A reporter's 'unsettling' journey at Dechinta, a First Nations-centred university.
Cleaning and smoking fish, firearms certification, and medicine walks in the forest aren’t part of a typical assignment for an education reporter. But then, the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning isn’t your typical educational setting either.
Based at Blachford Lake in Akaitcho territory, Northwest Territories, Dechinta — pronounced “De-chin-ta” or “De-shin-ta” depending on who you ask — means “bush” in the local Dene language. That’s also where much of its teaching takes place. The Centre is a land-based, First Nations-driven, post-secondary program, the only one in the north to offer university credits in the arts outside of distance education, and in fact the only university program of its kind anywhere in Canada.
I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from the opportunity to spend a week at Dechinta to attend an Indigenous Self-Determination in Theory and Practice course in early August. I hoped to come home with a greater understanding of how a “land-based” course could translate into an academic education. If I was lucky, I’d also learn how to shoot a rifle.
Instead I came away realizing how little I really knew about Canada’s north and its indigenous peoples, and with a desire to learn more about my country’s tangled colonial history.
Running out of time
Before Dechinta, if you wanted a post-secondary education in the Northwest Territories there was distance education or Yellowknife’s Aurora College. Aurora offers degrees in education and nursing, diplomas in business, health sciences, education and social work, and certificates in the trades, but no options for students interested in the arts. Nor was there much that spoke to the history and knowledge of that half of the territory’spopulation of just over 43,000 who are indigenous.
So when Dechinta’s non-indigenous founder, Erin Freeland Ballantyne, (who attended McGill University before becoming the first Oxford Rhodes Scholar from the NWT) contacted Glen Coulthard, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s First Nations studies program, and a member of the Yellowknives Dene nation who lived in the territory until he was 10, to share her vision for “a land-based university program, which draws substantially off indigenous knowledge and practices, working with elders from my community, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation,” Coulthard says, “I was hooked.”
“I thought it was an important alternative, not only for the north, but potentially for other places,” Coulthard says. That was in 2008. He’s been working with Dechinta ever since, delivering the Indigenous Self-Determination course five times. Each course is accredited through the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies, a relationship that will be extended under a memorandum of understanding signed this past summer after an initial three-year trial.
For northern students, and especially indigenous ones, Dechinta offers a taste of university without having to travel thousands of miles to the south. Five of the 12 weeks in a regular semester are spent at home, reading, working on assignments, and communicating with professors by conference call and email.
Another five weeks is spent at Dechinta’s “campus,” otherwise known as Blachford Lake Lodge, owned and operated by Freeland Ballantyne’s father. There students take day trips, join in discussions led by Dene elders and faculty, and learn some of the skills required to live off the land: hunting, fishing, tanning animal hides and setting up teepees.
Such survival skills are still important in the north, especially outside of Yellowknife, where livelihoods depend on access to the land for hunting, fishing, and gathering wood and medicines. Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) restrictions on land uses and generations of forced enrollment in residential schools, however, mean they are not being passed down like they used to be.
Dechinta’s novel program is “providing at least an introduction back into those practices, which might cultivate a spirit of curiosity in students and a yearning to reconnect,” Coulthard said.
The last two weeks are spent back at home, finishing final assignments.
For many of the students, and even some of the staff, fulfilling a desire to connect to the land and learn skills they didn’t have the chance to acquire as children from their elders, is a more important goal than the available credit.
And there is a sense that time is running out. Although different elders have been involved with Dechinta over the years, the mainstays now are Therese and Modeste Sangris, from Dettah, NT, respectively in their late 60s and early 70s.
“[The traditional] academic context tends to be didactic learning: you’ve got one person at the front of the classroom and everyone taking notes,” Leanne Simpson, the other professor for this course, told me. “An indigenous education model is discussion-based: it’s learning by doing, learning by observation, learning by listening, learning by being actively engaged physically in a process.”
Simpson, an independent academic, author, and member of the Mississauga Nishnaabeg First Nation, has also led land-based post-secondary courses at Trent University.
This was her first course at Dechinta, and while playing her role as instructor she said she also felt much like a student. Indeed, even Coulthard said he often feels more like a student than a professor. We were all there to learn from the elders.
This meant, among other things, catching, cleaning, and smoking our own fish.
On our second day at the lodge, in what was to be a constantly sunny, clear-skied, hot week, Modeste and a few students set nets on Blachford Lake a few kilometres south of the lodge. When we checked the next day we discovered five white fish, two jackfish, and one suckerfish. The white fish and jackfish were fine for eating. The suckerfish, Therese told us, was dog food.
During our first cleaning and fish preparation lesson, I hung back. There weren’t enough fish for everyone to clean one, and I still felt more like a journalist than a student; it wasn’t my place to jump to the head of the fish-cleaning queue.
