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Resurrecting an ancient route
Canoe trip traces journey from Gameti to the barrens

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 25, 2014

It's been more than 20 years since anyone regularly made the canoe trip from Gameti to the Barrenlands, but a group of elders and youth are aiming to change that this week.

NNSL photo/graphic

Tlicho residents are making a canoe trip from Gameti to Mesa Lake this month for the first time in decades. From left, William Mantla, Junior Mantla, Roy Judas, Edward Chocolate, Archie Wetrade, Mary Adele Wetrade, Joe Zoe, Archie Black, Skye Ekendia, Janelle Nitsiza and Petter Jacobsen. - photo courtesy of Petter Jacobsen

Archie Wetrade said hunters and their families travelling to the barrens to hunt caribou at the end of the summer had used the ancestral route for millennia. But, he said the journey hasn't been taken in decades. He said he only took part in the trip twice in his life, most recently in the mid-1970s.

"It's been quite awhile since people went on the trip with the canoe from Gameti," he said. "We decided to take this special trip toward the Barrenlands because it's our ancestral trail."

Petter Jacobsen, a traditional knowledge researcher with the Tlicho Government, said the idea of making the trip came up last fall while he was out on the land with trapper Joe Zoe.

"We were sitting in tent and he was talking about how they used to travel by canoe to the Barrenlands. He really wanted to do that again," Jacobsen said. "So I said, 'let's do it.'"

Jacobsen said the idea was immediately popular. Titled the Traditional Trails Project, the trip now consists of four canoes with six people in each. Travellers are a mix of elders and youth from the Tlicho region, but Jacobsen said younger paddlers make up the majority. He estimated about two-thirds of participants are under 40 years of age.

Each boat includes a crew boss, Jabosen said.

"The one who steers and is in charge, they're all in their 60s and have been out on the land all their lives," he said. "They're really skilled guys."

Paddlers left Gameti on Aug. 22 and will follow an ancient route to Mesa Lake on the Barrenlands.

Wetrade said it will take about five or six days to reach the lake, but the group plans to take its time.

"We're not in a rush," he said. "We also have to be aware of the weather changes."

Wetrade said lower water levels could impact the time it takes to get to and from the site.

This year's dry summer could make additional portages necessary.

"We all know that this year the water is very, very low," he said.

No matter how long it takes, Wetrade said elders will teach participants about historic sites important to both Tlicho and Akaitcho people along the way.

"There is going to be a lot of spiritual sites where we're going to camp and talk about the history of not only Tlicho people, but about Akaitcho," he said.

"We want to keep our culture strong toward the students and we want to show them how our late ancestors had travelled by canoe."

Wetrade said he spent last winter visiting elders to gather stories and information to share on the trip.

Wetrade said one of the most important sites is at Mesa Lake. He said the spot commemorates the area where the Tlicho and Akaitcho held a three-day ceremony to celebrate the signing of a peace treaty.

According to information from the Yellowknives Dene, Chief Akaitcho and Chief Edzo signed a treaty in the 1820s, ending years of war between the two.

Wetrade said once they reach their destination, travellers will spend a few days at Mesa Lake and elders from Tlicho communities and Lutsel K'e have been invited to fly to the camp. He said the gathering will offer unique storytelling opportunities.

"They would have a lot of memories and a lot of stories to tell about how the two great nations had made peace," he said. "That would be very, very interesting."

Jacobsen said while the route used to be travelled annually, the tradition died out with the advent of air travel. Instead of taking weeks journeying to hunting grounds by canoe, families began chartering planes instead.

"In the process, those routes were kind of neglected," Jacobsen said. "It's a change in method of transportation and a cultural consequence to that."

Jacobsen said the project's ultimate goal is to revive the route before it is lost forever.

GPS co-ordinates will be taken along the way to track the journey and elders' stories will be recorded.

"Part of the project is to document all the stories, all the knowledge of the elders along the route," Jacobsen said. "Every lake has its own stories."

Tlicho filmmaker Mason Mantla will film and record the trip, which Jacobsen said he hopes will be used to create a documentary.

Youth will also learn traditional skills, such as making campfires and setting up campsites, as well as fishing and cooking.

"We're out there for 14 to 16 days," Jacobsen said. "The group dynamics will really bring us together. Everyone learns."

Jacobsen said this year's trip could pave the way for future journeys. He said he hopes to expand the project to include other ancient trails.

"We want to go on different routes the coming years," he said. "There is talk already going from Gameti to Deline."

Wetrade said he is thrilled to be a part of this year's journey.

"We're trying to make a new history," he said.

Jacobsen said funding for the trip came from the Tlicho government, the Government of the Northwest Territories' Department of Education, Culture and Employment and a small donation from De Beers.

He said travellers are expected to return to Gameti on Sept. 5.

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