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Spiritual site to be re-opened

When Elsie Marcellais first heard that a spiritual site on top of a mountain that looms over Nahanni Butte had been filled with concrete, she felt a growing sense of unease.

A radio tower sits on top of a site the Nahanni Butte Dene Band says is spiritually significant. - photo courtesy of the Nahanni Butte Dene Band
A radio tower sits on top of a site the Nahanni Butte Dene Band says is spiritually significant. - photo courtesy of the Nahanni Butte Dene Band

Marcellais, an elder in Nahanni Butte, spoke to News/North through translator Laura Vital.

“When she first heard about it, she was thinking, 'What's going to happen?' ” Vital said.

“After a while, she thought, 'Whatever's going to happen is going to happen.' ”

Elders attribute a mudslide that covered a route up the mountain to the plugging of the hole.

“People used to go along the mountain, hunting ... and now it's jammed with rock,” said Vital.

Community members in Nahanni Butte who have made recent treks up the mountain believe the site lies under a pile of concrete at the base of one of three radio repeaters which are used by the RCMP, Parks Canada and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Now, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has pledged to do what they can to restore the site.

Carl Lafferty, the regional superintendent for the department, said he was given direction to do a site visit after the GNWT received a request from Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson.

“I've committed to working with the band ... and if this is the right place of concern, I'm committed to working with them to resolve this concern for the benefit of the residents of Nahanni Butte and especially the elders,” Lafferty said.

The tower in question is used by the RCMP, which could not be reached by press time.

The department will be flying some of Nahanni Butte's elders up to the site in mid-May once the region's contract helicopter begins operating.

While band members believe the Sacred Hole lies under one of the communications towers, Lafferty says it's possible the Sacred Hole is in another location.

One of the purposes of the site visit is to determine if the hole in question is actually the Sacred Hole.

“We're not sure we're talking about the same thing, so it may require two site visits,” he said.

But band manager Mark Pocklington confirmed in an e-mail the site is the one under the tower.

“It's not a simple and easy (task) to remove the concrete,” Pocklington said, adding the task would involve a safety fence constructed around the hole once it is opened.

As to whether the tower would need to be moved, Pocklington said that would likely be the case.

Lafferty said the site visit will help to determine potential solutions. Since the site involves two layers of concrete, it may be possible to open the hole without removing the tower.

“If it is the right site, could we leave the tower in place and chip away at some of the concrete so the hole is no longer covered?” he said.

“I'm going to be looking for middle ground. Because if the RCMP have to move the tower, that's not going to happen right away.”

Marcellais said the Sacred Hole is important because it represents a spiritual place.

According to Vital and Nahanni Butte Chief Peter Marcellais, stories passed down from generation to generation go that the mountain was once a beaver home.

In an e-mail sent out to chiefs in the Deh Cho, Peter stated the issue has deeply affected Nahanni Butte's elders.

“This is where zhamba de shaa put a hole in the mountain to chase the giant beavers that were destroying our elders of long ago,” he wrote.

According to the legend, zhamba de shaa used his walking stick to make the hole, which is a mountain vent.

“It's not a very big hole. I don't know why they plugged it,” Vital said.

“It made us sad that they did that.”