Just how I ended up in the two stepping shuffle of the drum dance line at 1:20am in Lutsel K’e, NWT, is a story that began over three years ago. What and where in the world is Lutsel K’e, you may wonder? It’s the only village in the East Arm of the Great Slave Lake. I arrived that afternoon for the Spring Carnival, aptly dubbed the ‘Slush Fest’. It’s not my first time to the Dene village and most certainly won’t be my last.
Only this time the trip there was a little easier. Three years ago I paddled by kayak from Yellowknife. Just me and my husband Peter and the vast Great Slave Lake. It felt like an ocean to me. I spent much of the trip terrified of drowning. Maybe a bit much for a first-time paddler. Peter happens to be an expert paddler with trips like the Yukon River in its entirety and the 2000km Inside Passage in his palmeres. All those years spent mastering speed skating and cycling, Peter had equal focus channeled into the art of kayaking. I found myself like a rookie skater unable to do cross-overs in the corners beside Peter’s ease, skill and joy of paddling.
Still, as challenging as the trip was, I loved it. The land and the people remain in my memory bank filled with riches of adventures past. The sacred land of the Thaidene Nene giving me a sense of strength and connection brought to the surface once again when flying east from Yellowknife on the last flight of the journey there.
This time around, two flights from Phoenix, Arizona, an airport hotel stay in Calgary disturbed at 445am to arrive on time for the 6am flight to Edmonton, Yellowknife and then lastly, an airport transfer to the bush plane shuttling a load of us over to that flight to Lutsel K’e.
The reason for the trip was a continuation of support for the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation in partnership with The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to establish the long-awaited and much anticipated National Park status for the East Arm of the Great Slave Lake. A place aptly named Thaidene Nene; Land of the Ancestors.
These efforts not only mark the protection of this sacred land to the Dene and the most spiritual place, The Lady of the Falls, in the far East Arm. They also and perhaps more significantly mark an historical agreement that puts the LKDFN in charge of the proposed park.
But first of all, the Slush Fest. The only person at the airport was the baggage officer upon arrival. Everyone who’s anyone in the village of 350 people were out on the lake. The ‘domestic fish out’ otherwise know as the fish derby was in full swing. With a 5000 dollar first prize I’d be out there, too.
Lucky for us a cycling teammate I hadn’t seen in twenty years was in town for the week as a relief RCMP officer. Between the police truck and the baggage truck, we all made it into town. After a quick bite to eat thanks to Hanna Catholique, our host family for the week, we were all out on the ice of the great slave lake, acting like we knew what we were doing around the fishing hole. Hanna, Jayci and their grandsons Ashton and Nalze opened their home to three of us and made us feel like one of their own. The boys certainly liked the ladies in the house who made loading and clearing the dishwasher chore of times past. At least for our stay. It was the least we could do with them giving up their rooms.
I’m from Winnipeg but didn’t quite grow up in an ice fishing kind of family. The last time I was on the lake it was liquid and about scared the pants off of me. The force of a body of water so large when the winds picked up its volume and directed it to shores far away was nothing short of terrifying. How long the water took to calm after forceful winds showed time and again how much water the greatest of lakes I’ve ever seen held. We sat out more than a few days waiting for calmer waters. Each crossing we did had me holding my breath while paddling and praying to the water and wind goddesses to be kind on us in our little boats.
And there I was at the ice fishing derby standing on the concrete version of liquid that brought me to my knees more than once. Looking down into the fishing holes I could hardly believe I was peering down into that aquatic world that would soon melt and move again. Fishermen and women, young and old, solo and family, sat around their holes in lawn chairs with the stump of a rod jigging up and down.
The fish refused to bite save for a lucky few. A 5K first prize definitely helped the motivation factor. Rumor had it Sam had the biggest catch of the day: a mere fish to the Lutsel K’e-ers but a whale to me. I remembered how the lake trout I caught, and I was so pumped, were mere minnows to the locals. We feasted on those itty mitty fish during our paddling adventure. The locals laugh at tourists who yelp with joy catching their first fish, usually small, because all you have to do in the summer is drop a line in and wait maximum three minutes. Then voila, dinner on a hook.
