My Indigenous Culture Is an Act of Resistance

Two generations saw our Inuit and Dine homelands in Northern Canada nearly destroyed. Now my way of life is one of cultural repair.
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Melaw Nakehk’o, a Dene Nahjo co-founding member, fleshes a moose hide with a moose leg bone at the urban hide tanning camp organized in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, on September 9, 2017. 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 resistance against colonialism.

Photo by Melinda Trochu/AFP/Getty Images

People often speak of the North as a place of extremes and harsh realities: long and frozen winters, endless summer daylight, constant winter darkness, vast and all but uninhabited wilderness. As a Northerner rooted in both Inuit and Dene cultures, the harshest extreme to me is how rapidly and far-reaching colonialism has set into our world.

Within the span of two lifetimes, my parents’ and grandparents’ generations have seen drastic changes both in our ways of life and our homelands. My Inuit grandparents went from freely traveling the land as our ancestors had always done to living in a permanent community. The RCMP [the Canadian national police] forced Inuit into settlements in the 1950s to bring us under government control. They slaughtered our sled dogs so we were immobile and also split entire family groups apart, scattering us across different communities.

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My father was born in a sod house in 1949 and was raised to travel the land and provide for his family from a young age. He can navigate using constellations and landmarks, make traditional tools, build shelter in any season, attend to injuries, and his intimate knowledge of our world makes him a very skilled hunter on both the land and the sea. At the age of 8, he was able to go out for the day alone and come back with a seal to feed the family. Also at 8, he was taken from his parents and sent to residential school thousands of kilometers away, which he was lucky to have survived.

He was one of tens of thousands of children stolen from every Indigenous nation across the country by the Canadian government and forced into assimilation schools. They knew our entire societies stem from the land, which meant we would never give it up and that we would always protect it. So for 150 years, Canada stole all of our children—our heart, indeed our future—and sought to break them of our ways and collapse our societies in the process. Many of these children suffered unthinkable atrocities during their time at these schools, and thousands never made it home to our families. It is a devastating and recent history, with the last schools finally closing in 1996, and Indigenous peoples throughout the country are still working through the debilitating repercussions that persist in our lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that Canada is built on racism, genocide, violence, and theft.

The desire to dominate and exploit peoples and lands to create wealth—this is the driving force of colonialism and also the lifeblood of this country. If there is any hope of recuperating a sense of humanity, or of surviving the climate crisis that is rapidly intensifying throughout the world, we need to engage the reality of everything we are up against. The stakes are too high.

It is no exaggeration to say that Canada is built on racism, genocide, violence, and theft. The founding and daily maintenance of this colony depends expressly on the domination of Indigenous peoples through the illegal seizure and occupation of our territories, colonial laws and policies, police brutality, excessive incarceration, economic marginalization, gender violence, child apprehension, and the suppression of our governance systems, spiritual practices, and ancestral ways of life—all of which remain deeply rooted in our lands.

Canada is sustained by a resource-based economy—if there is any doubt as to the racism and brutality this necessitates every day, just consider: Where do the resources come from and how are they obtained—are they not violently torn from the earth? And are those sites of extraction not integral parts of Indigenous homelands or crucial to animal and plant life? Why is it that most Indigenous peoples are living in extremely impoverished conditions on reserves, in remote communities, and in urban centers, whereas the resources stripped from our lands generate massive amounts of wealth for governments and corporations? Is this country not home to one of the biggest and most destructive industrial operations on the planet? (See Environmental Defence’s report, “Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth,” February 2008.) 

How many of our territories and water systems have been contaminated by hydroelectric dams, oil, gas, and toxic waste, and how many lives are being lost to new cancers as a result every year? How many community members have been harmed or arrested for protecting their homelands from pipelines and mining operations? What recourse do we have to the distinct rise in gender violence and narcotics abuse that come with intensified mining in our communities?

Treaties 8 and 11 grant permission for settlers to coexist on our lands and were contingent upon certain terms, including mutual autonomy, self-governance, and the provision of health care—but how many of our men, women, elders, and youth continually suffer violence at the hands of police officers or are denied adequate care by health providers?

These treaties were also meant to ensure that Indigenous ways of life would continue despite the presence of settlers—meaning that all of the elements that sustain life on the land would remain protected—so that our people could continue to live according to our ancestral ways forever.

Because of ongoing colonial policies, industrial exploitation, and now climate change, places where we used to be able to harvest food or medicines, drink the water, and inhabit alongside other forms of life are being turned into wastelands.

