learning needs. Dene/Métis elders and mentors have a similar challenge coming from another direction, in that they seek to learn about the needs of young people who are at home in town and in structured school contexts, but are often unfamiliar with traditional ways of learning on the land.
“A major highlight for me was learning to appreciate my life, my loved ones, my culture, and food. I was dealing with depression this past year, and somehow Dene Ts’įlį school has helped me to move forward from that mental state of mind.”
For thousands of years, Dene people across the Sahtú have had guidelınes and laws that were, and are, followed to stay true to the land, ancestors of the past and for people of the future. Trevor speaks about some of these Dene Laws that apply to the lifestyles of Sahtú people. Created by Trevor Niditchie at the February 2017 Dene Ts’įlį School. Dene people take great pride in being and knowing they are from the land. In order to be healthy Dene people, therefore, it is important to ensure that the land is also healthy and prosperous. Created by Shannon Oudzi at the September 2017 Dene Ts’įlį School.
Water Knowledge Camps: Building Capacity for Cross-Cultural Water Knowledge, Research, and Environmental Monitoring
The Dene and Métis people of the Sahtú region experience a strong connection to the waters that surround them, and have a strong interest in scientific research and monitoring activities in their territory as evidenced by many years of participation in science-based research. However, notwithstanding scientific research results, communities throughout the Sahtú have expressed concerns about the health of the waters in the region (and consequent risks to human health) due to the legacy impacts of mining and development in the region and beyond, including Port Radium and oil and gas development in Norman Wells, long range transmitted contaminants, upstream effects of oil sands development in Alberta, and more recently the impacts of climate change and the potential for development of the Canol shale oil and gas play. As a result, many have stopped drinking from local water sources, preferring to purchase drinking water imported from elsewhere. With a great deal of research being conducted in the Sahtú, it was critical to promote a common cross-cultural understanding of water knowledge and concepts of risk by both researchers and community members as a basis for wise decision-making and community-based risk communication. Furthermore, there was a strong desire to build greater capacity for community-driven research and monitoring and ensure that research is conducted and results delivered in a culturally and socially respectful manner.
The first Water Knowledge Camp was held at the junction of Sahtú Dǝ́ (Great Bear River) and Tek’áı́cho Dǝ́ (Marten River) in Tulı́t’a, NWT, from August 19-26, 2019. It was an opportunity for Dene and Métis people of the Sahtú and academic researchers to come together on the land to share knowledge about water, climate change, and environmental monitoring. The objectives of the Water Knowledge Camps are to:
- Promote knowledge sharing between researchers and communities in the Sahtú.
- Hold focus groups with community partners to enhance effective communication of water-related research results to communities.
- Establish new baseline water quality and environmental research monitoring sites and work with communities and partners to build a water quality and environmental monitoring framework for the region.
Although the activities varied daily, they included daily chores, fishing (a favourite among the youth), berry picking, making dry-fish, preparing moose ribs, quilling, singeing, and cooking a porcupine that had wandered into camp, collecting spruce boughs, and beading. These experiential activities, facilitated by community members, had value for all participants because they learned how to be on the land and were taught about the cultural significance of being Dene and their holistic relationship with the lands, waters, wildlife, and community.
Research activities offered another form of experiential learning. Three concurrent focus groups were held on drinking water, environmental monitoring, and climate change. At the request of the youth, the climate change focus group was amended to include a discussion on youth leadership. Additional research activities included a water sampling and data collection/management demonstration facilitated by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, a tree coring and cookie activity, a mapping activity, and collecting water samples from Great Bear River.
“We are here at this camp to teach the young people the importance of water and to teach them about the science of water. Not only from new visitors from the south, researchers and scientists, but we also talk to them about traditional knowledge, about Dene knowledge, what our ancestors and our prophets have predicted. So, we are combining the two.” – Michael Neyelle, Délı̨nę
“Máhsı to the elders for passing on their knowledge and teachings to me. It’s because of you I can become a respectful Indigenous woman. Without programs like these, I would have never learned anything. I didn’t have family that took me out on the land. I didn’t have anyone to teach me these things. That’s why we need more programs like this for the youth. We need to make a difference.” -Kyanna Lennie-Dolphus, Tulı́t’a
Tracking Change Project
Since 2016, communities in the Sahtú have taken part in the Tracking Change project, which focuses on environmental changes in and around the Dǝhogá (Mackenzie River) through hands-on activities, participant sharing, and interpreted traditional knowledge about the changing ecology of water and fishing livelihoods. The long-term goal of this project in the Sahtu is to strengthen the voice of Indigenous communities in the governance of the Mackenzie River. Their local and traditional knowledge can help us all understand and interpret the long-term patterns of both cultural and ecological changes and the interconnections between the well-being of the river system and community.