But for whatever reason the fish were doing their own thing that day. Madeline Catholique, an elder in the community somewhere in her mid-eighties, sat at her fishing hole telling us about the bite she had ‘but he swam away, somewhere over there…’. She had a smoke dangling from her ungloved hands, jigging up and down with the rod, sitting comfortably as if on a sandy beach in the warm sun. Yes, people are not made like Madeline anymore. She grew up on the Barren Lands and still takes all the steps to make the moose and caribou hide from kill to clothing, decorating with the most intricate and beautiful beadwork most have ever seen.
Hanna and I did the rounds on the skidoo, stopping to say hello and see who caught what. The tale of the nibbling fish was told each place we stopped. ‘I think he’s gone that way….’ Stephanie said while lounging against the side-turned sled with her partner and twin girls, enjoying the day. I met Stephanie our first trip in the community garden. I realized how much we ate in the garden when Hanna mentioned shortly after arriving ‘we were all worried about having enough salad for you this time, the garden is closed for winter….we remembered the big salads you ate with Peter here!’. Yes it was as though we paddled into town with scurvy looking back at our savage approach to the wonderful greens in abundance outside in the garden and inside the green house. Fresh veggies anywhere in the world gets my blood pumping like the caribou does to the Dene and many other aboriginal communities in the north.
Next stop was the recreation hall in the middle of town. The fishing derby was supposed to end but rumors went around that there was a disagreement as to the ending time. Some thought 4 o’clock; others 5pm…so a mutiny occurred and the weighing of the fish and naming of the champ would have to wait.
I sat with Kathy who sold caribou meatball sandwiches from her sack. I looked inside the bag at the carefully wrapped delights and saw brown bread not white. A surprise in this remote place that an obvious effort for whole grains and healthy eating is in practice. I looked around and saw for the most part healthy kids, long and lean, elders years younger than their actual age, everyone outside and moving. The big cities and the south has something to learn from this community on locally sourced food with meat and fish, and in the summer, the fantastic community garden that’s there for everyone.
My only regret was that I ate already and was too stuffed to purchase and devour one of Kathy’s sandwiches. She pointed out a white house nearby where her mother, Madeline, one of the community elders lived. “That’s where you get the best dry meat. Sixty bucks a bag. Go and take the camera crew down there she’ll tell you all about how she makes it.”
Amos and Riel made up our film crew. Two hipster film makers who shadowed our trip to produce vignettes for Thaidene Nene to share with the world. They filmed and edited every minute of every day to make the first showing possible when back in Yellowknife at the end of the week. Ellen and Erika from CPAWS made sure everything stayed on schedule. The guys were more than cool. Their skill with the camera and production honed on shows like Dene a Journey and many other fantastic final cuts was a fortunate addition to the trip. If anyone can show the endless adventure and raw fun to be had in Thaidene Nene, it’s those two.
So we all hung out on the patio in the sun, talking to the locals, feeling at home like we were not the obvious outsiders; feeling relieved that this town was so welcoming and warm. Not that I expected anything different.
Then dinner of caribou meat, salad, rice and it was then time to go back to the rec hall for the hand games tournament quarter and semi final games, the live music, door prizes, traditional costume contest and dance off between two men, one in a full caribou kit the other in moose hide, jigging away, and then, well after midnight, the drum dance that much to everyone’s delight kept going and going.
One more song led to another and I joined in each time I was asked, then simply moved into the single file circle that wound round and around to the beat of the caribou skin drums and the singing in the language I didn’t understand but did not need to. I felt like I was in the center of mother earth with my new friends that night, connected to her beat within the line of dancers as if a human umbilical cord to her very heart.
Walking out into the crisp northern night to a mild display of auroras borealis made perfect sense. All I could do is look up and smile at the cosmos. Feeling so good about being alive and connected back with the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nations friends I am lucky to have and the land and water I will never break ties with. What a space and place and time. This, only the first twelve hours of our stay. What a day in Lutsel K’e.