Délįnę First Nations

Health Risk and Climate Change in Sahtúot’ine Stories: Envisioning Adaptions with Elders and Youth in Déline, NWT

Community History – The History of Our People

The Déline First Nation is a Dene community of about 550 on the shores of Sahtú (Great Bear Lake). Our name for ourselves reflects our relationship with the lake – Sahtúot’ıne. Guided by the words of the Déline prophet known as ehtséo Ayha, the community has chosen a positive path of renewal and governance following a long history of social and climate change that started with the Port Radium radium-uranium mine on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake during 1932-1960, and climate change that has been experienced with growing rapidity since 1960.

Recent research shows that an area encompassing Sahtú has experienced the largest warming over the past 50 years of any location in the world. Moreover, the large size of Sahtú interacts with climate change in significant ways (Gyakum et al 2009). Now close to achieving self-government, the Déline First Nation has taken a deliberate and systematic approach to understanding and planning for the impacts of climate change, especially with respect to impacts on health and well-being. During 2009-2010, the community undertook a major health-climate change study to explore how traditions carried in Dene stories shared between Elders and youth are used to identify, analyze and address health risk in the context of climate change. This was part of the larger Délıne Knowledge Project research program, The Words of Our Ancestors Are Our Path to the Future, initiated in 2006.

Project Summary – How We Are Leading the Way

In the early part of the 1900s, ehtséo Ayha warned of drastic environmental and social changes to come in the future, and the community continues to monitor the truth of those predictions. Our project explored the renewal of storytelling practices in Déline with a focus on elder-youth exchanges about health and climate change in three contexts: on the land, in the community, and in the school. We wanted to learn how youth might prepare for future leadership in climate change adaptation by taking ownership of their heritage in stories. Our study explored the special skills that youth bring to the representation of stories using new media. We believe that our stories can help to strengthen our relationship with the land, and give new meaning to the skills and knowledge required to maintain good health in a changing environment.

The concepts of “health” and “climate change” do not exist in the Dene language. We wanted to take Dene concepts and knowledge as the starting point in our work. The study gained in strength and support because it was integrated with the ongoing life of the community through a series of both planned and adaptive partnerships and collaborations. We also made sure that community members took ownership of the study through a series of “meta-research” workshops, meetings and presentations where people discussed the study process and validated and analyzed the results. These took place both within the community, and in several events that brought participants into dialogue with others in the North and beyond.

The vehicles for research were performance, and experiential knowledge exchanges. Six key activities took place through the life of the study, with story exchanges at the core of each: a climate history and monitoring project that allowed Elders and youth to engage with climate scientists, considering the new and old skills and knowledge needed for safe travel on the land as the climate changes; a project to establish databases in Dene terminology and stories about health, place and climate/weather; a mapping project to understand the cultural and ecological history of landscape around Sahtú; a series of exchanges on traditional healing and responses to new health risks; the “Sharing Our Stories” project, which explored different ways of sharing and performing stories in the school and in the community in a variety of media (including digital storytelling, radio documentary, and digital mapping); and a project to understand the ongoing strengths in subsistence harvesting as the environment changes (with a focus on trapping and caribou harvesting).

Our study resulted in the scoping of key stories that the Elders feel are important for youth to know and be able to apply in their lives; these were stories of place that span the formation of the landscape by Yamoria, and the more recent history of environmental and social changes wrought by the Port Radium uranium mine. We learned much about youth perspectives on their land and heritage through the stories that they created through the various workshops. We gained an understanding of three new media that might be used to keep the stories alive, including digital storytelling, radio documentary, and digital mapping. And we began to explore the challenges of bringing stories into a policy context in self-government and land stewardship.

Capacity Building – Connecting the Guidance of the Past with the Needs of Today

The Délıne Learning About Changes study shed light on the complex combination of cultural practices that Sahtúot’ıne see positively as our way of life, our basis for well-being. The study opened up new spaces for Elders, adults and youth to start a dialogue about the nature of changes being experienced on the land, and the possible health risks that are coming with these changes. Living in an area with one of the most extreme climates in the world in terms of differences between summer and winter temperatures, the Sahtúot’ıne have developed a culture that is highly adaptable. For this reason, our stories, language and survival skills are our greatest strength for moving into a changing future. By involving youth in researching and performing stories, we are helping to develop the knowledgeable leadership that will be needed in the coming years.

Next Steps – How We Are Adapting to Climate Change

The Délıne Learning About Changes program in 2009-2010 was just a beginning. The program opened up new spaces for Elders, adults and youth to start a dialogue about the nature of changes being experienced on the land, and the possible impacts of these changes. Our Prophet has spoken about many of the changes that are predicted to take place in our traditional territory, so we know we need to be prepared. We have begun to develop some of the new tools we’ll need to keep and use our knowledge and stories, including an archive, place names mapping, and a dictionary. We also need to find new ways to understand our stories as policy in a cross-cultural context. All this work will take a long time.

An important focus must be the maintenance of our relationships within the community, and with the land and animals, in the context of climate change. We are starting to use our stories to teach how to maintain the old practices of respect and sharing, and renew our knowledge about harvesting different animals so that there is always a source of food for the community.  It has been very helpful to be able to share experiences with other indigenous communities as well – climate change is global, and we need to learn from not only our own stories, but also the stories of others.

Scientists can also help us to understand how what is happening in our traditional territory fits into global processes. We are also discovering that scientists need to work with us to learn about the specific ecological and health impacts of climate change – their numbers and models don’t tell them these things. We need to work together not only to document the stories, but also to keep them alive in the community, in the school and especially on the land – so that we will survive as Dene in the future.


Community Profile

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472 (2011 Census)
Land Area:
79.44 sq km

Project Information

Years Funded:
Topic Area:
Deborah Simmons, Assistant Professor, Native Studies, University of Manitoba ([email protected])

Map Location