This spring, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Dene culture camp.
I was at Black Lake to attend the first day of the Athabasca Fly-in Career at the end of May. I was supposed to be back in Saskatoon that evening. My flight was cancelled due to mechanical reasons, but this wasn’t a big deal to me – I’ve always been of the opinion that if the plane is cancelled because of any issues at all, I’m happy that the airline puts safety first. Besides, spending an extra day up north (and out of the office) is always a treat.
Al, Sheila and Claire at Al’s Place were kind enough to let me stay another night and kept me well fed, and Terri- Lynn Beavereye at Black Lake Ventures agreed to give me a tour of the new Ventures Complex. She also invited me to spend the day at her office and attend the local Dene Culture Camp with her at lunch.
I’m not what you’d call “outdoorsy.” Having grown up near or in a city most of my life, I have no survival skills at all. If a zombie apocalypse ever came to Saskatchewan, I’d be their first victim. However, I said “yes” because I knew this was going to be an amazing experience.
Terri-Lynn drove me and her son Tristen (and her adorable black poodle), down the road from Black Lake towards Stony Rapids a little ways, then she turned right into what looked less like a road and more like twin trails in the trees. We drove for a few minutes through the forest, the beautiful short and skinny trees that are characteristic of the north were thick in this area, the moss growing like a green and white carpet overtop the fallen trees and rocks that sat on the sandy ground. We came to a clearing near a creek. I could see numerous tents set up, most with white canvas, but some with blue tarps. We were here.
The first thing I noticed after getting out of the truck was the delicious smell of meat cooking over a fire. We walked over to an area amongst the tents. There was a fire in a huge outdoor grill, and sitting on the grill was some caribou meat and a whole fish, eyeballs and all.
“Would you like some fish?” Terri-Lynn asked.
I had never seen a fish cooked whole like that before. In my urban world, meat always came cut in neat and tidy pieces, ready to cook and wrapped in plastic, not resembling the animal when it was alive. While I couldn’t help but notice the fish seemed to stare at me, the smell was amazing. My eager stomach growled.
“Yes, that would be great!” I said.
We sat at a table in a big tent marked Kitchen, where we found plates and were offered some fry bread. Our fish arrived hot and steaming on a bed of tin foil. Terri-Lynn showed me how to pull the meat off the bones with a fork. We ate our frybread and most of the caught fish, and the taste was amazing – there’s nothing like eating a wild fish that was freshly caught out of a northern Saskatchewan lake and put immediately on a hot grill. Some kids came by and pulled some meat off the fish too. A few of them recognized me from the career fair the day before and stopped by to say hi.
After I was stuffed full of fish, the caribou was served. There was no way I was going to resist that! After the horde of hungry kids took their portion, I got in line and took a small amount. It was so delicious – tender, cooked with onions and a bit of gravy, and a side of steamed veggies.
We took a tour of the camp. There were several structures where the frame was made of local trees that were cut down and covered in a blue tarp or canvas. Inside each structure was a different station. Most of them were carpeted with a soft bedding of pine boughs that were cut down from nearby trees. Some of the structures were for art and storytelling, but most were for preparing or smoking meat. In one tent, we watched Linda Echodh descale and fillet a fish in under three minutes. I was amazed at her skill. She cut neat little strips partially through the fish fillet, which was now shaped roughly like a butterfly. These fillets were placed in another station where they were hung overtop a fire and smoked for hours.
In another station, we watched Robert Cook use an axe to crack open a caribou bone to get at the marrow inside. The station smelled strongly like raw meat and there were bones, blood, meat, and hair in the tent. The traditional way of life in the north included lots of meat in the diet out of necessity – winters are long and cold there, and growing season was short for plants. Survival required you to get comfortable working with meat, starting from when the animal is first killed and all the many steps needed to get to where you can eat it. I understand it, but that didn’t stop me from getting a little green watching it. I’m not used to being so up close with nature. I wondered if I could ever learn to do what the knowledge keepers here did so easily.
I mentioned to Terri-Lynn that I’d like to try marrow someday. A short time later, Tristen handed me a little piece of marrow on some fry bread – what a nice thing to do! But the marrow was clearly raw. I didn’t realize marrow was eaten raw. My stomach was a bit uneasy as I looked from the piece of marrow up to the faces of the three people who were now watching me with smiles on their faces. Without thinking too much, I popped it in my mouth. Delicious! Kind of like sushi. I would happily eat it again anytime.
When it was time to go, I was reluctant to leave. There was a strong sense of community and a welcoming atmosphere here. The people I met were proud to show me their culture, show me their impressive skills, let me try the food. The kids were happy to be there in the beautiful outdoors, smelling the meat cooking, working on art projects, practicing their own skills, and learning about the land and the traditional ways of life. Attending the camp was an incredible experience for me and I could see how amazing it was for the kids. It was great for the grownups who were teaching their knowledge too; there were smiles everywhere you looked.
I’m so thrilled that people in Black Lake and Stony Rapids was willing to share this with me, and I want to say thank you to the community for all your hard work putting on these events for kids, and for letting me join you and learn a little something about the Dene way of life. I’ll never look at those plastic-wrapped pieces of meat at the grocery store the same way again.
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