At 102-years-old, Liza Mantla has a firm handshake.
I’m in Gamètì, NWT, a Dene village of about 300 residents surrounded by pristine lakes and rolling outcrops. I was invited by the Tłįcho˛ First Nation to photograph their elders and leaders. Liza is the most senior of the elders—and the first to show up.
She struts into the community hall where I’m set up, extends her hand and says “Mahsi”—typically “thank you” but interchangeably “hello” or “goodbye” in the Tłįcho˛ language. You can tell she’s strong and spry, not only from her handshake, but by how she outpaces the helpers here with me.
Liza takes a seat in a way that tells me to get on with it. We start with some basic headshots. “Look here, look over there,” I say. A translator helps direct. When people make natural movements with their hands, it gives the image a little more feeling or emotion. So I ask Liza to adjust her headscarf, which she does. Then I ask her to adjust her jacket. She does, but asks why. Our translator explains I want her to do something with her hands so she’s not just sitting there.
A mischievous grin appears on her face. Then she lifts her skirt and flashes me, revealing her long white bloomers underneath. Laughter fills the community hall. She flashes me again. Then again. Our translator and the others in the room are laughing so hard tears stream down their faces.
I always wondered how elders stayed warm in their skirts all winter. Now I know.
We continue to chuckle between pictures, but soon she’s had enough and stands up, ready to leave. We shake hands again. “Mahsi.”
And she’s out the door.