But I wanted to get my hands dirty. As a seven-year vegetarian and lifelong hater of any fish that didn’t come in a breaded stick or mayo-soaked sandwich, I’d only given fish a second chance a few months earlier. Surprise! I liked it, and as painful as it was to watch the creatures gasp out their last breath in our boat, I wouldn’t waste this opportunity — or their lives — by shying away.
So when we caught more white fish the following day, I happily took my turn cleaning and preparing one under Therese’s watchful eye. After 10 minutes the bones were removed, guts scrapped out and head chopped off. Swelling with pride I hung my tattered fish on a beam in the teepee over the smoking fire.
We didn’t have the two to three weeks it takes to smoke fish properly. Instead after a day of smoking we fried some of the lightly smoked fish in butter (it tasted like “fish bacon” — or at least what I remember bacon tasting like).
Hunting bunny rabbits
We also tried our hands at rabbit snaring. On our second day Modeste led us into the woods near the Lodge. About 10 minutes later he stopped. Although there were old rabbit droppings nearby, I wouldn’t have detected the wildlife “path” he pointed out in the underbrush. That’s where he set a snare, its loop four fingers off the ground.
We walked another five minutes down the path and set another snare.
I was not convinced we would catch a rabbit. I saw no indication that rabbits would run through those spots instead of under any other branches or bushes nearby. But Modeste had been doing this for at least six decades. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
The next day we had a rabbit.
With only one carcass, we couldn’t all participate in cleaning it. So with the help of one student, Modeste methodically skinned the rabbit, removing only the ears and the feet, enabling him to pull the skin off in one piece from the tail to nose. Even the eyelashes remained attached, which is impressive for an animal whose skin is so thin it’s easy to puncture with just a finger.
The skinning was both difficult and fascinating to watch. I couldn’t help but think it looked a lot like my roommate’s cat. But my reasons for going vegetarian had been environmental, and snaring a rabbit in the northern bush was the antithesis of factory farming. So of course I had to eat some.
Instead of throwing away the organs as we’d done with the fish — dumping them on a nearby island in Blachford Lake to keep bears away from the camp — our teachers fried up the rabbit’s organs over the fire along with its meat. I opted to stick to the latter, first trying to chew some of the tough chest muscles. I wasn’t convinced, but others encouraged me to try part of a leg. It was tender, juicy and delicious, a lot like what I remembered chicken tasting like.
I felt so conflicted that even my stomach felt guilty. In theory I had always maintained that sustainable hunting was okay, but I struggled to reconcile that belief with eating wild game. Even this brief experience on the land was calling my principles into question in a way that merely reading about hunting in a university text never would.
‘We’re certified now, bear!’
We learned more about what the land had to offer on a medicine walk down the same path later that afternoon. It wasn’t the right time of year for it — the bark was too dry — but Therese, whose old hands were surprisingly strong, showed us how to use a knife to get to the good stuff under the outer layers of bark.
Everything from antibacterial liquids to cures for constipation and yeast infections can be found in these woods if you know where to look. There’s little doubt that modern medicine keeps us alive longer today than ever before, but when you live hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from the nearest hospital, wild medicine is a practical source of treatment.
For everything she took from the bush, Therese gave back, placing tobacco as an offering at the base of any tree she harvested from. This was a lesson was repeated throughout the course: Therese thanked the lake for the fish and for keeping us safe.
The point was two-fold: not as an indoctrination into Dene beliefs, but to show respect for the way of living off the land; and to remind us that conservation isn’t a new concept but something indigenous people have practiced for thousands of years.
The injuries caused by taking from the land without giving back or considering the long-term impacts both on the land and those who depend on it, were not lost on us.
Living on the land means hunting, but it also means being prepared to defend yourself from wild animals, especially bears. So at the end of the week we were given the choice to go home or to stay an extra two days for firearm certification and shooting practice.
All of the students opted to take the training.
After taking two motorboats to travel two kilometres down the lake, we established ourselves at an “out camp” where we would sleep in canvas tents, cook and eat outside, and use an outhouse. Tempering these privations, twice-daily boat deliveries brought most of our food from the lodge, prepared by its chef.
(We all agreed this was ridiculous, especially since we had to make our own breakfast, but that didn’t stop us from happily devouring the delicious catered meals anyway.)
Certification began Friday evening after our firearms safety instructor, and Dechinta founder Freeland Ballantyne’s husband, Robin Bourke, arrived at the camp. The first lesson started with an introduction to the safety manual, and practicing loading and unloading “dummy” rifles and shotguns.
Saturday was spent studying gun safety, writing a safety exam, and demonstrating our knowledge of how to properly handle a semi-restricted firearm.
On Saturday night, after most of us had completed the exams, a black bear strolled into our camp. Although we had seen one earlier in the week when checking our fish nets, this was the first sign of a bear so close by.
First we tried stomping and yelling: “Go away bear!” “We’re certified now, bear!” The animal ran, but soon re-appeared. Then Bourke fired warning shots above its head, and it ran again.
