Dene Indigenous students paddle Canada’s longest river to reconnect with Dene land and culture. #CBCShortDocs
In the summer of 2017, a group of Indigenous students and elders embarked on a six-week paddle trip down Canada’s longest river, in an effort to reconnect with Dene land and culture.
The Mackenzie river is known as the “Dehcho” in the Dene language and it spans over 1,738 kilometres of the Northwest Territories, stretching from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic ocean.
The Dehcho is a homeland to the Dene, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit, serving as a transportation route between communities, its shores lined with many cultural and spiritual sites.
“I Hold the Dehcho in my Heart / Sedze Tah Dehcho E’toh” focuses on the experience of two young Dene women, Kristen and Jiah, as they confront the physical and mental challenges of this rigorous excursion in the remote wilderness, while learning land-based skills from Dene elders.
“If colonization is the violent dispossession of land, then learning from the land is the way to heal from that violence.” – Dr. Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene). Associate Professor, First Nations and Indigenous Studies and Political Science, UBC
The trip is part of a semester with the Dechinta Bush University, a university-accredited program that combines academia with land-based learning and teachings from elders, language instructors, and northern leaders. A growing number of programs are supporting land-based learning practices.
Although several communities exist at the water’s edge, getting access to traditional territories via river travel has become difficult for the majority of Dene youth. Many of the trip’s elders were born and raised along the river, and have a considerable wealth of cultural knowledge and leadership experience, despite being forcefully removed from their families as children to attend residential schools. The students are on a mission to learn from these elders, to repair their generation’s severed connection with the land, and reclaim their identity.
As Kristen and Jiah retrace the historic route of their ancestors over the 42-day journey, connecting with their ancestral lands creates an immense feeling of cultural pride and fosters valuable leadership skills they will bring back to their home communities in the North.