Where the Caribou Live – Part 1: Canada’s Treasure

The dead caribou lay beside me on the floor. Throwing myself across the cot, I cried my heart out, but not for the caribou’s fate. Instead, I was feeling the full impact of culture shock, and a sense of powerlessness. The last bus, so to speak, had left town, and I felt stranded in Canada’s Northwest Territories, hundreds of miles from the airport where I needed to catch a flight to my next destination.

The location actually was not a town, but rather `Indian country’ as it still was called 25 years ago, before ‘First Nation’ communities entered mainstream Canadian discourse. More specifically, the community was Rae Lakes, a Dogrib settement in the bush, where the community still relied on the healthy `country food’ of the animal and marine life – that is, where food sources had not yet been contaminated, or otherwise destroyed, by industrial projects.

The `last bus’ was not a bus, but rather a pickup truck in which I had accompanied Dorothy Chocolate, a talented Dogrib photographic journalist and her Metis apprentice, who both worked at a Yellowknife newspaper then called The Native Press. Our drive from Yellowknife to Dorothy’s home community was like driving on the face of the moon across the frozen lakes that linked the single road threading its way northward, the deciduous trees becoming more lean and sparse as we drove.

Arriving 10 hours later, long after midnight, we were presented with caribou ribs kept hot on the wood stove, to warm our bellies before rolling up in our sleeping bags. Forget being a vegetarian, which I am, in the far north. For no one could survive living in the bush, through months of sub-zero weather, without the meat and the fat to fortify a body’s life-sustaining inner layer of insulation.

What most impressed me was Dorothy’s hard-working mother taking the time to describe to me in Dogrib, with Dorothy as translator, how every part of that caribou would be used and nothing go to waste. Dorothy added, to my dismay, the fact that an increasing number of younger people no longer were learning the self-sufficient practices to survive on the land. The reasons were non-Aboriginal influences that ranged from mandatory schooling, which removed youth from the land at crucial times to learn traditional skills through experiential practice, to modern technologies such as television.

That reminds me of one of my favourite northern anecdotes, hearing about the moxy of two women elders. The youth were spending much less time to learn the traditional teachings because of being enchanted by television. These two old ladies were so pissed off by this misguided enchantment that they took their rifles and blew out the community satellite dish. I say, kudos! The traditional Aboriginal people are nobody’s fools.

While staying in the cabin of Dorothy’s parents, I was treated like everyone else. In other words, I contributed groceries and helped to clean up after meals. The young Metis woman, however, had different priorities during her brief stay, more concerned about how to glue on her artificial fingernails than helping out. I thought it was hilarious until she departed, unannounced, taking her boyfriend’s truck back to Yellowknife.

No one in the settlement wanted to drive me anywhere. Finally, an enterprising young chap offered to transport me in a conveyance attached behind his snowmobile, for a fee. I had visions of being whisked across the snow, wrapped in furs on a sleigh, Doctor Zhivago-style. But, upon stepping outdoors, my heart dropped. The conveyance looked like a coffin. Indeed, it was a bare wooden box, in which several blankets were placed under and over me. The worst was when the lights went out.

A tarpaulin had been pulled over the entire box, and stayed there for a trip of several hours, in order to protect me from wind chill. The single interlude of open air allowed the eating of some gruel at a cabin en route and a speedy `nature calling’ episode behind a snow bank. Otherwise, the harrowing trip inspired me to pray, seriously, for probably the first time in my life, feeling as if my vertebrae were being relocated. A few, in fact, were dislocated – permanently – as the intrepid driver sped over every log and rock under the snow to Fort Rae. There, one of Dorothy’s brothers drove me, blessedly in a car, to the Yellowknife airport.

The point is, I could regale you with stories for hours about many impressive Aboriginal people whom I was fortunate enough to meet through many years as a journalist reporting on their issues. The reasons why you seldom hear stories that can offer a fuller, and more accurate, reality of life on the land are several.

For the traditional first peoples are Canada’s treasure, yet sadly under-recognized, under-valued, marginalized from cross-cultural understanding and steadily disappearing. What really pisses me off, in fact, is how the mainstream media overlook their voices, through the focus directed on real life struggles that characterize Aboriginal people as helpless and incapable of managing their lives. Stay tuned for my next blog on that messy subject.

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