When Sunrise Lockhart, who was born and raised in Łutsël K’é, returned to the community after graduating from high school in Fort Smith, he worked with the recreation department, where he gained valuable experience delivering and later designing and managing programming. From there, he was hired on as the youth coordinator, a position that further expanded his administrative skills. While he enjoyed this work, he found himself spending all of his free time on the land, reconnecting with the knowledge and skills that had been passed on to him by his family.
Sunrise’s earliest memories on the land are with his paternal grandparents, Bernadette and Joe Lockhart. They would take him out whenever they could, for picnics on the side of the road, visits to their cabin, and hunting trips further afield. As Sunrise got older, he and his family, including his parents, James and Sandra Lockhart, and brother, Chase, would go out with other families, spending weeks at a time camping and harvesting.
As he rediscovered his connection to the land and his Łutsël K’é Dene culture, Sunrise started to seek out work opportunities that would allow him to spend time in the bush, which is how he ended up at the cultural exchange camp, a gathering of Dene from Łutsël K’é and Maori from Aotearoa (New Zealand) at Ɂedacho Tłaze (Timber Bay) on Ɂedacho Kúe (Artillery Lake) this past September. Working alongside Ni Hat’ni Dene, the Indigenous guardians of Thaidene Nëné, Sunrise was responsible for making sure the camps were set up well and had wood and water. “I liked the work environment,” he recalls. “Being out on the land but also being part of a team. You accomplish things when you work together.”
Coincidentally, as the gathering ended, the department was looking for a new coordinator for the Ni Hat’ni Dene program. In addition to being attracted to the work environment, Sunrise welcomed the opportunity to give back to his community by supporting the guardians. “We face challenges in Łutsël K’é,” he explains. “The Thaidene Nëné Department is doing important work, helping out with employment, offering meaningful programming, promoting cultural activities, providing educational opportunities.”
Like so many in the community, Sunrise loves spending time at Kaché (Fort Reliance). Desnéthcheé, the spiritual gathering that draws Łutsël K’é Dene to Reliance each summer, started around the time that Sunrise was born, so he grew up attending the gathering. It remains an important part of his summer plans. Ɂedacho Kúe is another special place for Sunrise, a destination for harvesting in the fall and the winter: “I look forward to going up there to hunt for caribou, to fish and trap, but also just to walk on the barrenlands.”
Looking to the future, Sunrise would like to see more involvement from the community in the protected area. “Thaidene Nëné is important because our way of life is out there,” he explains. Not only do Łutsël K’é Dene depend on the land for sustenance, but who they are as Indigenous people is rooted in the land. In addition to sustaining a way of life, spending time on the land is important for wellbeing more broadly. “Being out on the land is good for you physically,” Sunrise believes. “It also gives you a sense of purpose.” Perhaps not surprisingly given his background, he wants to ensure there are opportunities for young people to learn and ultimately to participate in protecting their land. “Elders are disappearing,” Sunrise observes. “It is important that we conserve their ways and pass that along to the younger generations."
Rubin Fatt became a Ni Hat’ni Dene guardian in July of this year, a notoriously busy time for Łutsël K’é’s Thaidene Nëné Department. “Denecho [Catholique] and I were out on the land all summer,” he recalls, referring to one of the other guardians. “We were patrolling, travelling back and forth to Reliance to work on the cabin and get ready for the spiritual gathering, putting signs up, hosting visitors.” Thankfully, Rubin had previous experience working with the department as a contractor, so the learning curve wasn’t too steep.
Born and raised in Łutsël K’é, Rubin learned how to be on the land from his maternal grandparents, Mary and Pierre Fatt. “When I was a kid, we would go in the bush lots,” Rubin remembers. Rubin also credits his late godfather, Sammy Boucher, with teaching him how to travel and live on the land, but in particular, teaching him about trapping.
Rubin is happiest when he is in the bush. “I love camping in every season, summer, winter,” he says, and he prefers to get his food from the land instead of the Coop. “My family likes traditional food, so I’m always out setting nets, going for ptarmigan.” He also keeps busy cutting wood. “I always have a lot of wood,” he adds, with a laugh.