An Inuit man with caribou, circa 1993. Photo from ullstein bild Dtl./Getty Images.

My hometown of Yellowknife was built for gold mining in 1934 and became home to one of the richest gold mines in Canadian history. Giant Mine sits on the shore of Great Slave Lake, one of the largest freshwater sources on the planet. Though the mine closed in 2004, its toxic repercussions will last forever. The deteriorating site rests upon 237,000 metric tons of arsenic trioxide, a lethal byproduct of gold mining that is impossible to remediate or prevent from leaking into the surrounding lakes and atmosphere, which it is doing at a disturbing rate. (See Clark Ferguson’s interactive web documentary, Shadow of a Giant.)
 A study released in April 2016 showed mercury and arsenic levels to be dangerously high in lakes within a 25-kilometer radius of Giant Mine; in some cases, over 13 times the limit for drinking water and 27 times the level deemed adequate for aquatic life (Ivan Semeniuk, “Lakes Near Yellowknife Contaminated with Arsenic, Mercury after Mine Closing,” Globe and Mail, April 6, 2016).

Canadians tend to romanticize the Northern town for its remnants of a frontier history forged by sweat and gold as well as for its supposed “untouched, pristine wilderness”—but the truth is we can no longer drink the water or eat the fish in that area and now have to travel long distances to harvest foods and medicines. They say Giant Mine rests upon enough arsenic to kill the entire planet twice over—and although there have been several attempts over the years to contain the toxic waste, there has never been an adequate plan to protect the environment from contamination. For me, this is the clearest indication of Western society’s single-minded focus on obtaining wealth at any expense. There is no contingency plan or thought of the future or respect for any form of life. The only drive is money—and this is true of any mining operation in the country, whether diamonds or oil and gas or gold.

Today, the beautiful, vast, wild landscape of Denendeh is riddled with large-scale mining operations that have destroyed numerous lakes and river ecosystems, as well as the migration and calving grounds of caribou—an essential source of sustenance for both Inuit and Dene alike since time immemorial. We are caribou people, and the widespread decline of this ancestral relation is a source of deepening loss across the North.

Dene and Inuit peoples would not exist without the caribou.

There are many stories of the generosity and benevolence of caribou, how they offer themselves in times of need. Dene and Inuit peoples would not exist without the caribou: its hide has given us warmth and protection from the cold, its meat our main source of nourishment, its bones and antlers our tools, its skin stretched on drums that carry our songs and spiritual connection. It was the caribou who taught us how to honor our kinship and practice ways that sustain us both. A growing anxiety throughout our communities is, What happens when there are no more caribou? Are we still caribou people? If we can no longer practice our culture in all of the ways that depend on the caribou, are we still Dene or Inuit?

Protecting the caribou was once a major rallying point for Northerners. It’s what galvanized us to stand strong against the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and assimilative government policies in the 1970s and also work toward self-determination. Since then both the caribou population and our anticolonial nerve have been in steep decline. We have veered quite far from the unified vision we once fought hard for to ensure that our homelands would remain grounded in Indigenous principles, values, and ways of life well into the future.

Last spring I spent some time with a very knowledgeable and beloved elder, Ethel Lamothe. We were at Dechinta Bush University—a Northern organization based outside of Yellowknife that delivers Indigenous education on the land and one of the saving graces in my own educational journey. I was helping her scrape a moose hide in preparation for tanning, and as our hands worked we talked about womanhood, spirituality, and bush medicines. She told me about the work she and others did in previous decades to advance decolonization, social transformation, and healing in Denendeh and also shared insight about the challenges. I had been troubled lately about the gap between elders and young people, the cultural inheritance being lost, the growing alienation I see in current generations, and the complexity of overcoming all these challenges when we are starting from such fragmentation. At one point Ethel stopped and said: “Our society is full of holes now, like the ones in this hide. So we have to sew them up. Where there’s a hole there instead of a mother or a father, an aunty or grandparent steps in to raise the kids. We have holes in our spirituality and culture, how we relate to each other and deal with things, so we have to find ways to relearn that. You know, we lost some of our own ceremonies and ways of praying, but we can learn from other cultures who still have it. You don’t have any grandmothers to teach what you need to know as a woman, so you adopt a new grandmother who can teach you. So we do it like that. We sew it up.”

This excerpt is from “Caribou People” by Siku Allooloo, an essay in Shapes of Narrative Nonfiction (2019), edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. It appears by permission of University of Washington Press.