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WEB EXTRA: Dechinta: the NWT's bush university

WEB EXTRA: Dechinta: the NWT's bush university

A professor, elder professor and alumnus share their thoughts on the groundbreaking school.
By Herb Mathisen
Sep 09

The professor

Dechinta professor Glen Coulthard learns as he teaches

You’ve been involved with Dechinta since the start. You’re a founding professor?

I was one of the first instructors but I was also brought onto the advisory board, prior to the pilot semester, which I think was in 2009. Being a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the fact that Dechinta operates on our traditional territory, it’s absolutely essential that those relationships are maintained over time. I was brought in early because of my relationship both to the YKDFN, but also as somebody in academia and a teacher.


What was that experience like when you were just starting with the concept of a land-based university and figuring out how to put it into practice?

Concept-wise, it’s pretty straightforward. We understand what’s happened in the North—if you’re critical and are thinking straight about it, indigenous peoples were removed from the land and the practices that sustained them materially, but also intellectually. That has had a devastating effect on our communities—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has demonstrated that, scholarship has demonstrated that. It’s not controversial and it’s not within dispute.

If that’s your framework that you understand the problem that’s out there—the issues that face our communities and others—then education’s role in that is to repair that disconnect and repairing that disconnect requires that you work with people who know the most about the land, these traditions, about our culture, about the knowledge that is rooted in the land and you work with them and students to re-integrate students into that relationship of land and its knowledge.

Now that is easier said than done. There are expenses, there’s resources, there’s expertise, there’s people’s time. All of that has been the struggle—the material struggle to be able to keep pushing forward when we’ve had a government, for instance, that has not been willing to share that vision and provide resources so that we can do it in a good way. But conceptually, it’s always been clear to me—I think it’s been clear to Erin and it’s been clear to the elders and community folks that we work with as instructors—it’s just a matter of being able to get it done without burning all of ourselves out and I think that’s kind of where everybody is always walking that line. Because we all have to also make a living, feed our families, all that sort of stuff. For me, until quite recently, this has been off the side of my desk as a commitment to my community and the North.


Do you spend a semester a year at Dechinta?

The University of British Columbia, as its commitment to indigenous scholars like myself, but also to indigenous scholarship and teaching, has agreed to allow half of my teaching time to be done in  community, which is Dechinta at the moment. So that’s their material commitment to seeing this vision through and supporting myself as an indigenous professor here. That is actually very cool.


With Dechinta, you’re teaching Dene history and indigenous self-determination?

Treaty history, the history of the Dene Nation and our struggle for self-determination… kind of more philosophical stuff underlying how we conceive of our relationships to land and why that’s significant. And the history of the Dene struggle for self-determination in a global context, because in the ‘70s and the contemporary period, it’s not just us—we’re part of a global movement for these types of rights. And then luckily enough I’ve been doing it for seven years now, I’m getting more competent at being able to assist elders in the more land-based stuff and trying to integrate that into the more academic stuff. So trying to think of what we’ve learned in terms of the articles that we’ve read and the books that we’ve read and the history of this topic and then how do we think of that in relationship to what we’re doing on the land? How does it create self-reliant, sustainable communities? How does this type of knowledge and these practises guide how we think about economic development in a sustainable way that treats the land with respect? All that sort of stuff.


It must be interesting to work this out on the land—to integrate the academia into the land-based lessons—and have the light bulbs go off.

Yeah, that synthesis needs to happen or else it wouldn’t work—it would just be having a classroom out on the land, which in itself is nice and important. But it’s the land and the elders and those practices that are supposed to teach us something about politics, economics, education and environmental sustainability.


Some of what I’ve read from Dechinta alumni speaks to them not having known about organizations like the Dene Nation. What is it like to introduce Dene history to students?

They feel very empowered and proud. They’re proud because it’s a very important moment in Canadian history that shaped the trajectory of the relationship between aboriginal peoples in Canada. It pushed the conversation forward to the point of constitutional recognition. The North, and indigenous leadership in the North, really gets left out of that historical narrative. When the students learn about it, they feel empowered and they’re willing and ready to fight for their land and their rights. As a teacher, it’s a real privilege and an honour to be part of that learning experience.


Are you learning at Dechinta too?

