Tulita's moosehide boat recreates ancient voyage

People in the Northwest Territories community of Tulita are taking a trip back in time by recreating a moosehide boat, the same type of vessel their ancestors travelled on for generations.

People in the Northwest Territories community of Tulita are taking a trip back in time by recreating a moosehide boat, the same type of vessel their ancestors travelled on for generations.

Maurice Mendo is one of 45 people from the community who have spent their summer on the shores of the Keele River, about four hours upriver from Tulita, helping to build a moosehide boat that will arrive in Tulita this afternoon.

"I grew up in the mountains," Mendo says. "The mountains where I was born. The house I lived in [is] still showing there," the Shi-Dene elder says, pointing to an old house in the distance.

Ancient customs

It's been decades since Mendo has been in any of the moosehide boats he spent most of his childhood in, which is why he's so excited about the project.

"[I was] so excited when I was young," he says. "[I] really want to get in the boat."

Mendo grew up nomadic. Like most Shi-dene, his parents would spend the fall trekking hundreds of kilometres to a hunting ground in the mountains. Then in the spring they would build a moosehide boat and paddle back with their catch to their home community of Tulita.

"It's good to see the boat built again, all the memories come back," Mendo says.

The camp where the boat was built lies at the feet of mountains believed to be sacred by the Shi-dene, who say the landscape here used to be a portal to a divine place.

The Keele river — known as Begahdeh in the local language — is so sacred to the Dene people that they shoot at Red Dog Mountain to give their bullets as an offering.

First in a generation

It's been 25 years since the once-common mooseboat pilgrimage was made. Leon Andrew's grandfather was part of the team that built that boat. Now, he's the one working with elders, learning how to make the boat's frame.

"We want to do it as a community, that is why it's important to us — to me anyway," Andrew says. "And I hope that this means something to people; to document what our ancestors have done."

It's backbreaking work, and a job that's taken them weeks. After the frame is built, the moosehide that's been soaking in the river will be fitted onto the frame and sewn together with hand-strung sinew — the most time consuming part of the project

The community's women "cut the back strap out and then they take the sinew out and then they dry it," elder Cecil Eya says. "Then those girls they pound it to make it softer and easier to split."

"I feel so great, so happy about it," she says.

Eya is teaching her own grandaughters the ancient skills, along with other members of the community's youth, like Napolean Kenny.

"I want to teach kids what my grandpa and elders teach me. I want to teach them what I've been taught," Kenny says.