By: Max Pospisil
Grandmother’s Bay, a Northern community that is part of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, has an intimate connection with woodland caribou: the animal is central to the story of the community’s name. The story goes that an Elder needed to stay at Grandmother’s Bay through a winter season. When her community (which was then nomadic) returned in the spring, she told them how a woodland caribou, who had frozen into the ice, helped her to survive the long winter. Councilor Gerald McKenzie shared this story with a group of youth – many of whom had never heard it before – at a knowledge sharing meeting one night, during a six-day canoe trip with members of Grandmother’s Bay and Prince Albert Model Forest.
The canoe trip focused on youth engagement with traditional knowledge from their cultural heritage, as well as knowledge sharing about woodland caribou from both community and researcher perspectives. My involvement with the trip was as a PhD candidate, both partnering with the Lac La Ronge Indian Band to study community values regarding caribou conservation, and interning with Prince Albert Model Forest for the summer to help facilitate relationships between the organization and local communities.
It was my first canoe trip, and my first portages. As I learned about the power and strength (and limitations) of my muscles, I also learned about the power and strength of community, as this amazing group of humans canoed and portaged through beautiful lakes and muskeg, saw and honored pictographs from the people who traveled through these same passages many years ago, ate delicious fish straight from the lake, and learned about right relationships – with the natural world, and with each other.
I learned what respect for plants, animals, and ancestors looks like in practice: offering tobacco and prayers for anything taken, and taking only what we needed. Respect for each other meant that this group of youth and adults moved throughthe journey together, helping each other through the hard parts. “Together” was a word that stuck with me, after I was back home with clean, dry clothes. It is an important word, and not just for canoe trips; it is one that is essential for conservation success. We are all in this world, and on this planet together, and we must work with each other to address the most pressing concerns of our time, including the conservation of species.
Together happened in practice in many moments of the trip, and also during the evening of knowledge sharing about woodland caribou conservation. Councilor McKenzie and Sarah Schmid, general manager for PAMF, talked about the importance of working together – communities (including youth), researchers, government, and industry – to address the challenges of conserving woodland caribou in Saskatchewan and in the north. PAMF’s summer student, Aiden Wickenhauser, discussed his project, developing protocols for industry and researchers who wish to work together with communities. I talked a bit about the importance of trappers and local land users to conservation. Elder Betsy Roberts shared some of her knowledge about woodland caribou. Lastly, the youth talked about their own experiences with woodland caribou (only a couple of them had seen one) and provided feedback about the talk. All of these pieces provided, together in conversation, a deeper insight into woodland caribou conservation than ever could each of them, offered separately.
Back to the story of Grandmother’s Bay. Like the Grandmother of the story, we were all – youth and adults – strengthened by the generous gifts of the land: traditional medicines and foods; new skills; stories; and, in the spirit of reconciliation with both land and cultures, lasting relationships of reciprocity, responsibility, and respect. For these youth, this is especially important. For many children in First Nations communities in Canada, the relationship to their cultural traditions, knowledge, and land has been interrupted by the legacy of damages done to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations through colonization and residential schools. Even on this short canoe trip, I was able to catch a glimpse of how much gifts from their traditional land mean to these youth – more than anything that I, a white settler-guest from the States, can imagine or experience.
These youth gave me gifts too – their joy and camaraderie. I left feeling healthier in body, mind, and spirit than I have in quite a while. In this time of great climate changes and extinctions, as technological life-enhancers and career commitments draw many of us (even a graduate student studying wildlife!) ever-further away from the natural world and from each other, I deeply needed a reminder of how to return.