There are centuries-old Dene laws that guide how caribou must be respected.

Do not chase or “play” with caribou.

Harvest only what you need and use all parts of the caribou.

Share what you have.

Columnist Steve Ellis

As I and many others have witnessed, these laws are being broken by some people along the ice road to the diamond mines. Caribou are being chased and wounded, and carcasses with wasted meat are being left behind. Meat is being harvested for sale.

What could possibly be happening that is driving people to break these most sacred of laws?

As with many of the challenges that we face as a territory, we must ultimately look at the severe disruption of Indigenous societies over the past two or three generations. Ways of life continue to be upended as the colonizing effort severs ties between generations. This results in a profound loss of language, cultural knowledge, and relationship to land. Poverty, disconnection, and other social ills are left behind.

Dene law disconnect

A young man may not know these Dene laws because his grandparents went to residential school and were not able to pass along key cultural knowledge. He may chase caribou with his skidoo because he has never been taught how to approach caribou carefully without spooking them. He may wound caribou because he has not grown up refining his shooting skill with small game. And he may be driven to sell meat because there are no jobs in his community.

If we are serious about helping caribou, we need to address this cultural disconnect that is a root cause of disrespectful harvesting. Some communities are doing great work in this effort, not only teaching respectful hunting but also trying to instill what it means to be a capable and contributing community member.

The Yellowknives Dene hosted the Ekwǫ̀ Legacy Project south of Dettah last week, where youth heard caribou stories and learned how to properly handle meat. The Tłı̨chǫ Government runs Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è for several weeks every summer, bringing senior and younger hunters together to watch and learn from caribou migrating across the barrenlands. Further afield in the Inuit regions, communities such as Arviat, Nunavut and Nain, Labrador have programs where experienced hunter mentors are paired with youth apprentices over the course of many months. These and many other programs are early steps to revitalize the role of the hunter as an honorable and highly skilled profession, with responsibilities to provide healthy food to the community, to take care of land and animals, and to role model identity and purpose.

Must do more than teach

These excellent programs are part of the solution for sure, but we must do more than just teach. We must also hold each other accountable. In the past, when teachings were ignored or ancient Dene laws broken, strict community discipline ensured there were consequences.

Today this is rarely the case. We say we respect caribou, we say we don’t overharvest, but in too many cases we are not being the people that we say we are. When this happens, hunters are not keeping each other accountable enough.

A friend of mine recently said that caribou meat has gone from a staple to a delicacy in the past decade. In other words, what was once a daily presence on kitchen tables is now a rare treat. Over the coming decade, our continued silence may make caribou go from a delicacy to a memory.

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