We packed up our food and put it on the boat, anchored a few metres from shore. An hour later we heard the bear attacking the outhouse. Students stayed up to stand watch in shifts all night. We didn’t see the bear again but to be safe we avoided the outhouse and never ventured out alone without a can of bear spray until we left camp Sunday afternoon.
Self-determination and sovereignty
The bear was obviously not afraid of humans, in part because humans aren’t as rare in the bush as they used to be. Avalon Rare Metals Inc.’s Nechalacho Rare Earth Element mine, a few kilometres north of Blachford Lake, embodied the continuing colonization and industrial exploitation of the land. Its presence came up often, from the pollution it created to the work it provided — some of the few jobs available in the north.
There is no official Dechinta stance on the mine, but Coulthard, for one, regarded its proximity as significant. “If you understand the land as a social relationship of reciprocity that derives from these long standing [indigenous] practices, whether it’s in relationship to moose hunting or the harvesting of fish, a very exploitative economic venture like a rare minerals mine emerges as a problem and an object of critique, or at least concern,” he said.
It became impossible to duck discussion of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. For me, the first word evoked fears of Quebec separation, leaving my home province, Newfoundland and Labrador, cut off from the rest of the country.
But to Dechinta’s students and professors sovereignty didn’t mean separating from Canada or kicking out the settlers. Rather, they viewed it as expressing their right to be indigenous people and to practice their way of life.
“It means indigenous peoples ought to have the freedom to determine their lives in relationship to their land and their community in a way that isn’t imposed by others,” Coulthard explained.
Instead, of course, those ‘others’ — the Canadian and territorial governments — have undermined that way of life, historically through the expressly racist Indian Act and residential school system, and more recently, environmental regulations.
“The restrictive game laws and all these elements of colonialism that have been imposed on the Dene and other northern indigenous groups marginalized and damaged that mode of production that derives from the bush,” Coulthard said. “Now we’re in a position of imposed poverty as a result. So communities and leaders are put in a really hard place because they’re constantly told there is no alternative to expanded non-renewable resource development in the Northwest Territories.”
Similar frustrations fueled the 1990 Oka crisis, recurrent road blockades and Idle No More movement. More contentious issues are on the horizon: a new federal First Nations Education Act, and the ongoing process of “devolving” powers from Ottawa to the Government of the Northwest Territories. The latter could either deliver the freedom from federal oversight that northern nations have wanted, or further restrict Dene access to their own land and resources.
Dechinta is growing
We didn’t come away from these discussions with solutions, a plan, or even necessarily agreeing with one another. But that isn’t the point of Dechinta. Rather, it’s to teach critical thinking and hopefully nurture a knowledge-based sector in the north’s resource and trades-heavy economy.
“You learn critical thinking skills being on the land,” explained Mandee McDonald, a graduate student intern who served as “team leader” for the students during the course. “You can learn them in community and in home, but in a post-secondary setting you get a lot of historical context, which is really, really important to think about the current political [and] economic situation.
“Basically [Dechinta is] just providing a space where people can discuss issues of the north critically, but in a land-based environment.”
Dechinta wants to broaden that experience. It’s in talks to secure accreditation of its courses from the University of British Columbia and McGill.
With more university partners, Dechinta also hopes for more funding. Currently Dechinta is funded through grants from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, money from the GNWT, and from foundations like the McConnell Family Foundation. With more southern university endorsements, it hopes to attract scholarships that will bring more students, especially those who have left the north to attend those universities, to its courses.
“It means we will have more courses,” Boulanger said. “It means hopefully we will have more campuses, and a summer course somewhere else in the Northwest Territories. That’s currently in the works.”
Independent scholar Leanne Simpson, like most people involved with Dechinta, says it’s important that indigenous people have first access to its courses to reclaim their relationship to the land.
But settlers need to improve their relationship with the land and its original inhabitants, too. And about 20 per cent of Dechinta’s students have so far been non-indigenous.
“I think it’s important for settlers to unsettle themselves a little bit — or maybe a lot — and I think it’s important that they understand the indigenous peoples whose territories they’re living in,” said Simpson. “As they begin to unsettle themselves they begin to transform, and maybe align the way that they’re living so that it’s more in tune with the people whose territories they’re living in. Then I think the potential for real transformation in Canada starts to emerge.”
On our final night at Dechinta, we gathered around the campfire once more and discussed what we had learned. Some, like McDonald, identified new skills and understanding of indigenous struggles. Others said the skills they’d learned would bring them closer to family members whose knowledge of the land was already strong. Still others said that they came to powerful spiritual realizations about themselves and the future of indigenous people.
Me? I came away with survival skills I didn’t even know I wanted, particularly cleaning fish and handling firearms. But more than anything, my Dechinta experience highlighted what I still didn’t know: the history and content of the treaties that Canada has with indigenous people; how to encourage the difficult discussions we still need to have about land, resources, and post-colonial equity in this country. As Simpson might say, how to “un-settle” myself.