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Nahanni River of Forgiveness: Historic journey brings century-old tradition back to life

It’s been over 100 years since a mooseskin boat paddled down the Nahanni River according to Dehcho elders, but 16 Dene men and women are bringing back the tradition.

It’s been over 100 years since a mooseskin boat paddled down the Nahanni River, say Dehcho elders

16 Dene men and women flew into Nahanni National Park this weekend to build a mooseskin canoe and paddle it down the Nahanni River. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

It's been over 100 years since a mooseskin boat has paddled down the Nahanni River according to Dehcho elders, but 16 Dene men and women are bringing the tradition back to life. 

The members of the Dehcho First Nations and Shotagotine First Nation headed into Nahanni National Park this weekend to build a 40-feet long canoe from moose hides and spruces.

Once completed, if all goes to plan, over 21 days they will take the boat 400 kilometres downstream from the ancestral hunting grounds near Virginia Falls, past many sacred sites and all the way to the communities of Nahanni Butte and Fort Simpson.

It's being called the Nahanni River of Forgiveness Trip and will even be made into a documentary feature film, which will eventually air on CBC Docs.

These moose hides will be used to build a 40-feet mooseskin boat. Dehcho elders say it will be the first time a mooseskin boat has paddled the Nahanni River in over 100 years. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian is among those who has been dreaming of the trip for two decades.

"It was something that a number of people had talked about over the years and they're trying to bring that whole thing back to life," he said. "All our people seem to be quite excited about this so it's going to be a big undertaking."

"We're trying to bring that whole journey and that whole excitement back to life again," said Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian. (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)

Norwegian said the name for the trip came from people who have travelled the river who describe it as a cleansing and sacred experience.

"Anytime people have journeyed through there and they find they've come through and they have arrived at their destination, they have the sense of being forgiven, for some reason or another they feel that they've been cleansed," he said.

Norwegian said the journey signifies that Indigenous people and their way of life are still vibrant and thriving. 

"We're trying to showcase our story that we can continue to live and put our wet moccasins on the ground and continue to live with the land and have great respect for the very thing that we do," he said. 

"It's about imagery, it's about respect, it's about spiritualism, it's about cleansing yourself and showing the world that you know we're on the road to recovery and we're doing everything we can to get to that point."

Reviving tradition

Norwegian explained that traditionally, people in the Dehcho valley would winter at the top end of the South Nahanni River, then come spring they would harvest hides and build a mooseskin boat.

He said one of the biggest undertakings of the trip would be near Virginia Falls, where travellers would build a slipway and slide the boat over wet logs.

"It was a life, a way of life back in those days and people were very organized and full of energy and it was just one way that people had moved around," he said. 

An undated photo shows the Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni River. While traditionally travellers would build a slipway and slide mooseskin boats over wet logs, the upcoming trip will see a helicopter sling the boat over the falls. (Handout photo/Canadian Press)

"We're trying to bring that whole journey and that whole excitement back to life again."

During the upcoming trip, a helicopter will sling the boat over the falls, like a scene out of Apocalypse Now.

'I feel so honoured'

Rochelle Yendo from Wrigley will be the youngest person on the trip. The 19-year-old said it will be her first time on the Nahanni River and she's excited for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Rochelle Yendo, 19, from Wrigley will be the youngest person on the Nahanni River of Forgiveness trip. (Submitted by Rochelle Yendo)

"I feel so honoured honestly, like just to be able to learn all the knowledge that the elders have so they can pass it onto me," she said. "I feel really honoured and happy that I can be a part of this and so I can share my journey with everyone else."

Yendo said she has struggled with anxiety and depression and the journey will be an opportunity to connect with herself and the land as a Dene woman. She also said she wants other youth who are struggling to know that opportunities like this exist.

"I feel like most youth these days that don't really know or aren't involved in that, they should be involved because I feel like our culture and our language is slowly dying," she said. "I want to try to motivate the youth so they can take part in these kind of trips so they could pass on the learning like I'm about to do."

You can follow the Nahanni River of Forgiveness journey on Facebook and Instagram

With files from Peter Sheldon and Loren McGinnis

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