I recently attended the Dene Nahjo Tool Making Workshop in the beautiful country of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon. There were ten of us in attendance, plus our instructor – master knife maker George Roberts – and his three adorable canine accomplices.
The intention of the workshop was for us to learn how to properly shape, cut and maintain vital hide tanning tools that are typically impossible for aspiring tanners to find or purchase. Some designs for scrapers, punchers and fleshers have been passed on through family lines, with each successive hide tanner inheriting tools created by their fathers, grandfathers, and so on. Often the materials used to create these tools were simply what was on hand, and we were given an opportunity to create tools with top-of-the-line steels and wonderful pieces of antler, wood and bone.
Our group was as diverse as we were motivated. We surpassed our goal of creating 20 new tools in four and a half days by more than half. Dene, Kaska, Miskow(sp), Gwich’in, Metis, Sayisi and Cree ancestries were represented across three generations. This not only made for a lot of laughs and great fun learning together, but it also catalyzed our relationships by helping us to learn from each other. It was heartwarming to watch as our group asked and received help from each other with the power tools, or with design questions. At times throughout the week, many of us described a feeling to the others that our hearts were full, or about to overflow or burst with joy. At any given time throughout the week, the Bandit workshop was filled with laughter and smiling faces.
The group was very grateful to George for opening his shop to us, and for being so generous with his time, patience and wisdom. We made sure to let him know that at every opportunity. Under his careful yet laid-back approach to instructing us ran more subtle lessons that many of us felt engaged by – lessons about ourselves and about the relationships that we choose to form with other people.
For many young Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) people, spending time with elders has become an increasingly challenging activity. We’re raised to be consistently busy with earning our wages, and pursuing education in schools, sometimes far away from our communities. While these pursuits are worthwhile and important, being around George and two expert moose hide tanners from Fort Good Hope reminded me of the value of making time and space in which to interact with the holders of our traditions.
Not all lessons are given to us. In each of our small, remote communities lie vast wealths of knowledge that we simply have to know how to look for. Sometimes we have to know how to make ourselves visible for those lessons to find us. What I do see clearly is that no matter the challenges, being available for those lessons and seeking out teachings from our elders is worth it. Pursuing those lessons reestablishes inter-generational connections that were interrupted when some of our elders were removed from our communities as young people, and brought to residential schools far away from their families. When we open ourselves up to learning, we open ourselves up to new ways of seeing the world, and ourselves: we open ourselves up to change, and to being the people that our communities need us to be.
With my new knowledge of tool-making and maintenance, I have gained not only new moose hide ninja skills, but also new responsibilities: to be a person that my community can rely on for help with tanning hides; to be a person who my friends and family can come to for help with their equipment; and to be generous with my time, patience, and what little wisdom I’ve come to acquire so far in my life.
As a young Dene man, I often feel awkward and uncomfortable while working with the women and elders of our communities. With each experience I have, I become more confident and more ready to learn. Not all lessons are taught to us, but some of the easy ones this week have been so valuable to me. I’m sure there are more coming as I continue to reflect on the workshop. It feels good to be restoring a tradition that some worry is being lost – to shoulder the responsibility of taking what I’ve learned and sharing that knowledge with others.
So, incredibly gratefully, until next time. Máhsi cho.