Fish has always been a food staple for communities of the Sahtú region, available when other luxury foods like caribou and moose are scarce. However, ongoing climate related changes are raising newfound concerns about the future of fishing and fishing livelihoods. In 2016, Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę community members participated in a pilot year with the Tracking Change project which focused on possible environmental changes in and around the Great Bear Lake region. In 2017, a similar camp was held by the Tulı́t’a Got’ı̨nę community, and finally in 2018, similar questions were explored during the Lafferty family’s annual fish camp downriver in the K’áhsho Got’ı̨nę district, with an emphasis on changing approaches to cross-generational education practices for maintaining necessary knowledge and skills in fish harvesting, preservation, and sharing.
Through hands-on activities, participants shared and interpreted traditional knowledge about the changing ecology of water and fishing livelihoods. Activities addressed five main objectives:
- to document narrative and practice-based systems for cross-family, cross-community, and cross-generational transfer of traditional knowledge and skills in water safety, subsistence fishing, fish preparation, and the sharing economy;
- to document traditional knowledge narratives and spatial information about water and fish ecology
- to strengthen planning processes for traditional knowledge research and monitoring;
- to strengthen community governance and leadership in water stewardship and fish conservation; and
- to foster networking and collaboration in ongoing and new community-driven traditional knowledge research and monitoring in the region.
Participants left with a greater understanding of traditional fishing practices, fish and water ecology and how it has changed over the years, and a new set of skills in traditional fishing practices. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in order to explore the climate change-related impacts on water, fish, fish health, and well-being. Grounding research and monitoring in community-driven conservation processes ensure projects themselves become avenues for knowledge mobilization and reconciliation and are embedded within strengthened governance models directly involving decision makers.
Camps in the time of COVID
This last year following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board, just like every other organization, has had to re-orient and strategize on how to continue to do their work. For us, we were able to create community bubbles and hold more Nę K’ǝ Dene Ts’ı̨lı̨ Forum calls within and between communities while virtually bringing in our partners from outside the territory so that nobody felt like the work had stopped. One project concerning food security and the impact of climate change in the community of Tulı́t’a was coming to a close. Originally, several community members were meant to travel to the University of Waterloo to participate in cross-cultural exchanges and to learn how the data analysis was done on the data they had collected. With travel restrictions, this was not possible. We therefore came up with a plan that permitted cross-cultural exchanges at a distance and short-term employment for the local group of the Shúhta Ne K’édíke (Keepers of the Mountain Land), a group of young Indigenous Guardians.
The Shúhta Ne K’édíke Program contributes to community health and well-being, sustainable economic development and expanded employment, food security, strengthened local governance and reconciliation, and cultural and spiritual integrity. It is helping to build resilience through land-based stewardship, drawing on traditional knowledge and science to understand and build adaptive strategies for climate change, and other socio-ecological changes affecting our peoples. Initiatives are locally led with the goal of restoring active Indigenous stewardship of traditional lands and encouraging and supporting communities to re-assert their traditional land steward roles. The program also provides participants with critical decision-making information that the communities can use when deciding on future research, industrial or extractive projects as well as in policy and regulation discussions with various levels of government.
The project started by sending these Shúhta Ne K’édíke along with some mentors onto the land to harvest country foods for the workshop and see firsthand the impacts that climate change has had on their land and on country food availability. The vicious cold and heavy snowfall that they faced taught them how to survive and how the weather affects how the animals behave. With no large or small game to be found, they focused on fishing and brought them back to the community.
While no one from outside the territories could join, we were able to prepare great communication materials in the form of easy-to-understand posters to host a workshop that focused on teaching youth and other community members how to prepare the fish in a way that preserves it and reduces wastage. At the same time, we were able to discuss the importance of teaching the community these skills because climate change has made going out on the land less predictable, more expensive and also less likely to yield successful harvests. It was also an opportunity to talk about the results of the research conducted, which supported what the community traditionally did, sharing traditional foods amongst one another to ensure that the community remained healthy.
Each on-the-land camp comes with new obstacles, new understanding, and new fun. It has become clear that in order to truly get cross-cultural knowledge sharing there is the need for deliberate and strategic approaches to teaching the participants, especially the youth.
The first major lesson that was learned and has since been incorporated into every camp was the need for wellness supports in on-the-land programs, especially those that include or target youth. Many Sahtú youth are struggling with addictions, intergenerational impacts of residential school and colonialism, and related experiences of trauma or stress. Leadership team members also struggle with these same challenges. Living on the land is not in itself a path to wellness, as is often assumed. In fact, being on the land can be triggering—and people continue to be affected by what happens in town. People taking leadership responsibility at camps for youth in the Sahtú need to be trained in wellness skills to appropriately address issues that are sure to come up. Moreover, training is also needed to support youth to be well upon returning to town.
