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

Fear of illness spreading in Indigenous communities is high

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.

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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2020

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

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