Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, shown in a handout photo, says he called on people to return to the land to find food and healing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the blood of the Dene people is in the land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, shown in a handout photo, says he called on people to return to the land to find food and healing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the blood of the Dene people is in the land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

‘Go back to the old way:’ First Nations return to land during COVID-19 pandemic

Leaders are encouraging their communities to hunt and fish, and to gather berries and traditional medicines

First Nations leaders who have called on their communities to return to the land to find food during the COVID-19 pandemic are also seeing people reconnect with their traditions.

“The blood of the Dene is in the land,” said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya in Yellowknife.

“The land loves the Dene people and we in turn love the land.”

When the novel coronavirus started spreading across the country, Yakeleya encouraged his members to hunt and fish, and to gather berries and traditional medicines.

There have been just five confirmed cases in the Northwest Territories, but fear of the illness spreading in Indigenous communities is high, he said.

Elders still speak about the 1928 flu epidemic that decimated the region, he said. That summer, a Hudson’s Bay Co. supply ship sailed down the Mackenzie River and spread a virulent strain of influenza to Dene and Inuvialuit along the route. It’s estimated to have killed up to 15 per cent of the Indigenous population of the Northwest Territories.

Yakeleya recalls his grandmother telling him stories of burying up to 15 bodies a day.

What helped the communities heal was reconnecting with the land, and the chief said he’s seeing that again now. Dene in Fort Good Hope and Fort McPherson have harvested caribou and shared with those unable to hunt, the elderly and the immunocompromised.

“Our value as Dene, the sharing, has come back and is still alive with the fish, the caribou,” Yakeleya said.

Hunting also helps avoid high food costs, which Yakeleya worries could increase as the pandemic affects the supply chain.

On the shores of Southern Indian Lake in Manitoba, Chief Shirley Ducharme of the O Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation has also called on members to hunt and fish, and to share their bounty.

Right now, it’s goose and duck season and the community is excited about boiling the birds in an open-fire pot to get tender meat and soup.

“We crave those when it’s not the season to hunt,” she said.

Restrictions to limit the spread of the virus have made it difficult for the more than 1,100 people on the reserve. They can no longer travel south, there’s anxiety about food prices, and, like elsewhere, parents need to keep children who aren’t going to school occupied.

READ MORE: Easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon could jeopardize vulnerable communities

Manitoba has eased some of its restrictions, but Ducharme said O Pipon-Na-Piwin’s will remain until at least the end of the month, since overcrowding in households and some people’s health problems put them at risk.

The First Nation formed a pandemic committee and one of its projects is to arrange for kids and their families to connect with elders to learn traditional skills from their backyards. That means baking bannock, preparing geese for cooking, gathering traditional medicines, boiling tea and taking part in scavenger hunts.

“It all entails with traditional and culture things that we have always kept alive and are now carrying on through generations and generations,” Ducharme said.

Indigenous Services Canada says there are more than 168 cases of COVID-19 among First Nations across the country as of May 8. La Loche, a Dene village in northern Saskatchewan, has been of particular concern as an outbreak there has been linked to the deaths of two elders. The virus has also spread to nearby First Nations.

There are no confirmed cases involving Manitoba First Nations, but Chief Nelson Genaille of the Sapotaweyak Cree said his community is watching closely and taking precautions. About 1,000 people live on the reserve about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Genaille said he’s advised his members to look to their own backyards to find traditional sustenance and food.

“That’s where we are at right now with today’s epidemic: go back to the old way when you were eating something natural.”

The Sapotaweyak have used social media to connect those who need food to people who are able to hunt and fish. The First Nation pays for gas for the hunting and delivery trips.

Genaille’s people live on the shores of Lake Winnipegosis, so they already deal with travelling long distances and paying high food costs. He said a return to the land is necessary during these uncertain times when costs and supply are unpredictable.

It’s also reminded a lot of members how important their traditions are.

“Because of the road restrictions, the only access they do have is back into the wilderness. We are very privileged where we are situated.”

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Saanich police Chief Constable Scott Green (right) stands with Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers program coordinators Phil Downie and Gill Millam who received a Crime Stoppers International award for their work in 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Saanich Police Department)
Victoria School for Ideal Education at 2820 Belmont Avenue is the second school in Greater Victoria with an active confirmed COVID-19 exposure. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Private school becomes second Greater Victoria school with COVID-19 exposure

Victoria School for Ideal Education follows Lakeview Christian School in Saanich

Brenda Schroeder thought she was reading it wrong when she won $100,000 from a Season’s Greetings Scratch & Win. (Courtesy BCLC)
New home on the agenda after scratch ticket win in Saanich

Victoria woman set to share her $100,000 Season’s Greetings lottery win

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan votes at Luxton Hall during advance polls for the provincial election in Langford, B.C., Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
2020 provincial election sets historical low turnout

Just over 1.9 million registered voters cast ballots in 2020

An economic recovery plan in progress since April offers various recommendations for the region to overcome the impacts of COVID-19. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Greater Victoria economic ‘reboot’ plan tackles impacts of COVID-19

Newly-formed task force looks at various sectors, industries

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

A rider carves a path on Yanks Peak Saturday, Nov. 21. Two men from Prince George went missing on the mountain the next day. One of them, Colin Jalbert, made it back after digging out his sled from four feet under the snow. The other, Mike Harbak, is still missing. Local search and rescue teams went out looking Monday, Nov. 23. (Sam Fait Photo)
‘I could still be the one out there’: Snowmobiler rescued, 1 missing on northern B.C. mountain

As Quesnel search and rescue teams search for the remaining rider, Colin Jalbert is resting at home

More than 70 anglers participated in the bar-fishing demonstration fishery on Sept. 9, 2020 on the Fraser River near Chilliwack. DFO officers ticketed six people and seized four rods. A court date is set for Dec. 1, 2020. (Jennifer Feinberg/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Anglers ticketed in Fraser River demonstration fishery heading to court

Sportfishing groups started a GoFundMe with almost $20K so far for legal defence of six anglers

Care home staff are diligent about wearing personal protective equipment when they are in contact with residents, but less so when they interact with other staff members, B.C. Seniors Advocate says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
More COVID-19 testing needed for senior home staff, B.C.’s advocate says

Employees mingling spotted as virus conductor in many workplaces

This 2019 photo provided by The ALS Association shows Pat Quinn. Quinn, a co-founder of the viral ice bucket challenge, died Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, at the age of 37. (Scott Kauffman/The ALS Association via AP)
Co-founder of viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dies at 37

Pat Quinn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2013

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Exclusion of mental health as grounds for assisted death is likely temporary: Lametti

Senators also suggested the exclusion renders the bill unconstitutional

Most Read