Nahanni: River of Forgiveness

As a leader, Herb Norwegian, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations in Canada’s Northwest Territories, is always looking for ways to encourage his people.  For years he has wanted to follow the route of the ancestors who spent the winters hunting and trapping near the headwaters of the great Nahanni River.  In the spring, they built a big boat out of moose skins and spruce.  As soon as the ice broke, they traveled down the Nahanni, portaging around Virginia Falls, and whistling through canyons with walls 1200 metres high. 

This territory is now called Nahanni National Park Reserve, 30,000 square kilometres of protected wilderness, co-managed by the Dehcho and Parks Canada.  A moose skin boat hasn’t been seen on the Nahanni in a hundred years but Herb Norwegian is undaunted!  He’s invited members of the Mountain Dene, experienced moose skin boat builders on the Keele River, to help.  Elder Leon Andrew is interested in the Nahanni because his grandfather traveled it.  He emphasizes, “Our people have existed up here through generations even before European arrival.  With stone tools they survived and we are still here.” 

MORE: River of Forgiveness: The Interactive Experience

Leon has enlisted his brother Ricky Andrew and Robert Horassi, both expert bushmen and boat makers.  Ricky heeds his grandfather’s prediction that a hard future is coming for the Dene, as well as his warning to preserve their traditional ways to live off the land.  Ricky’s niece, Corinne Andrew and her friend Beatrice Kosh are skilled sewers.  They make the thread for sewing the hides from the backstrap sinew of the moose.  It’s extremely strong and swells when wet to seal the seams.

Other Dehcho Dene on the trip include Lawrence Nayally, a thoughtful and articulate, young radio host.  He is excited to renew his mission to become the best Dene he can be!  Lisa Williams is looking for healing and forgiveness from the multi-generational havoc wreaked upon Indigenous people by the cruel, racist history of colonialism in Canada.  Rochelle Yendo, aged 19, hopes to tap into the inspiration, strength, and self-confidence she needs to succeed and make a difference for her family. 

MORE: This remote Canadian wilderness is home to a spectacular waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls

Everyone unites around the boat. The spruce trees are good where they are camped, but the Mountain Dene are worried whether the available hides have been processed properly for a boat?

Building the boat is an enormous effort.  Fingers are cut up and sore, muscles and nerves are exhausted.  But out of the bush, a moose skin boat finally emerges and their river journey begins.  

As with many ambitious adventures, not everything goes to plan. The Dene set off on a wild river in a boat whose strength is in doubt and they have to paddle more than 500 kilometres to get home!  

Nahanni River of Forgiveness is a journey through a magnificent landscape.  It’s a search for forgiveness and reconciliation for what has happened to the people and to the land.  It’s about the spiritual power of nature to heal the soul and a tribute to the resilience and steadfastness of the Dene.   


Produced with additional funding from:

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