Absolutely. Aside from my commitment to working with my community on a really important issue—that’s education and land and cultural revitalization—the biggest reason why I do it is because what I take and learn out of it and what I’m able to transmit to my kids. Because my two kids—Hayden and Tulita—often come up with me and you see it on their faces too and how they conduct themselves and how they present themselves in the world with confidence and pride, which is missing in what is essentially still a very racist society with respect to indigenous people.


It’s cool that you’re receiving just as much as you’re giving.

Well, I’m receiving way more than I’m giving. [Laughs.] But I do my best.


The alumnus

Fort Simpson’s Kristen Tranche leaves Bush U inspired

When did you attend Dechinta?

I took the regular Dechinta program in 2012. It was the fall semester. And then I took another part to the program, I was a participant in the Indigenous Boreal Guardianship Pilot Project, that was held at Dechenla Lodge [in the Mackenzie Mountains] and that was in August 2015. That program, from what I understand, is part one of a three-part program.


The first one was the 12-week semester?

In 2012? Yes, that was a regular Dechinta semester.


What got you interested in applying?

It was something that I always wanted to do ever since I saw that Dechinta came into being. One of the original participants from the first pilot project is from Fort Simpson, so that kind of caught my eye too. I saw online and different things about the program.

I attended the University of Northern British Columbia back in the day and I wasn’t very successful. I did a year and a half there. I’ve also tried some online courses and I just found that it wasn’t the right learning environment for me.

The thing that really drew me to Dechinta was the amalgamation of post-secondary education with on-the-land type of learning. I really wanted to go further with post-secondary study and Dechinta offered that, along with learning how to live on the land and have elders and people involved. And the fact that I could stay in the Northwest Territories, and that it was a really Northern-based education, and that I could take time off of my regular life—I’m an adult, I’m married and I have bills and all those responsibilities. So I was able to take two months the first semester so I could attend and then come back to my community.


Your previous stabs at post-secondary education—was it the top-down, sit-down-and-listen method that didn’t stick?

It was that and it was also the fact that I was so far away from my home and my family. Yeah, the style of learning that Dechinta offered is just so much more organic. You don’t know where your next lecture is going to be—it might be a [fireside], it might be inside the lodge, depending on weather. But a real natural way of learning, instead of just being in a room with four walls.


Are there lessons that really stand out to you?

Dechinta’s entire program was just completely life-changing to me. It changed my life in so many different aspects. After the program, I became a lot more involved in my community. I’ve been attempting a lot more to relearn my culture and make those connections within my community and that’s because of the program. It’s really hard to explain something that’s so life-changing because there were so many different moments within the program—from learning about colonization and decolonization, how to cut fish, learning from other participants.


Growing up, I remember the Northern component of our curriculum in Yellowknife was following paper instructions to make dreamcatchers and that was really it. What was it like learning Northern and Dene history?

It was very eye-opening. And that’s something that I really strongly believe in. It’s that old saying: you don’t really know where you’re going or who you are until you know where you’re coming from. And Dechinta really gave me that eye-opening experience of knowing the NWT’s political history and the history of the indigenous people in the Northwest Territories.

And the academic part of it—it was really nice to be successful. The professors and the staff at Dechinta really worked with the students to help us be successful in our studies. Previously, I’ve really struggled with academic writing and essay writing, but in that situation, they really provided the support to be successful. I think I left Dechinta, in my first semester, with straight As—and receiving credits through the University of Alberta, which makes a person feel proud and happy to be so successful.


It’s way easier to write about something when you care about it too, right? Did you find it helpful to be so invested in what you were writing about?

Most definitely. Having everything that we were learning about be so relevant to us, and having it really show us something that really made it hit home. I felt like a lot of the things that we were taught through the academic professors and also through the elder professors, it was all something that we could relate to, no matter where we came from and it was something that really probably helped us with our academic studies and feeling passionate about what we were learning about. And in every subject, because we did several different subjects—we learned about sustainability, we did a media section. We even got our gun safety or PAL license. Every section was really interesting and really relevant to our lives.


What’s it been like since you left? Are you spreading the gospel of Dechinta to anyone who will listen?

Oh, for sure. [Laughs.] I’ll encourage anyone that I know to take the program. After the program, I continued to work for the company that I worked for. I spent a couple years hanging out in the community and then last year I was approached by my community members to run for Liidlii Kue First Nation council. I did that [and won a seat].

