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

A sign indicating a COVID-19 testing site is displayed inside a parking garage in West Nyack, N.Y., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The site was only open to students and staff of Rockland County schools in an effort to test enough people to keep the schools open for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
4 more deaths, 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

This brings the total to 66 deaths in the region

Ryan Bennett, who played three seasons with the Kimberley Dynamiters, has signed on to the Humboldt Broncos. Paul Rodgers file.
Kimberley Dynamiter Ryan Bennett signs on with Humboldt Broncos

After three seasons with the Kimberley Dynamiters, Cranbrook’s Ryan Bennett is the… Continue reading

Rob Davidson, manager at Buckhorn and Main, created a Facebook group which has connected people and given them a positive distraction throughout the lockdown. Paul Rodgers photo.
Rob Davidson’s Facebook food group a positive, connecting presence throughout pandemic

Since the pandemic hit and lockdown began, people have been in need… Continue reading

Last year's King and Queen of Flannel Fest Tim and Simone. This year's event will be held via Facebook live due to COVID-19 and will take place on Feb. 13. Paul Rodgers file.
Flannel Fest to be held virtually this year

One of Kimberley’s most popular annual events, Flannel Fest, is moving into… Continue reading

Castlegar Sculpturewalk 2020 – 10 Year Anniversary Sand Sculpture. (Submitted/CBT)
CBT arts and culture grant program now accepting applications

Apply through the Kootenay Columbia Cultural Alliance

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Interior Health reported two more COVID-19 deaths at Sunnybank Retirement Center in Oliver Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 claims lives of two more South Okanagan care home residents

Five residents of the Oliver care home have died since the outbreak was first declared

Jonathon Muzychka and Dean Reber are wanted on Canada-wide warrants. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Convicted killer, robber at large after failing to return to facility: Victoria police

Dean Reber, 60, and Jonathon Muzychka, 43, may be together

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Surrey RCMP are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed at 183 Street and Highway 10 Friday night. (File photo)
Modelling of predicted transmission growth from the B117 COVID-19 variant in British Columbia. (Simon Fraser University)
COVID-19 variant predicted to cause ‘unmanageable’ case spike in B.C: report

SFU researchers predict a doubling of COVID-19 cases every two weeks if the variant spreads

The Brucejack mine is 65 km north of Stewart in northwestern B.C. (Pretivm Photo)
B.C. mine executives see bright gleam in post-COVID future

Low carbon drives demand for copper, steelmaking coal

Most Read