Voices of the Evolution

Envisioning shared Dene leadership

Cassandra Blondin Burt

Three Dene men

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian (Deh Cho), Chief Kele Antoine (Łíídlı̨ı̨ Kų̨́ę̨́), and host Deneze Nakehko (Łíídlı̨ı̨ Kų̨́ę̨́) at the Elections Nahendeh all candidates debate, 2023.

“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”
—Paulo Freire

Indigenous Peoples around the world are rising up in a renaissance of earth wisdoms, lighting a way through the dark days of the Anthropocene. We are entering a new epoch of Indigenous thought leadership in every sector — economics, land stewardship, governance, law, policy, and statecraft.

The Dene Nation is at least thirty thousand years old. Mother Earth remains central to the way Dene govern themselves. I recently dove back into papers and research from my political theory studies a few years back, when I had more than one conversation with Elders, friends, leaders, and medicine people about what Dene leadership means.

Dene governance protocols that are still practiced today prioritize consensus-based decision making and are fundamentally democratic, necessitating a balancing act of the differing interests of myriad community and tribal groups.

Shared stewardship

In the Nahendeh region of Denendeh, (Fort Simpson, in the so-called Northwest Territories), lies Łíídlı̨ı̨ Kų̨́ę̨́ – a community held between two rivers. Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief Herb Norwegian speaks about his visions of shared leadership, and after recent territorial elections, his hopes are to see change in the way governments can relate in the years moving forward.

“One of the creative designs we were able to come forward with is shared stewardship,” Norwegian says, “where what we’re actually talking about [is] shared authority, shared management, rather than ‘this is yours and this is mine.’ That’s where we’re coming from, and we hope that the territorial government and Canada understands, in this day and age, in this mood of reconciliation. We need to look at new ways [to] relate to one another, and take back what has belonged to us from the very beginning.”

This example of political thought leadership – to create spaces where there is shared stewardship or shared authority – exemplifies the Dene laws of sharing, caring, love, and respect.

“The examples of shared stewardship, shared ideas, we’re doing it already in the Deh Cho – one of them is the Nahanni National Park. We have a consensus management team that is set up and there the decisions are jointly made. We’ve made an agreement to jointly manage the Nahanni National Park.”

Norwegian points to Edéhzhíe, the first Dene Indigenous Protected Area within Canada, as a place “that doesn’t solely belong to government or even to the Deh Cho… [T]hat kind of land use planning will be a shared venture, so the road of shared stewardship is being carved out already.”

“The sky is the limit, in this situation,” he continues. “We can create incredible new ways of life, and relationship. It’s just a matter of getting rid of the lateral violence and the trauma that we inflict upon ourselves. We just need to wash that away, and the possibilities are there.”

My uncle, Ted Blondin, told me years ago that what we do as Dene, “We do because of the love of our people [and] our land. We need to care for those people who are asking for help, and at the same time, we’re going to try new things. Sometimes those things will fail and we’ll have to share that information so that people don’t have to go through that same thing again. And if we succeed, we share that, too, with people so that everyone can build on that success, and build more positively – build better.”

“We have to be helpful with one another”

To be successful, “decision making has to have everybody’s contributions,” my uncle believes. “In respecting Mother Earth, in respecting other people’s opinions, in respecting where we come from and where we are going. Whatever decisions we’re going to make, we have to be helpful with one another, because, again, that is how we love our people, and our land.”

Finally, he always reminds me that “the close relationship with Mother Earth is important because it has provided for us for generations, and will continue to provide for generations to come. We made our own laws and conducted ourselves during very harsh conditions – that’s why we’re all here today, because our elders in the past followed the laws from generation to generation – and now even to where, at Dene Nation, all the leaders are coming together to make our decisions. All that is where we come from. And a good understanding of the universe, and how we survive as an Indigenous Nation – that is our nationhood.”

Cassandra Blondin Burt is a two-spirit Dene journalist, artist, and plant medicine maker living in Chief Drygeese Territory, Akaitcho Region, Denendeh.

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