Tanning camp keeps Canada’s indigenous heritage alive
By Mélinda TROCHU
Smoked caribou and bison skins are strewn over old pine logs among the teepees at a tanning camp in Yellowknife, northern Canada, where indigenous youth are preserving their heritage by learning ancestral skills.
“Basically anywhere where there is an animal, you need to learn how to tan its hide for clothes or shelter, or things like that,” says Mandee McDonald, the twenty-something co-founder of the Dene Nahjo community group.
“Strong, resilient, indigenous.” The three words printed on the front of her black t-shirt represent for the young woman pride in her community and its customs, which are under threat.
“Our ancestors — even some of our grandmothers, and great grandmothers — knew this practice very well, but colonialism… really created a barrier to intergenerational knowledge acquisition,” she explains.
Popularizing tanning among Dene youth helps to keep those traditions alive.
Last summer, the tanning camp with its teepees, picnic tables and log frames to affix animal hides was set up on the shores of Frame Lake, a stone’s throw from Yellowknife city hall and the Northwest Territories’ legislative assembly.
The Dene used to fish in the lake, but it has become contaminated by nearby gold mine tailings.
– Pushing back against colonialism –
For members of the Dene Nahjo, which was created to advance social and environmental justice for northern peoples, foster indigenous leaders and lobby Ottawa on policy matters, the camp represents an act of defiance against colonialism.
Several tattooed youths, some with silver face piercings and feather earrings, recall how family members had been forced to attend boarding schools hundreds of kilometers away, and were stripped of their language and customs in an effort to integrate them into society.
Each tanned skin, they say, helps to erase more than a century of abuses at the schools run by Christian churches on behalf of the federal government.
Outside a teepee, elders scrape hairs off a moose hide laid out on a big blue plastic tarp. Every stroke is methodical and timed. The hair will later be used to decorate baskets made of birch bark. In most North American indigenous cultures all parts of a hunted or trapped animal must be used.
For Tania Larsson, another co-founder of the group who has mixed Gwich’in and Swedish ancestry and grew up at the foot of the French Alps, prodding elders for advice can be intimidating. “You can’t just walk up and say ‘Hey, teach me your culture,'” explains the young artist.
“Tanning animal skins is not just about learning a skill, it’s about connecting with your heritage, it’s about going into the wilds, collecting wood and moss, everything you need provided by nature,” she says.
Working the hides alongside your elders and peers also helps to build relationships with them, she adds.
– Share culture and knowledge –
The Dene Nahjo’s aim is to share their cultural knowledge with as many people as possible, not just aboriginals, but also school groups and jetliners full of Asian tourists who come for the Aurora Borealis.
Yellowknife resident Jennifer Skelton is grateful for the instruction as her husband recently came back from a hunting trip with a moose, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it.
“I think it’s great that they set up here and provide an opportunity for anyone to learn how to work the hides,” she tells AFP.
The small, tightknit Dene Nahjo group receives support from local aboriginal leaders, but according to Tania’s sister Nina Larsson it’s the dynamism of its young founders that drives members.
“There’s no hierarchy, we are all equal,” she said. “Making decisions (by consensus) can take a bit longer, but we all grow together and have become closer,” she says.
The city of Yellowknife, with a population of 20,000, does not have a cultural center, and so there is no other place where indigenous peoples can meet and keep their traditions alive, she notes.
Inside a teepee, a man hangs a fish above a wood-burning fire to feed visitors as two women wearing surgical gloves attack a caribou skin with long thin blades, cutting off bits of meat and fat.
They are following their elders’ teachings, they say, to “help each other” and “share what you have.”