How the Sah­tuto’ine Dene of Dé­line cre­ated the Tsá Tué Bio­sphere Re­serve, the world’s first such UNESCO site man­aged by an In­dige­nous com­mu­nity

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Lau­rie Sarkadi with photograph­y by An­gela Gzowski

How the Sah­tuto’ine Dene of Dé­line cre­ated the Northwest Ter­ri­to­ries’ Tsá Tué Bio­sphere Re­serve, the world’s first such UNESCO site to be man­aged by an In­dige­nous com­mu­nity

IN 1865, more than a cen­tury be­fore com­puter mod­els be­gan point­ing to­ward a fu­ture where drought, heat waves and hurricanes bring the world’s pop­u­la­tion to its knees, an eight-year-old boy from Dé­line, a small com­mu­nity on the south­west­ern shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Ter­ri­to­ries, be­gan hav­ing vi­sions. The story goes that the boy, Louis Ayah, was vis­ited by an­gels through­out his life­time who rolled out glimpses of the fu­ture, prompt­ing him to is­sue some 30 prophe­cies, sev­eral of which came to pass: white men dis­cov­ered shiny, glass-like rocks (di­a­monds); some­thing that’s not a cig­a­rette but is rolled by twist­ing the pa­per ends be­came harm­ful to kids (mar­i­juana); and Dé­line came to be led by one united body, the Dé­line Got’ine gov­ern­ment — the ad­min­is­tra­tion that as of Sept. 1, 2016, over­sees the Northwest Ter­ri­to­ries’ first in­de­pen­dently self-gov­erned com­mu­nity.

One of Ayah’s prophe­cies that hasn’t yet been fully re­al­ized, how­ever, is Dé­line’s role in a loom­ing cli­mate change apoc­a­lypse: Great Bear, the world’s eighth largest lake, will be the last place on Earth peo­ple can fish; parched and hun­gry mi­grants will flock to its deep, clear waters; boats will jos­tle for space; Dé­line must pre­pare. On a 28 C day in Au­gust in Dé­line, just be­fore the new gov­ern­ment takes over, Ayah’s prog­nos­ti­ca­tion doesn’t seem far-fetched. “When I was a kid, the hottest it ever got here in sum­mer was about 15 de­grees,” says Wal­ter Bezha, in­te­grated re­source man­age­ment ad­vi­sor for the new gov­ern­ment’s lands, re­sources and en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment. Bezha has man­aged the sprawl­ing boreal lands sur­round­ing Dé­line for years, first un­der the re­gion’s 1993 Sahtu Dene and Metis Com­pre­hen­sive Land Claim Agree­ment and now as a mem­ber of Dé­line Got’ine’s nascent bu­reau­cracy. More than 20 years in the mak­ing, the self-gov­ern­ment agree­ment that led him to this point lifts the nearly 500 mostly In­dige­nous peo­ple of Dé­line out of Canada’s In­dian Act, quashes the ter­ri­to­rial gov­ern­ment’s des­ig­na­tion of Dé­line as a char­ter com­mu­nity (a blend of band and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments) and in­te­grates the De­line Land Cor­po­ra­tion from the re­gion’s land claim agree­ment into one gov­ern­ment with de­ci­sion-mak­ing pow­ers in ar­eas such as ed­u­ca­tion, health, justice, lan­guage and com­mu­nity lands. It also ex­plains why he’s trapped in his of­fice sort­ing out how to shrink three lev­els of gov­ern­ment into one. His job is to “lis­ten to what the land wants, lis­ten to what the lake wants, lis­ten to what the an­i­mals want,” and make de­ci­sions us­ing sci­en­tific data and the Sah­tuto’ine

Dene peo­ple’s gi­ant body of knowl­edge on the area’s ecol­ogy and bio­di­ver­sity, amassed over eons. Out­side Bezha’s of­fice, men wres­tle the im­pos­ing antlers off a moose they’ve hunted, women slice fresh red meat from a cari­bou leg for a fu­neral, and on what UNESCO calls “the last pris­tine Arc­tic lake,” peo­ple mo­tor

small alu­minum boats to their nets, where glit­ter­ing trout await. To keep the lake thriv­ing, in 2005 a work­ing group of el­ders, young lead­ers, stake­hold­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the fed­eral and ter­ri­to­rial gov­ern­ments cre­ated “The Water Heart,” a wa­ter­shed man­age­ment plan ex­plic­itly in­formed by the Sah­tuto’ine Dene’s deeply held spir­i­tual be­lief that Tudzé, a sa­cred water heart, beats at the bot­tom of the lake. Its crit­i­cal life force con­nects all liv­ing things and must be hon­oured and pro­tected for eter­nity. The Water Heart later was in­cluded in the re­gion’s Sahtu Land Use Plan, which pro­hibits de­vel­op­ment in core pro­tected ar­eas and cre­ates buf­fer zones where lim­ited de­vel­op­ment can oc­cur, pro­vid­ing it doesn’t threaten the lake’s ecol­ogy. With these ef­forts to re­gain gov­er­nance and stew­ard­ship over their tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory, the Sah­tuto’ine Dene of Dé­line have cre­ated what is pos­si­bly the most co­he­sive and com­pre­hen­sive In­dige­nous-led water con­ser­va­tion plan of mod­ern times — one that UNESCO held up as a model for the rest of the world in March 2016, when Dé­line be­came the first In­dige­nous com­mu­nity to achieve UNESCO bio­sphere re­serve sta­tus for its man­age­ment of the Great Bear wa­ter­shed. The Tsá Tué Bio­sphere Re­serve, which spans more than nine mil­lion hectares — an area the size of Maine — and has a core pro­tected area of two mil­lion hectares, is the largest in North America and the first in Canada’s North. While the des­ig­na­tion is more an award of ex­cel­lence, it en­dorses and pro­motes Dé­line’s man­age­ment tools in­ter­na­tion­ally as the gold-star stan­dard for bal­anced re­la­tion­ships be­tween hu­mans and the bio­sphere.