In the past year, I’ve been very actively involved in the community. I sit on different committees within LKFN and served on the Fort Simpson District Education Authority. I’ve been sitting on the district education authority on and off for a couple of years. Education is something that I’m pretty passionate about.


Has that been encouraged and supported since you went to Dechinta?

Definitely. I feel like life is all about learning. If you’re being stagnant—it’s fine for some people, but I feel like life is really an educational experience and that there’s something new to learn all the time. And being involved within the education system and going out there within the community is a learning experience in itself.

I’ll be going to school again this fall. I move from my community in a couple weeks. I’ll be taking social work through Aurora College in Yellowknife. I have high hopes. Dechinta is a huge reason behind this. I have high hopes. I can see what being on the land and being immersed in culture and the environment, how good it is for people. I strongly believe that. With some sort of type of counselling and on-the-land type of programming is really something that the North requires more of. And I’d love to get in that field.


Seeing that connection with how it could work in education and then in rehabilitation.


Another thing I’d like to add is the connections and relationships that you build through Dechinta are so amazing. There are so many positive people involved with the program—down to students and people that work within the program and the professors. You create this really amazing network of passionate people. Now I know people from all over Canada because of the program that have the very same ideals. They’re positive thinking and really moving-forward type people which I think is really good for someone who is really wanting to get out there and be positive and make changes.


The elder professor

Fort Smith’s Jane Dragon on the value of bush learning

UP HERE: How have you been involved with Dechinta?

I was there for winter camp and then I was there for spring camp.


You’ve done both?

Yeah. In the wintertime, I did fur mitts with them because it was so cold. It’s just our way of life in the bush—wintertime is wintertime [Laughs.] So anyway, they made mitts and they were very happy. We had quite a few students—I can’t remember how many, I’ve been to so many camps. We must have had 10, maybe more. They all made mitts—boys and girls. It was really good. The government had donated some furs so I could sew with them. That’s how they all got big fur mitts.


Was it beaver?

Yeah. And I showed them how to make strings. A long time ago, people didn’t have rope—they used to use birch and willow [and all sorts of] roots. So I showed them how they used to do it.


What’s the experience been like?

One thing I liked about them was they could bring their families. As cold as it was, they had their little kids there and they were just hanging around playing. They had a sitter for them while the students were taking their part of the program—it was like a school. I found it very interesting because, time—just like when you’re going to university—this is what’s going on. In the springtime when I was there, they did their fishing. They did their fish, all kinds of things that people do in the springtime. Everything about it.

I hope they can get more money so they can run their program properly. They do it, but it’s a lack of money, eh? Like everything else.


What it’s like to work with these students?

I love working with students. It’s really nice to be with young people because I’m going to be 76. Imagine. And I’m still going at it. [Laughs.] Being with the young people keeps you young.


And how has it been working with the southern professors? Has that been rewarding for you?

Yeah, that was really good. They all had their input for school and they had Northern people that were doing their Northern hunting and beaver traps and things like that. It’s our way of life, it’s just that it’s gone away for a while. But we kept it up ourselves, our family, but there’s people that just don’t do it anymore.


Are you finding that Dechinta is an important way to pass on these skills?

Yeah, it was just a way of life. Now we’re teaching them and I think it’s really good because the more we learn, the better we get at it.


What did you think when you first heard about Dechinta? Were you on board right away?

Oh yeah. We’ve got to live in the North and we’ve got to know how to do things. When you’re in the bush, you can’t run to the store every five minutes. [Laughs.] I remember when I was a kid, my aunts and my uncles and their families, they used to leave in mid-July and they wouldn’t be back until springtime. The fathers would come in—the dads—with their furs at Christmastime. But that was the only time they came out and then in springtime, they came back in the boat just like the way they left. And they’d go by families.

I don’t think the students realized how people used to live at one time, but once you’re out there, you learn everything. It’s just that it’s not long enough. I find that the program should run from fall to springtime or part of the summer. I mean, that’s how people lived. It’s always you don’t have time—people don’t have time. University starts at a certain time, well the bush university could do the same thing. Because it’s learning—it’s very important. It’s not enough time—the pressure’s on.

If you had it like university, a couple of years or whatever it is, for the students, they would learn so much.


I think Erin said they’re trying for ten semesters across the territory ultimately.

I mean, wherever it is, it’s a bonus.