Deh Gah Gotie Koe, Denendeh – Fort Providence, NT
Since I was able to walk, my parents always brought my brother and I out into the bush. Being a kid, I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to be at the house where there was a TV and my friends. As I think about those times of being at my parents’ cabin, I can’t help but smile at my ignorance. I mean, which kid knows that the reason why they may be out there was to keep the culture alive? I sure as hell didn’t.
When I was ten years old, my parents had signed us up for a month-long trip out at the Horn Plateau, known as Willow Lake in English and Edehzhie in Dene Zhatie. I was devastated, being out in the middle of nowhere with no electricity or running water? I was not looking forward to it. When they flew us in, the water was crystal clear. I could recall seeing the small fish dart away from the floatplane, I was in awe. I watched my mom and my grandma fix fish, their knives moving swiftly and quickly to prepare hundreds of fish that would come in from the nets. I remember I was kneeling with my grandma in the smoking shack, by the fire with moose meat hanging to dry on the rack above us. I watched as she cut the meat, swiftly and skillfully moving her knife across the meat that I know will be in my stomach in a week’s time. In both instances, I had learned how to fix fish and cut up meat, making dry fish and dry meat. My father would often lead my family, and some other families, out into the dense brush with his rifle and a bucket in his hand as we picked bucketfuls of berries – blueberries and cranberries – and of course my little bucket that would take hours to fill. I always ate the berries I had picked.
I was sixteen years old when I had stayed at my father’s trapline for the first time, it was a weekend. We had packed everything for a couple weeks, I was going to spend one night and my father was spending about two weeks there. We had driven there by snowmobile, took about two-three hours with me constantly having to brush everything away from the trail, from branches to fallen trees. It was rather annoying. The weather was nice and crisp, below twenty-five degrees and the days getting shorter by the hour. When we arrived, we both hauled everything into the cabin and my dad made a fire – I was frozen. Instantly, we went onto the trapline. I watched my dad set up the snares, only helping when needed such as passing him the bait or holding the snare open. As the day grew darker, we headed out to cut trees and haul them back to the cabin. I had to light the gas lamp and I have never done that before, I always watched when others would do it and that was my time to shine. I touched the match to the top and all I saw was light as it went in flames and grazed the hair on my knuckles and my eyebrows. My dad’s laughter filled every space in the small cabin as I scurried away.
I don’t remember when I first learned how to dance, but I do know the first time when I felt rooted. It was at an assembly in my town, people from all over the Dehcho had come to celebrate with us. We were gathered in the Arbour, the drummer’s voices could be heard from the other side of town. My best friend was among them, his voice had filled my ears as I admired his pride and our eyes had met. The circle was alive, three rings around the fire. I was in the middle, and when you approach the drummers, you always turn to them and dance towards them as a sign of respect. And you always look inside the circle, not outside. We move from East to West, from sunrise to sunset – the circle of life. When the song fades out before it ends, we lock hands and all sing together and that’s when I felt rooted and connected. I thought about the people I come from, the blood that coursed through my veins and my culture that made me who I am, I couldn’t help but smile harder.
Being at Pearson has made me realize the importance of identity. I never really knew the importance of it, from knowing where you come from to the blood that runs through your veins. I didn’t know that all the dancing that I had been doing all my life could be gone in less than a year, my body memory of it an old memory. I had gone to full immersion in my language, Dene Zhatie, from kindergarten to grade three and didn’t start learning textbook English until I was in grade three/four. So, when I took French in class, it was very damaging. I had lost many words and phrases in as little as four months and couldn’t understand whenever my parents and my grandma would speak to me.
When I went back home in the summer months, I attended the Annual Dehcho First Nations Assembly in Fort Simpson and danced for the first time in a year. I felt uncomfortable, I didn’t feel the usual easiness of it, my feet stumbled and stuttered as I moved around the circle. I didn’t feel the joy that comes with it, instead, I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had forgotten how to dance. But, the only way to get the feeling back is to keep doing it. So for the whole night, I danced every song until my feet hit the tempo and the drum was with my heartbeat on every beat. I felt like I could fly.
Whenever I’m with my grandma, she would always speak to me in Dene Zhatie with little breaks and pauses in English to see if I understood. She spoke broken English but she always tried her best, I always encourage her to speak in Dene Zhatie by asking her questions such as Negha dagondih? (How are you?), and Azhii gha (what for). Every time I do, she responds back and she keeps going. Only when do I look a little lost does she stop and speaks in English again to which I try my best to respond in Dene Zhatie. By the end of the summer, I had gained some of my hearing skills back and could understand a little bit of what was spoken to me.
My grandma would wave her hand for me to join her whenever she was leading a ceremony, I was always embarrassed to be in the center of attention holding the basket or plate or bowl of tobacco. I didn’t know the amount of pride I felt is so much bigger than the shamefulness inside of me until then. The first ceremony I helped to lead, I believe I was about fifteen years old. My mom and I had gone to Horn River, a couple kilometers from my hometown by boat, for a week in the fall time. It was the opening of the gathering, there were many families there, all of my relatives. The elder had asked for the young people to come up, my cousin ushered me up and I was confused and panicked. My grandma had always led beside me, I was always behind her but then and there, I was the one leading it. The drummers were behind us, the elder had told me to follow them so I did. In the end, I dumped the plateful of fruits into the fire, followed by the tobacco, bannock, and the moose dry meat in three separate plates.
There is one thing to understand, this has not always been an easy and accepting process. I have struggled with accepting the life of my culture as I have been told by white people that my skin is dirty and the ceremonies and dances we do are for the devil. That the tongue of my mother is speaking to the devil, that it is unholy and unjust. I had to earn the knowledge of seven generations before me in order to accept it, my culture. The many questions I asked were unanswered, but they were given to me in time. I learned many things from being away from home; walking in two worlds, revitalization away from home, the loss of mother tongue, the cycle of life, and the heartbreak I feel from my people. At such an age as I am at, this is far too much to handle. However, there really is no choice as once you have answered the call of your ancestors, there is no such thing as ‘giving up’. Most of all, I think about the amount of work ahead.
In my heart and in my spirit, I yearn for the days when I will be back in a canvas tent. The ground covered in spruce boughs and the firewood lined up by the door, the foam mattresses lined up on either side of the tent, the air crisp as fall sets in. The smell of the fire and bannock in a cast iron pan, I live for those days.
When I went to the Arctic for two weeks, on two separate occasions, I had learned a lot. I went in August before coming back to Pearson, one for a culture camp beside Fort McPherson and the other for a moving Climate Change Summit in Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk and Tsiigehtchic. I learned that I am among many other Indigenous youths who are carrying the same pressure I am carrying, the need to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma in our families. I met this one guy, he’s about a year younger than me from the Sahtu region. When I first met him, I knew right away the amount of pressure he carries, from the way he spoke about his home, his culture and his life. I knew then, that I wasn’t the only one who felt this. The pressure from family members, community members, friends and from yourself. The pressure to break a continuous cycle, a cycle that runs in my family and many other families.
In order to break a cycle so strong, I embraced it. I learned that there is no way to prepare for it or ways around it because to break this important cycle is to free not only yourself but the generations behind you. For me, I don’t think about myself in this situation, I think about seven generations behind me and seven generations ahead of me. I use this to fuel me, to embrace the challenge and struggle of breaking a cycle no one in my family has broken yet. What one must know is that there are many young Indigenous people struggling to break this cycle, many of whom are my best and closest friends. In knowing this, the impact this will have in the long run is significant. As an elder always told me, we are the leaders of tomorrow.