I was walking with my dog the other day on a trail near my home, and noticed that the thick clouds of snow usually weighing down the top branches of the spruce, poplars, and birch trees were gone. Usually the branches are so low over the trail I have to duck underneath, and you can’t see too far into the bush or up ahead. Mild pangs of excitement for warm weather with blue skies began to stir as my mind wandered to memories of last year’s spring and summer.
Almost a year ago a small group of us were learning to tan caribou hides at Nitainlai on the Peel River with Bertha Francis, Eleanor Mitchell-Firth, and Alice Vittrekwa. The kindness and generosity of the people we met and worked with was incredible. It was an honour to learn from and be welcomed by these inspiring women. We were there for close to three weeks, but none of us finished a caribou hide despite working hard from sun-up to sun-down every day but Sundays. A few of us came close, having only to do the final smoke on the supple soft white hides we lovingly scraped, stretched, and smoked for days and days. The hides I worked on are still not finished ten months later. An elder known for her beadwork and sewing gave me a beautiful flower pattern drawn onto stroud uppers. I assume she heard from Eleanor about my self-proclaimed lack of drawing skills, something I’m working on but remains a discouraging obstacle to my beadwork aspirations. The gesture was moving, and I began beading the pattern immediately, but they’re still not done…ten months later.
The week before the caribou hides camp, we participated in a tool-making workshop led by master knife-maker George Roberts of Bandit Blades in Whitehorse, Yukon. This was an exciting experience where I learned to work with power tools of which I would otherwise be terrified. The three hide-tanning tools I created marked a major accomplishment in my life – my enhanced capacity to be a self-determining muskegow hide tanner. Though two of the tools ended up breaking, one of them functions marvellously, and now I know how to better craft my next tools whenever I make the time and find the resources to do so.
The following fall I went to Dechinta’s Fall Semester, which occurs on Chief Drygeese Territory in the Akaitcho Region of Denendeh on Blachford Lake. I’m the Program Manager at Dechinta, and so am gratefully able to learn and practice important bush skills on a consistent basis as a part of my work. I’ll spare you the long anecdote depicting the dawn of my first moose hide, but let’s just say I began working on my first moose hide in the spring of 2013 and it is still not done. I brought the hide with me to the Fall Semester, thinking it was pretty much finished and that I did such a great job only to learn from master hide tanner Judy Lafferty that it was certainly not nearly done, as I hadn’t thinned it out enough when it was on the frame. None of the smoke or brain solution was penetrating the hide because the hide was too thick, so I had been ineffectively smoking and soaking the past several rounds. Because she is a lovely, generous woman, Judy helped me to thin out the hide. Now it is ready for the final smoke, which I am determined to finish this spring.
Drawing from these experiences for a short speech I gave on a panel at the Indigenous Circumpolar Women’s Gathering (ICW) we organized in November last year, I spoke to a perspective of leadership I understand as being profoundly informed by a relationship to land. Admittedly, I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to confidently go out on the land for extended periods of time alone. I just learned to shoot a gun two years ago but I’m still a terrible shot, and I suck at steering a canoe. I’ve never used a chain saw. I don’t know all the stories about this place or my traditional territory, but I’m trying. I’m trying to make the time to learn more and practice more. One of the things that struck me at ICW was that many of the seasoned leaders who were advocating for and supporting their communities in various ways fondly recalled memories of learning from their parents and elders, enjoying traditional food, and experiencing the land, water and animals around them as they grew up. Many also spoke to the immense challenges brought forth by colonization, but in addressing their work many women spoke to their foundation and beginnings as being grounded in land and culture. I thought this was an important point to mention because a lot of the leadership work my generation is doing is oriented around cultural resurgence, cultivating relationships to and understandings around land, sharing land-based skills, and facilitating dialogue about why this work is important to us future generations, and the over-arching relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada in general. Many of us are working to regain those foundational connections and relationships the older generations of Indigenous women leaders described at ICW.
The point of me sharing these stories with you via the first Dene Nahjo blog post of 2015 is to acknowledge some of the work we’ve been doing collectively, and some of the incredible opportunities I enjoyed personally, while also highlighting the fact that I didn’t actually complete anything. There is no end to this kind of work, and just because something isn’t finished doesn’t mean the work isn’t worthwhile. I’m not as skilled at beading or hide tanning as I want to be, colonization isn’t over, and there’s so much work to do it often feels insurmountable. The dark days of winter were long and cold, and I think a lot of us were burnt out and exhausted, but as spring approaches I’m feeling inspired and motivated once again. I’m looking forward to carrying on with projects and ideas, and renewing relationships with people and places.