Rubin’s favourite place in Thaidene Nëné is Kaché (Fort Reliance). He has fond memories of visiting Madeline Drybones’s cabin, “Madeline was my mum’s mum’s sister. Every year when I was a kid, we would go and camp at her place, me, my uncles, and friends.” He also likes attending the annual spiritual gathering at Desnéthcheé.
Rubin welcomed the creation of the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area in 2019. “It’s good to protect our land, our animals, and our water from mining,” he says. “It’s good for our future, for our kids’ future, and their kids’ future.” In addition to ensuring permanent protection for the land of the ancestors, Thaidene Nëné has meant jobs, good jobs that are based in the community, for Łutsël K’é Dene like Rubin. And while he is thankful to have work that he enjoys and that pays well, he also recognizes there are others in the community who need jobs. Looking to the future, Rubin would like to see more employment opportunities connected to the protected area for local people.
When the Thaidene Nëné Department announced it was in need of a new guardian last fall, Kevin Fatt jumped at the opportunity. “I’d been working in town way too much,” he explains. “I was always wanting to go out on the land, but there was never enough time.” A position with Ni Hat’ni Dene meant it would be Kevin’s job to spend time on the land. Kevin was no stranger to the department. He had been working on a contract basis since Ni Hat’ni Dene became a full-time, year-round program in January 2020. (Prior to this, Ni Hat’ni Dene guardians worked seasonally.)
Kevin is well-suited to being a guardian. First, he has solid bush skills, having been raised by his maternal grandparents, Pierre and Mary Fatt. “They’re the ones that taught me how to live off the land,” Kevin says. “How to harvest, when to harvest, how to survive off the land.” Thanks to their careful instruction, Kevin came to love travelling on the land and spending time in the bush and on the tundra. Second, Kevin is a capable mechanic, who enjoys fixing things and problem solving. These are important skills for Ni Hat’ni Dene, who spend much of the summer and winter months away from the community out on patrol and need to be self-sufficient. Third, Kevin enjoys meeting new people, which is another feature of life on patrol. In the summer months especially, Ni Hat’ni Dene interact with visitors from all over the world, acting as ambassadors for the protected area.
Like so many in the community, Kevin has to work to identify a favourite place in Thaidene Nëné. “It doesn’t matter where I am,” he says. “It’s just being out there.” If he has to choose though, he would pick Kaché (Fort Reliance) and Ts’ąkuı Theda (Lady of the Falls) because of the deep history that Łutsël K’é Dene have there and the many stories tied to the area.
Kevin takes his position with Ni Hat’ni Dene seriously because it’s an inherited responsibility. “Our ancestors told us to watch over Thaidene Nëné,” he explains. “It’s our turn now to carry on their tradition.” Recognizing the importance of future generations to protecting the land and ensuring the continuation of Łutsël K’é Dene culture, Kevin wants to involve young people more in the work of caring for Thaidene Nëné, so one day they can take over this responsibility.
This is part of a series of profiles about the staff, leaders, and community members who are hard at work implementing Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation's vision for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. You can read the other profiles here.
Paul Catholique is the newest Ni Hat’ni Dene guardian. Paul brings a wealth of experience living and working on the land to the crew. For a decade, he spent his summer months working as a guide at Frontier Fishing Lodge, showing guests the best fishing spots on Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake) and sharing the history and the culture of the area with them. He also spent ten years working for forestry, first as a fire crew member and later as a crew boss and supervisor.
In between contracts, Paul would hunt and trap, using the skills he learned from his father, John Catholique (his mother is Bertha Collins [Tłı̨chǫ]). “From a young age, we went trapping,” he says, often working out of a cabin on Ts’ǫ Ɂáı Tué (Noman Lake). His uncle, Antoine Michel, also played a critical role in teaching Paul how to live off the land, especially beyond the treeline. “He used to take us out to the barrenlands every year,” Paul recalls. “As soon as it was frozen, we would go to the barrenlands by skidoo. We went often, sometimes three to fifteen times a year.” Paul credits his uncle Antoine with teaching him to navigate in the springtime, when it’s more dangerous to travel on the land—“You have been really knowledgeable at that time of year,” he says—and also with showing him the old routes and roads.
Equally important to his education as a harvester and land user was knowledge shared by Łutsël K’é Dene elders: “When I was in town, I would listen to the elders talk and tell stories.” His greatest teacher, though, was the land itself. In Paul’s words, “I learned from going all over on the land, trapping, travelling, and just living on the land.”
