Articles

In Boreal Forest, Indigenous Leader Bridges Environmental Divides

October 22, 2019


For most people it would be
a vast expanse of wilderness along the seventh longest river in the world,
the Mackenzie River. We call the Deh Cho. I was born there in a place called Yelta Lake. There was literally nothing there. There was no electricity.
There was no municipal services. And for the first five years of my life, I
lived out in a place like this. And we depended 100% on the bounties of the
land as you would say. I am Stephen Kakfwi. I am Dene, a First Nations
person from Fort Good Hope– in the Northwest Territories in northern Canada. First Nations people, indigenous people, the
original people, we all believe inherently that we are part of the Earth. The word Dene means from the land,
of the land. And our culture is all about being part of
the land, being part of the wildlife– the fish and the birds. We’re not separate from
it. We’re not the one that has dominion over it. We are not in charge. The Dene have always had a plan.
We have always had a plan for our land. Every year for thousands of years we have
decided which families are going to go to the mountains, which ones are going to go
on the river. Where are the places where the moose are plentiful?
Where is the best fish? Which ones should we leave for a few years until they become
plentiful again? That’s land use planning and that’s what we’ve done. Generations of our people were raised in institutions.
And that has robbed us of the language and the culture and the things that make Dene. I spent seven and 1/2 years in
residential school. I was taken away from my family. I did not
grow up with my people in my community. I forgot my language. I went through some
horrible suffering. The people that I went to residential school
with became my family. And when we came out of residential school we
went back to our communities– and that was our network. And we became the chiefs.
We became the spokesmen and the leaders. We’re the elders now of our people. What is closest to me is the
land where I was born. Everywhere I look, there’s stories, there’s spiritual, sacred sites and– those are beautiful to me, in my heart and my mind. When I was a child, after I came out of my
first year in residential school. When I was just so heartbroken and lonely,
I used to go to this hill– and there was a stand of birch trees, not very big birch trees, just small, little birch trees. And that was my comfort place. There’s a way to get comfort from the
earth and from the land– just by laying on it, by connecting. Elders say, the Earth loves us because it’s
been taking care of us for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. And it maintains the
balance. The air is good to us. The wildlife is good to us. The water’s bountiful. As Dene people, as indigenous people, we pay
attention to everything that goes around us. The weather is changing. And our people have
known that for many, many years. When you’re putting too many poisons
and chemicals into the air. When you’re starting to put too much garbage
into the oceans, too much chemicals into the rivers. When you have huge tracts of land that are
polluted, no longer able to grow things and sustain things. And when they’re all happening all at the
same time, then– it should be a concern for everybody. The Earth is a living organism,
the one that sustains all of us. Just as indigenous people have rights, just
as all human beings have rights– so does the earth. And we, have to get to the day when we say,
yes, every one of us, all people, all companies, and all governments– will respect the rights of the Earth. As a young Dene, I grew up believing this
is my land. This is my country. And I choose to share it. But I have conditions. When you come into my country, I expect you
to live as a good citizen, to respect the rights of everybody else, to take care of
the land and the water and the wildlife, and leave it the way you find it. That’s not for you to destroy it, to pollute
the water, to kill off the wildlife, and then leave. That’s just not anything
we’re interested in. If we don’t take care of the land and the
water, then all of us will surely perish.

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