Dene Wisdom in Times of Transformation

Transcending limited western views of climate change and conservation in conversations with Dene elders and youth

Cassandra Blondin-Burt

Low sunlight over the Sahtu region

Flying over the Sahtu region. Photo by Cassandra Blondin-Burt

During a recent visit to the Sahtu region of Denendeh, nestled in the mountains, I was invited into intimate conversations with elders and youth. I have sat with their words ever since.

In canvas tents filled with the smell of wood smoke, I asked questions, holding space for young people, ready to listen to them. In community halls, I listened to leaders and government officials in conversations about climate change, wildfire, and caribou conservation.

My initial questions about climate change were met with resistance.  A sense of apathy was all too recognizable – but a great place for us to begin. They needed to feel heard and to trust their opinions would be valued. What is the point of sharing if you feel your words and presence won’t have a true impact?

I spoke of the land and of Dene earth sciences, earth medicine – of transformation. I shared stories about George Blondin, my great-grandfather, and the time he lived in. If they turned slowly towards me, if somehow their ears seemed to perk up – I knew something was landing. A student who had  been fully turned away from me would lift their eyes to meet mine. An elder whose brow had been furrowed would widen their eyes and raise their eyebrows. If I calmed my breath and really dropped in, these moments could become portals.

Kasho Gotine Elder and Matriarch Lucy Jackson. Photo by Cassandra Blondin-Burt.

Shifting the dialogue

In those openings, there could be a shift of dialogue. When students realized it was safe to express emotions (not to act out, but simply to have their feelings acknowledged), many moved toward engaging in the conversation.

The young people do not just need the chance to speak – they want more opportunities to learn how to share their feelings. How to speak and share what they see, know, perceive, and believe, which is immense.

The questions we were asking included how local resource boards could better support youth in participating in climate action; how climate change impacted their opportunities for intergenerational knowledge exchanges, especially on the land; and whether they and their peers had felt a sense of anxiety or fear around climate change. We asked the students how governments and other agencies could better communicate with their communities; how wildfires had impacted them in 2023; and how humans could help caribou adapt to changes in the environment.

Many of the students have the same immense trust in the land as their elders and grandparents – and the same belief in its capacity to heal, shift, change, and grow.

These questions were met with silence, resistance, even confusion. But not for a lack of knowing. Not for a lack of comprehension, but because it became quickly, somewhat beautifully, obvious that many of the students have the same immense trust in the land as their elders and grandparents – and the same belief in its capacity to heal, shift, change, and grow.

They do not see “climate change” in the way it is often presented to them through western modalities of eco-education, where parts are differentiated from the whole. Some students shared with us that they see the land differently. They understand that change is always happening – and they trust themselves to adapt.

Anger, sadness, frustration

Others shared that they were concerned about development and climate change, and they felt helpless. Many expressed anger, sadness, frustration. One student said with earnestness that she worries about the land because she never gets to visit it anymore: there’s never any time, because there are always bills to be paid, and there’s never enough money. So there is always work, and never enough time to go out on the land, where she and her parents are happiest.

After some encouragement, the youngest students, especially, expressed deep enthusiasm to engage in conversation about climate, wildfire, and caribou. Sincere expressions of their concerns, feelings, and wishes began to bubble to the surface.

I asked them, “Do you want to be able to keep spending time on the land in the ways you love?” and almost all of them suddenly became animated, a response the climate change questions had failed to generate.

Many of these students, like their grandparents and great-grandparents, are already expertly skilled on the land, with a wisdom that seemed silenced, frustrated even, but aching for expression.

Seeing the whole

In many ways, the monolithic crisis narrative of climate change does not make sense in a Dene epistemology, and neither does the concept of caribou conservation. I have now seen elders, land defenders, and younglings sitting silent in the face of these fractured questions from western ideology. Ideas about the transformation of the land – as concerning and real as the need is to adapt and evolve along with this change – and about conserving one animal nation without considering it as a part of the greater whole, in many ways, do not translate.

I have come to understand that this silence is a form of political and ecological resistance – for in an Indigenous worldview, everything is connected. The silence is resistance, yes, but it’s also about transcending limited western views of conservation and Indigenous ways of knowing and being. As I watched the sun rise over the mountains that make up the spine of Denendeh, I could not help but wonder at the contrast between speaking of saving the planet, or conserving a single animal nation, and the depth of wisdom held in the innate trust in this process of life unfolding as already whole.

This is what the words of my elders, our stories, and our youth carry. I see the evidence of this all around. This is a time not of ending, but of transformation, and our job is not to halt the process or slow it down, but to understand our context in this great time of transformation, as a whole. And what a sacred time it is.

Over and over I heard from these young people, directly and in observation, that they need as many opportunities to speak, to share, to express themselves, as learning how to share, deeply, to communicate what they see, think, and feel. Because they, like our elders, already know – and we can learn so much from their innate trust, and joy even, in this unfolding ecological process.

Cassandra Blondin-Burt is a two-spirit Dene journalist, artist, and plant medicine maker living in Chief Drygeese Territory, Akaitcho Region, Denendeh. They recently visited Sahtu in their professional capacity as a presenter and facilitator to converse with youth, elders, and community members about environmental issues.

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