It’s the end of November and the early afternoon twilight fades to darkness, but Vicky Orlias doesn’t seem to mind.
The elder stands on the front porch of the band hall in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., but in her mind’s eye, she’s a young girl, out on the land with her family, listening as the laughter from neighbouring camps rings through the trees.
“It’s beautiful there,” Orlias said, describing the scene. “There’s lots of people, at the next lake you can hear them dancing, drumming, drinking, having a good time.”
“But in the daytime, everybody is out on the land hunting. It’s good, with really rich country for food. That’s how I remember it.”
Orlias paints this scene when she describes her feelings for Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata, a sacred harvesting area for K’asho Got’ı̨nę who live in and around Fort Good Hope. This week, the 10,000-square kilometre site officially became the territory’s newest protected area.
Many in Fort Good Hope say Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata represents the very best of life in their community. It’s where they feel most at home, where they celebrate the good times, and find solace in the bad.
For Orlias, being out on the land with her family was her refuge from her time at residential school. As soon as she’d return to her family, they’d head out to the ramparts.
“Maybe that’s why it was so exciting?” she wondered. “You’d go to residential school, spend time there, come back home, go out for beaver or stay out in the bush. It’s a really happy life.”
To this day, she cherishes those memories.
“Oh is it ever beautiful,” Orlias said. “You wake up in the morning, you can hear the birds, squirrels, is it ever peaceful. In the springtime it’s just beautiful.
“You get up, make a fire, get ready to go visit your muskrat traps. You can have fresh meat, dried meat, dried beaver,” she said.
Role in early fur trade
Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata, known in English as the Ramparts River and Wetlands, is a pristine habitat for wildlife and game: grizzlies, ducks, geese, moose, caribou, but especially beaver.
Elders in Fort Good Hope still remember when the fur trade drove the local economy and most people made their living out on the land.
“People made a living up there,” explained John Louison Sr. “It used to be quite a place.
“All the people I remember who showed us how to trap and hunt, showed us the land and so on, they’re all gone,” he said. “There’s just a few of us left. When I think about it, I get kind of emotional about it. But there’s a lot of good memories as well.”
Louison, 80, grew up on the land with his dad and remembers the heyday of the late 1940s and 1950s when families spent most of the year there. Like Orlias, he’s quick to point out the bounty that’s found there.
“There’s a lot of ducks and geese there, it’s beautiful when the spring comes,” he said. “It’s like the land comes alive with all of these birds that come from the south and so on. It’s quite a place.”
Frank T’seleie, one of the community’s most prominent elders and leaders, also has fond memories of being out on the land. But he also sees a bigger picture: how the beavers trapped in Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata helped develop Canada through their role in the fur trade.
“If you look at the Canadian nickel, it has a beaver on it,” he said. “A lot of that beaver, our national symbol, came from the Ramparts wetlands.
“So not only is this a celebration for ourselves, but it’s a celebration for Canadian history,” he said. “We were engaged with newcomers right from the start, right from Alexander Mackenzie on. The fur trade has a lot of history behind that.”
Now, community officials begin working to set up how managing the protected area works in practice, with $6.2 million set aside over the next four years. Part of that will pay for community-led stewardship and Indigenous guardians programming.
For elders like T’seleie, Orlias and Louison, this is a sign their memories won’t fade away — that people will continue to go out on the land in Ts’udé Nilįné Tueyata and hear the laughter from camps just another lake away.