Why this single mom of 3 in the Northwest Territories moved her family off-grid during the pandemic
‘There's an opportunity here to just be on the land,’ says Dene artist Melaw Nakehk’o
As a teacher of Indigenous traditional arts, Melaw Nakehk'o had a busy summer ahead of her. But everything changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"A lot of the work that I had scheduled for this year was doing traditional moose-hide tanning camps in different communities across Canada," she told Tapestry host Mary Hynes. "All of them have been cancelled."
Melaw Nakehk'o is a Dene artist and actor, who appeared opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant in 2015.
When the Northwest Territories began implementing self-distancing measures, Nakehk'o made a decision to join her parents in Fort Simpson ━ more than 600 kilometres away. But to abide by the territory's travel restrictions under the pandemic, she would first have to self-isolate with her three sons ━ aged five, 12 and 14.
And with an entire season of work wiped out almost overnight, Nakehk'o says she immediately signed on to other projects, out of panic. At the same time, she began isolating with her boys in her Yellowknife townhouse.
"Suddenly I became really overwhelmed with work," she said. "And then I was just working non-stop with my three kids in the house. It was really kind of difficult there for a little bit. It was a little chaotic."
As soon as she could, she packed up and headed to Fort Simpson to connect with her parents. From there, the family headed about an hour's drive out of town, to the shores of the Dehcho river.
"Since April 10th we've been camping out on the land," she said. "We set up two tents, and so we've been out there for the past few weeks ━ just watching the snow melt and all of the birds come home from south."
Nakehk'o and her family chose a spot close to the highway for its accessibility. She would return to Fort Simpson every few days, to pick up school work for her sons and to log on to the internet. And while she is spearheading a campaign to secure more affordable web service in northern communities, she has welcomed the opportunity to increasingly "unplug" herself.
"I don't have internet or cell service [in the bush]. So I'm not constantly refreshing my social media or looking at the news. Like, we're physically distancing but also ━ I mentally have distanced myself."
She said the family plans to move deeper into the bush later in the summer to their traditional land, where her father has had a camp for many years. Once there, they'll be making fewer trips into Fort Simpson. And being even further from town, Nakehk'o believes, will connect them with a more authentic, traditional way of living.
"It's not unusual for us to be on the land for long periods of time in our family groups," she said.
This is how we used to exist in our traditional territories on the land, throughout the North. It's just that we haven't practised it in a couple generations."
Nakehk'o said she decided to go off-grid during the pandemic in part because she felt it would be safer for her family ━ but also because she saw the chance for a rare experience.
"All of my work's been cancelled," she said. "My kids are being homeschooled. There is an opportunity here to just ━ to be on the land."
"At home, when I was in Yellowknife, there was ... a sense of distance, in being disconnected. And now, there's this sense of disconnection, but then also just reconnecting with the land. And we're spending so much time together."
While it may have been sparked by a global pandemic, the change in lifestyle has been largely positive for Nakehk'o and her family.
"I think it's healthier for all of us," she said. "We're active all day long ━ getting water or chopping wood, like, cooking. I'm working on my hide-tanning area. And my kids are helping get poles. And we're just, like, physically active. And it feels really healthy."
Nakehk'o said she'd love to continue living in the bush post-pandemic, too. At least to some degree ━ if she can work out how to do it.
"I think a lot of people kind of daydream about having a cabin or having a place to get away to. And I would love to be on the land more ━ and [I'm] definitely trying to figure out how to maintain some type of work-and-bush life balance."
On May 18, Nakehk'o and her family struck their camp and returned home to Yellowknife. She shared her farewell to the land on Instagram.