N.W.T.'s 'bush university' celebrates 11 new grads and leaders of tomorrow

The Dechinta 'bush university' teaches traditional knowledge, offering university credits along the way.

Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning says demand for learning on the land is on the rise

Dechinta graduates and supporters gathered near the GNWT Legislative Assembly building following graduation last Thursday evening. (Submitted by Robby Dick)

Eleven students from across the North say they're more connected to the land after graduating from the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning this week.

The class of six men and five women celebrated during a ceremony at the N.W.T. legislature Thursday night.

Dechinta is commonly referred to as the territory's "bush university" because its 16-week program combines classroom teaching with traditional Indigenous practices like fish drying and moosehide tanning.

The unique school, located on Blatchford Lake about 100 kilometres east of Yellowknife, offers credits for individual courses and a minor in Indigenous studies in partnership with other universities.

Traditional skills are taught as part of the Dechinta on the land education program. (Submitted by Robby Dick)

Students are taught by elders, university professors and Indigenous activists over the course of the semester.

The school's dean, Erin Freeland Ballantyne, said Thursday's graduates hail from a wide range of communities in the N.W.T., Yukon and Nunavut. Students learn everything from Indigenous law to research methods in the classroom before going into the bush for a total of six weeks.

"A lot of our grads have gone on to take on community leadership positions," Freeland Ballantyne said.

"We have alumni who are on chief and council. What we see is them going back and really contributing to youth in their own community and connecting youth and elders together."

'You learn a lot more on the land'

Fort McPherson's Wade Vaneltsi was one of Thursday's 11 graduates.

Fort McPherson's Wade Vaneltsi was one of last Thursday's 11 Dechinta graduates. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

He says he'll be returning home with the knowledge of resurgence.

"That's really what I took away from the program," he said. "Resurgence for me was reconnecting with the land, reclaiming lost knowledge and life skills that our people used as a way of life.

"You learn a lot more on the land from elders."

Fellow graduate Kyra Harris of Fort Simpson agrees, adding that it's important for people to be connected with the land around them.

Fort Simpson's Kyra Harris was one of last Thursday's 11 Dechinta graduates. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"So many people don't know how to live on the land or they don't know any basic things about being on the land and as a Dene person that's who you are," Harris said. 

"It's really important knowledge that we need to keep in order for a ripple effect to go through our communities."

Enrollment on the rise

Dechinta students gather in a tent. (Submitted by Robby Dick)

Starting this summer, Freeland Ballantyne says Dechinta will start offering two more semesters to accommodate a growing number of applicants. That's in addition to ones offered in the spring and fall.

Freeland Ballantyne says the program typically receives three times as many applicants as it can take.

"We're really trying to be able to offer more programs, have more programs in the region so that we can reach all of the students that are applying to Dechinta," she said.

Fish hang to dry as part of the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning program. (Submitted by Robby Dick)

Dechinta eyes future

Freeland Ballantyne is also hopeful Dechinta can start granting its own degrees in the coming years. 

Dechinta currently offers credits for individual courses and a minor in Indigenous studies in partnership with other universities. But Freeland Ballantyne says that could change if N.W.T. Education Minister Alfred Moses accepts a proposed Dechinta University Act.

"[We want] Dechinta to have independent degree-granting status," she said.

"We still want to partner with our awesome partner universities but be offering degrees that are in the North, for the North and by the North.

Founded in 2009, Dechinta holds partnerships with the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia and McGill University in Montreal.


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