When asked about his favourite places in Thaidene Nëné, almost all of Paul’s picks are beyond the treeline: Ɂedacho Tué (Artillery Lake), Dené Bésda Tué Chogh (Fletcher Lake), Ɂejëre K’áanı́ Tué (Campbell Lake), and K’ásba Dezé (Ptarmigan River). Contrary to the image suggested by the name barrenlands, Paul see the tundra as a place of abundance, “Everything I need is there.” Hazú (tundra) is also special because of the connection to his ancestors. Paul’s great-grandfather Gahdële is buried on Ɂedacho Tué.
Paul wanted to be a Ni Hat’ni Dene guardian because the job description is basically his life. “This position was made for me,” he says. More than this, Paul, like many in the community, wants to protect the land and Ni Hat’ni Dene play a critical role in that. “We need to protect the land, the water, the animals, the trees,” Paul explains. “We need to protect the old campsites, the old burial sites.”
Working alongside the other guardians, Paul will be responsible for mentoring the summer students. By creating hands-on learning opportunities, he notes, Ni Hat’ni Dene “can help make it safer to send younger people out on their land.” Being a skilled and conscientious land user is important to Paul; so is modelling Łutsël K’é Dene values. As just one example, he notes that “Ni Hat’ni are teaching young people how to put nets in the water, so they can share the fish with the community, with the elders.”
Paul also sees the important role that Ni Hat’ni Dene play in welcoming visitors to Thaidene Nëné, while also teaching them how to live and travel safely on the land. “The things we teach the young people are good for visitors too,” he says. “We don’t want them to be left out. Everybody is welcome.”
This is the fifth in a series of profiles about the staff, leaders, and community members who are hard at work implementing Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation's vision for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. You can read the other profiles here.
Prairie Desjarlais grew up in Łutsël K’é, raised in a traditional way by her grandparents, Madelaine and Jonas Catholique, her parents, JC Catholique and Cheeko Desjarlais, and her stepmother, Hanna Catholique. Prairie also grew up surrounded by the language. Her grandparents taught her to speak Dënesųłıné and she remembers only speaking her language with her cousin, Henry Catholique. Prairie has worked hard to bring up her own children and grandchildren in the same way, passing on the traditional values she learned from her elders and Henry.
Prairie has been involved in different capacities with Thaidene Nëné since 2015. Currently, she is the coordinator for Ni Hat’ni Dene (Watchers of the Land), Thaidene Nëné’s Indigenous guardian program. Started in 2008, Ni Hat’ni Dene only operated in the summer months. As of January 2020, Ni Hat’ni Dene is now a year-round program.
Prairie likes the pace of the work as the coordinator: “There is always lots to do. Even after five years, I’m learning every day.” She also enjoys her colleagues: “We have a really good staff team in Thaidene Nëné.” But more than anything, she likes the fact that by supporting Ni Hat’ni Dene, she is contributing to the protection of her territory: “It gives me a sense of security to know we have people out there on the land that are from the community and they are protecting the water, the land, the animals, the fish. They are watching who comes to Thaidene Nëné.”
Prairie occasionally goes out on patrol with Ni Hat’ni Dene. For the most part though, she stays in town, making sure the four full-time guardians have whatever they need to do their jobs safely and effectively, whether they are watching over sacred sites on Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake), monitoring caribou on hazú (tundra), or interacting with visitors to Thaidene Nëné.
For Prairie, one of the strengths of the program is the intergenerational nature of the Ni Hat’ni Dene crew: “The juniors are better with technology. The seniors have more advanced traditional skills. So they teach and learn from each other.”
Prairie welcomes visitors to Thaidene Nëné. She wants them to see the beautiful and abundant land that has long been home to her ancestors. She also wants them to know that Thaidene Nëné exists because of the vision and the hard work of her community: “It took us 50 years, but we created a park and now we are carrying out our responsibilities as protectors of the land in our way.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
We are the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation. Our vision for Thaidene Nëné is:
Nuwe néné, nuwe ch'anıé yunedhé xa (Our land, our culture for the future).
We’re working with our partners to permanently protect Thaidene Nëné—part of our
huge and bountiful homeland around and beyond the East Arm of Tu Nedhé.