'Essential to our way of living': N.W.T. woman launches Water is Life photo project

A Yellowknife woman is using a series of portraits to show solidarity with members of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation opposing a pipeline on their traditional territory and water protectors across the country through her new photo project, 'Water is Life.'

Tyra Moses began project to show solidarity with B.C. First Nations members opposing a pipeline

Jaylene Delorme-Buggins poses for a photo on the Detah ice road as Tyra Moses snaps a shot. Both Moses and Delorme-Buggins are opposed to pipeline development on traditional land. (Katie Toth/CBC)

In the middle of the Detah ice road outside Yellowknife, Jaylene Delorme-Buggins and Tyra Moses realize they're going to need to pull a U-turn. They dropped an eagle feather during one of their photo shoots, and they need to get it back.

The eagle feather is a sacred gift. And this one, in particular, is also a fitting symbol of what these young women are trying to build: solidarity.

Delorme-Buggins received the feather during an internship in Colombia, where she also learned about Indigenous struggles in that country. Now, she's holding it high in portrait photos, taken by Moses, meant to show support for Wet'suwet'en First Nation members who were forcibly removed from their traditional territory by RCMP officers last week.

While band council leaders signed off on the Coastal Gas Link pipeline, hereditary chiefs of the First Nation and many of its members oppose it.

Moses is creating a photo series, "Water Is Life," which will profile supporters of Wet'suwet'en First Nation members who oppose the pipeline.  

Jaylene Delorme-Buggins poses on the Detah ice road. She says governments are ‘taking away our voices and our lands from us ... so the red handprint over my mouth ... [symbolizes] them trying to silence us, but my voice is still here.’ (Tyra Moses)

For Moses, it's her way of making a better future for her daughter, and for all First Nations people.

"I believe that we have a strong connection to water, the animals, the land, as well," she says. "My father is a hunter ... I still depend on subsistence hunting and harvesting. It's very essential to our way of living."

For her, the decline of caribou and the pipeline in British Columbia are symptoms of the same problem: disrespect for the land and its Indigenous peoples.

"Even with consultation… it's hard to actually get people's voices heard at these meetings," she says. "I actually wonder who the people are that are signing these agreements."

The wind on Great Slave Lake is brisk, adding a chill as the temperature falls past -20 C. Delorme-Buggins lies down on the ice in a traditional skirt. Moses holds the shutter and fires off a few bursts of images, totally focused on her shot.

"I don't want to be smiling," Delorme-Buggins says as they review the photos. "What they're doing to our people and taking our land — it's not a happy time."

Delorme-Buggins and Moses warm up in their vehicle. Moses says that she hopes to take her photo project to her home community of Fort Simpson, and possibly further. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Delorme-Buggins's traditional name is Thunder Beaver Woman. Her two protectors are the beaver and the snake, which are water animals.

At her traditional naming ceremony last year, an elder told her she was destined to be a water protector. So when she heard about what Moses wanted to do, she jumped on board — bringing the dramatic makeup, traditional clothing and eagle feather.

While the project has started in Yellowknife, Moses hopes to capture people with her camera in her hometown of Fort Simpson, before eventually expanding to other communities.

For now, though, the two are focused on running between the middle of the road and back into her pickup truck so they can keep warm.

"It's definitely worth it for the bigger picture," says Moses.

"You'll be surprised what a person will do for a picture when they like the camera," Delorme-Buggins adds, laughing. "I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat if it was minus 50."

Moses encourages those who would like to participate in the project to contact her at her Facebook page, Tyra Moses Photography.

With files from Lawrence Nayally