The second major lesson is not to assume that everyone knows how to spend time on the land safely. Our first camp gave rise to development of the cross-cultural Dechı̨ta Nezǫ Gots’udı́/Living Well on the Land approach to safety planning, which includes cultural and spiritual safety components. Every camp since has been an opportunity to assess the implementation of the plan and add in new information and learnings that come out of the camp. The latest camp held this winter has now made us realize that we need to have a rule on when travel is not safe during the winter in particular, for example anything colder than -40 degrees Celsius.
The safety planning process has served as invaluable spaces for leadership development, since collaborative safety planning requires collective development of the program approach and activities. In addition to the pre-camp planning workshops, daily leadership meetings at the camp provide time for the instructor team to discuss learnings from the previous day and refine approach and plans for the coming day’s learning activities. These leadership meetings are done in a self-determined way, and anyone in the camp who wishes to join and take on a leadership role, even if only for a day, is welcome. We have found this to be an incredibly useful and rewarding format, as we have found youth who want to join and bring new ideas to the table and take on this leadership role.
A third lesson from these camps was the realization that it’s not enough to just be living together on the land but that there is the need to create a conducive learning environment. Camps need to include some structured learning, but also leave considerable time for less structured Dene ts’ı̨lı̨ activities as well such as fishing, harvesting, berry picking, sewing, etc. For the youth, it is important to have both cultures represented because they are straddling both and need opportunities to learn both and reconcile that within themselves. Therefore, though elders may not find learning about drones interesting, combining learning on how drones can be used to understand how the land is changing with the stories from the elders and actually walking the land provides youth with a full understanding of different ways of looking at and understanding their territory.
In this same vein, the participants, especially the youth again, are also looking for skills that will help them get jobs. It is important to provide training sessions that result in certificates. For example, firearms training, chainsaw safety, and wilderness first aid certificates. These certificates are also helpful in terms of recruitment of participants. It continues to be a challenge to recruit participants for the camps for various reasons, including childcare, addictions, anxiety—both of leaving their families but also being on the land—and peer pressure. As the camps have continued, it is getting easier, and knowing that there is something concrete such as a certificate at the end of the training that can help with employment is one of the incentives.
One of the greatest benefits of these camps is the positive and supportive relationships established at them. For months and year afterwards, that relationship continues, and people talk about the camps as a “community” or “like family.” They have led to much better relationships between researchers and community members as both begin to see how the others think and what is important to them and why. It has led to better relationships between Sahtú Renewable Resources Board staff and community members and researchers, which has meant easier recruitment and participation in all the Board’s work, as well as more funding from donors who have been part of the camps.
The camps have also led to better relationships among community members themselves. One of the training camps held in the summer of 2020 brought together youth from Tulı́t’a and Norman Wells, NWT, and they continue to stay in touch, meeting to talk about the camp and come up with plans for future activities. Another camp, in the summer of 2018, gave grandparents a chance to take their children and grandchildren with them onto the land and just be with each other and share in a healthy, uncomplicated way for two weeks.
These relationships that are built at the camps support and build cross-cultural, cross generational understanding. These relationships are what the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board feels will build up the region, because it is by drawing on traditional knowledge and science that the communities will be able to build adaptive strategies for climate change, make decisions that support their Dene ts’ıl̨ı̨, and ensure that the communities have the support they need to stay resilient in the face of all the changes coming their way.
“There’s a lot of work that we do here, and I would like to thank the young guys and everybody who pitched in. It really helps a lot. Like I said, from day one, I really like it here with everybody here. It brings my spirit back up. That’s what we’re here for. We are on the land, and we really connect ourselves to the land and our spirituality is so important for me and everybody too. Every day we learn something new. We learn from different cultures, how they do stuff and how we do our traditional stuff. It helps us to grow and to understand. I think someone said that’s for the young people here. Keep doing what we’re doing here. I would like to thank Debbie and the crew from the university that came here to put this program on. It’s really good. I hope we have more of this here. We always talk about the young generation and we are here to teach them and to show them the right way, the right path. Máhsı.” – Wilbert Menacho, Tulı́t’
About the Authors
Kirsten Jensen has worked in conservation for nearly a decade, much of it spent learning from other cultures how they want to protect their special places. Her time with the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board has focused on getting community members on the land and learning the skills they want to learn from their elders and western science while also making sure that they have a voice in the decisions being made about their land.
Deborah Simmons is the Executive Director of the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board. She was raised in the Northwest Territories and is trained as a social scientist specialising in social and environmental issues relating to Indigenous peoples.
Leon Andrew is a Shúhtaot’ı̨nę elder with the Tulı́t’a Dene Band. He is the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board’s Research Director. Leon has provided his research expertise on numerous traditional knowledge studies, assisted and advised GNWT Archeologists from the Prince of Wales Museum, and is also an experienced interpreter in Dene and English languages.