GINA BAYHA HELPED i niti at e Dé­line’s UNESCO ap­pli­ca­tion in 2013. When el­ders learned of the 669 bio­sphere re­serves in UNESCO’S global net­work, they in­sisted Dé­line ap­ply. “I’ve never heard el­ders be­ing so force­ful be­fore — they’re usu­ally so kind and pa­tient,” she says. The fact the bio­sphere des­ig­na­tion holds no reg­u­la­tory teeth didn’t di­min­ish their stri­dency.

“They didn’t care about en­forc­ing rules. They wanted a strong voice, and I said, ‘What’s the point?’ And they said, ‘If other peo­ple hear our sto­ries, it’s shar­ing, it’s net­work­ing.’ It’s shar­ing how they’ve lived this way so long, their con­nec­tions, not just to the water, but to the air, the an­i­mals.” Bezha says Ayah’s doomsday div­ina­tion and the be­lief in Tudzé, the sa­cred water heart, un­der­pin his peo­ple’s sense of ur­gency to keep the lake writhing with trout, cisco, white­fish and Arc­tic grayling while sus­tain­ing species such as muskox, wolves, cari­bou and wolver­ines. “Peo­ple will say, ‘Oh these are just leg­ends,’” says Bezha. “Not so. It’s our his­tory, the Dene his­tory, and there’s a lot more to a lot of the things they’re talk­ing about.” The Water Heart man­age­ment plan stresses the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of all things and the ne­ces­sity of car­ing for the world and all its peo­ple — Dene and non-dene alike. The el­ders pro­foundly un­der­stand this, many of them hav­ing un­wit­tingly car­ried the ura­nium used in the atomic bombs that dev­as­tated Hiroshima and Na­gasaki — events Ayah had also proph­e­sied prior to 1942, the year his peo­ple be­gan work­ing at the fed­er­ally owned El­do­rado Mine at Port Ra­dium on Great Bear Lake’s eastern shore. There, they hauled dusty sacks of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial with­out pro­tec­tive cloth­ing or warn­ing of the harm it could do. Many died of can­cers. Decades later, sur­vivors trav­elled to Ja­pan to apol­o­gize, but the en­tire painful era, in­clud­ing on­go­ing re­me­di­a­tion at the mine and in the lake — and the fail­ure of the gov­ern­ment to safe­guard work­ers from health risks — strength­ened Dé­line’s re­solve to con­trol what hap­pens in their home­lands.

DÉ­LINE NEEDS TO con­vey such his­tory, along with the hun­dreds of en­cy­clo­pe­dic en­tries unilin­gual el­ders have in their heads about trails and burial sites or the ecol­ogy of a bay dur­ing fish spawn­ing or cari­bou mi­gra­tory habits, so fu­ture gen­er­a­tions can in­te­grate that knowl­edge into bio­sphere man­age­ment. Us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of geo­graphic in­for­ma­tion

sys­tems, Google Earth and soft­ware that al­lows you to si­mul­ta­ne­ously see and hear a Sahtu Dene lan­guage place name along with its English trans­la­tion, the Dene Map­ping Project is do­ing just that. “It’s a lin­guis­tic gold mine here,” says Phoebe Tatti, a Dé­line na­tive with a mas­ter’s de­gree in lan­guage and ed­u­ca­tion who heads the project. “Each one of the 250 place names we have so far is as­so­ci­ated with a story or a leg­end as to how the name came about.” That in­no­va­tive ap­proach to con­ser­va­tion ed­u­ca­tion is part of why Dé­line’s bio­sphere bid is backed by The Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts, the U.s.-based public-pol­icy non­profit. Pew is help­ing Dé­line de­velop eco­tourism and meet its UNESCO obli­ga­tion to re­search and mon­i­tor water qual­ity and wildlife pop­u­la­tions — es­pe­cially dwin­dling cari­bou herds. Steven Kal­lick, Pew’s di­rec­tor of in­ter­na­tional lands con­ser­va­tion, says

Clock­wise from above: Gor­don Tani­ton (right) and other drum­mers help cel­e­brate Dé­line’s UNESCO sta­tus; a fish­ing boat on the lake; Roberta Dol­phus cuts moose ribs.


Clock­wise from above left: Rus­sel Kenny pulls a trout from his nets; Kí Karkigie cuts moose meat; el­der Charlie Neyelle in his teepee; el­der Rosie Mantla prays dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tion of Dé­line’s UNESCO sta­tus; Mandy Bayha wrings out a moose hide.

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