The annual Trails of our Ancestors canoe trip is a rite of passage for many Tlicho youth.
Each year, nearly 100 participants spend 10 days paddling between communities, learning stories of ascendants, and living out on the land.
Nadine Neema explains that in many ways the trip is transformative.
“They begin to learn parts about their own selves and their tradition and taking their place within that, in ways that, I think many of them haven’t really before,” she said.
In her new book, Journey of a Travelling Girl, Neema delves into the transformation the trip inspires in one young paddler, 11-year-old Jules as she travels from Snare Lake, Wekweeti to Behchoko to attend the Tlicho Agreement ceremony in August 2005.
It’s illustrated by Behchoko artist Archie Beaverho.
While Jules starts off dragging her feet, she soon gains an appreciation for Tlicho history and culture.
Neema said she sought to strike a balance between educating readers about the 2005 Agreement – the first combined land claim and self government agreement in the NWT, and second of its kind in Canada – while maintaining the fictional story aspect that she hopes audiences “love to read.”
Neema spent many years living in Wekweeti and has herself embarked on the Trails of our Ancestors canoe trip twice.
The journey is both internal and physical, she said.
“It’s an incredible experience, but it’s also one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.”
As the Dechi Laot’i First Nation band manager in the ’90s and early 2000s, Neema had witnessed many Trail of our Ancestors groups depart and return over the years. Later, as part of the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council team, she again watched from the sidelines as she collaborated on preparing the Tlicho’s transition to self-government.
After the Agreement was signed, Neema wrote a guest column in News/North about the importance of the claim and the festivities that followed its inception. John B. Zoe, chief negotiator for the Tlicho agreement, later suggested she turn that piece into a children’s story. Neema liked the idea but wasn’t sure how exactly she would do it.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Neema traveled back up North from Montreal to take ship on the journey. She returned again the following summer. That’s when the story really began to take shape, she said.
Neema has known many of the youth on the trip their whole lives.
Watching the way they learned from Elders and lived on the land is how characters started to form and the story that Zoe had suggested years prior became realistic.
Neema said she sees her audience in two groups, Tlicho readers and others. She hopes both groups can learn about the Agreement and that Journey of a Travelling Girl will inspire a want to delve deeper into its importance.
She hopes too to “contribute to a heightened awareness about the trails (trip) … and also maybe it inspires others to write about their own experiences on the trails.”
In addition to her work in the Tlicho communities, Neema is also a professional musician. She has released four albums, opened for Elton John, Joe Cocker and Cyndi Lauper and was mentored by the late Leonard Cohen.
Journey of a Travelling Girl is available for purchase and Neema will also be hosting a virtual launch on Tuesday Nov. 24.
The launch will include readings, a question and answer period, book giveaways, and discussion with Tlicho government culture and lands protection director Tammy Steinwand. The virtual launch can be streamed through Neema’s Facebook page, as well as through the Heritage House, The Yellowknife Book Cellar, and the Tlicho page at 7 p.m. MT.
In the new year, Neema plans to virtually visit the Tlicho schools once they’ve had the chance to read the book.
While she couldn’t travel North for the 15th anniversary of the Tlicho Agreement, Neema hopes to come up to the territory next summer for the 100 year anniversary of Treaty 11 and speculates an in-person event for the book may be possible then.
While Neema admits the process of writing a book is not without its challenges, sharing Tlicho culture and stories, she said, “is something that I’ve always felt very privileged to be part of.”