Sandy Kenny tries to get on the land as often as she can.
“The more you connect with the land, the more the land connects with you,” she said grinning.
Kenny is one of roughly 625 Sahtu Got’ine Dene in the community of Délı̨ne, located on the western shores of the Sahtu – Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories (NWT).
Like many here, Kenny treasures fond memories from her childhood like boating with her family around the lake visiting the traditional lands of her ancestors.
“It’s amazing to see islands, mountains and even campsites. There is one spot which is sacred and untouched with an old teepee and when we visit there we always prayed together,” Kenny said.
Each place visited had an oral story behind it and is passed on, gifted one generation to the next.
(Sandy Kenny looks out to the Sahtu where she reflects on all of the traditional places of her family. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN)
But this year Kenny decided to put pen to paper and document her experiences for the Dene Heroes of the Sahtu.
The not-for-profit project has published four books in four years, designed to improve literacy and promote pride within the five communities of the Sahtu.
She’s one of 40 contributors in the fourth volume.
The books have been self-funded and recognized as an important project in the preservation of culture, having received a $100,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2018.
For Kenny, the opportunity to have community memories contribute stories in their own voice complimented the strength of people she knows and cares about.
She spoke of the challenges that come with living in an isolated community, where she would turn to the land.
“I grew up with a lot of drinking. I was a kid I couldn’t be a kid and had to be an adult. I had to take care of my sisters and provide for them,” she said tearfully and added, “I am supposed to be here. I don’t think I could ever move away because I would lose myself.”
The book features many stories of resiliency from those who have passed on, but lived a traditional life on the land and chronicles from youth overcoming hardships finding heroes in those around them.
(Sahylynn Marie Mackeinzo, says listening to Elders in the community share stories within Dene Heroes was an experience she would do ‘1,000 times over’. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN)
Shaylynn Marie Mackeinzo, decided to write a few days after being visited by a powerful dream, which she then had her grandfather interpret.
“It was a very blissful dream. I would even call it a sign. I was struggling with anxiety and depression at the time. It gets bad here and there, but right now I feel complete,” Mackeinzo said.
Leaving the Sahtu can be challenging for youth.
Watch Charlotte’s story on Colville Lake. The community north of the arctic circle has been the headquarters of the Dene Heroes of the Sahtu project since 2016
Both Kenny and Mackeinzo worked and volunteered outside of Délı̨ne for new experiences and opportunities, but ultimately returned to be with family.
Mackeinzo was given the title and responsibility of Dene Heroes champion in January 2020.
She helped coordinate the celebratory book launch project, which helped motivate her to continue to work towards completing her high school education.
“This opportunity was amazing. I would do it all over again. I’m really proud that I can help other youth around the Sahtu. So many youth have went up to me to tell me it [her story] was so beautiful,” she said.
Jed Kochon eagerly cracks the spine of the latest Dene Heroes book while sitting amongst his peers.
He wrote about a Dene hero, his Etsah – grandfather.
“I’m happy people will read this book and that my story would be in there. It’s important for people to hear what you say as Dene people,” Kochon said.
(The Dene Heroes of the Sahtu operated from Colville Lake, NWT for the last four volumes but will move to Deline, NWT to continue on volume five. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN)
Kochon lives in K’áhbamį́túé, Colville Lake, NWT located 80 kilometers north of the arctic circle.
A lot of effort was put in to research, conduct interviews, write, type and edit the stories.
“I had to come to school and sometimes I would come in in the afternoon and finish some of it. Then I would go back home to help my mum with chores,” he said.
Similar to other communities in the Shatu, locally published works are not widely available in school curriculum.
It’s something Isabel Orlias, hopes to change with the project. She’ s the recreational coordinator and helped organize the book launch in Colville Lake.
She said she appreciates that the stories are inter-generational, with authors ranging from 12 to 35 years of age.
In her case, inspiration for her Dene Heroes story came from her two young children.
“I wanted to write a story for them to read to show them my perspective of being their mother and all of the things that I want for them,” Orlias said.
(Isabel Orlias says she hopes to document the traditional stories of her family so her children can read about them in school. Photo: Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs/APTN)
In volume three, she wrote her first story which expressed gratitude towards her grandparents for teaching her how to sew, cook and clean and to honour the hardships they faced.
“I think my grandfather worked on one of the mines in Délı̨ne and I think he would only get paid 20 cents a day. They would be hauling the ore bags. There was a bunch of them that did that job but not many around today. There is only my grandpa and his one other friend here today,” she said.
David Codzi, who contributed a story for volume three, says he wants educators in the schools across the NWT to turn to the novels as a source of knowledge about who the Dene are and where they come from.
“We have to be acknowledged. It is not good enough to just talk about it in our family’s and behind closed doors. Our people did a lot. We have an entirely different world view that needs to be expressed,” Codzi said at Colville’s book launch celebrations.
The Dene Heroes books are not for sale, but can be found in Sahtu school libraries and housed in several libraries across the territory, with many future stories waiting to be written.