‘We watch everything’: Dene Elders guide effort to save vanishing Arctic caribou

Five hundred kilometres north of Yellowknife, a group of Dene wildlife officers, Elders and researchers is blending Traditional Knowledge and contemporary science to study the disappearing Bathurst herd
NWT Barrenland Caribou Boots on the Ground Pat Kane_PKP1636

There are many iconic places in Canada’s North, but few give me a sense of awe like the barrenlands of the Northwest Territories. The remote, treeless landscape of rolling tundra and rocky outcrop extends in every direction as far as one can see. 

Russell Drybones, a tall and lanky Dene guide, is, like the rest of us, looking for caribou. 

“You can feel them, you know. The ground moves,” says Drybones, who earned the nickname Eagle Eyes for his ability to spot a caribou several kilometres away. “Who knows, maybe over that esker is 1,000 caribou ready to run and shake the land.” 

But we don’t see 1,000 caribou. We don’t even see a handful. We’re not sure where they are and we’ve been looking for three days. 

Russell Drybones and Bobby Nitsiza walk past the remains of a caribou, likely picked apart by wolves and ravens.
Caribou run through the brush a few kilometres inland from Contwoyto Lake. Normally, caribou would travel in herds of hundreds or even thousands but this year the research team mostly found smaller herds scattered in different areas than previous years.

The population of the Bathurst caribou herd has plummeted in recent decades. In the 1990s, the herd was celebrated as a healthy migratory population in the hundreds of thousands. But today, there are roughly 10,000 individuals.

In 2015, the Tłı̨chǫ Dene communities of the Northwest Territories banned hunting with hopes it would help the herd rebound. But monitoring the health of a migratory herd that traverses thousands of kilometres of barren land a year is no small feat. It takes patience, persistence and intimacy with a remote herd very few people on the planet — even those in the Northwest Territories — will ever see.

I spent 11 days at a small camp 500 kilometres north of Yellowknife documenting the work of the Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è: Boots on the Ground program, initiated by the Tłı̨chǫ Government to collect critical field knowledge of the herd and its habitat.

The monitoring program is unique in its design. Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è comes from the Tłı̨chǫ language and refers to the movement of the caribou herd throughout the year, from the calving grounds to the forest and back again. It encompasses the whole life cycle of the caribou.

The program’s methodology follows a specific principle drawn from the very ways of life of traditional caribou harvesters: “do as hunters do.” Researchers attend to the herd and the landscape under a holistic concept of “we watch everything” that comes from Tłı̨chǫ Elders. They wait at na’oke, or water crossings, to track details about caribou and the environment, from predators to changes on the landscape from industrial activities. 

The program is much more than a research project on caribou — it’s also a way for Tłı̨chǫ Dene to stay connected to their culture and identity. 

The days were long, sometimes monotonous, with several hours of hiking and boating. It is a slow and patient way to study caribou and collect information. But it also allows for rich collaboration. The team — consisting of Tłı̨chǫ Dene Elders, officers from the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and researchers — made sure everyone was fed, safe from wildlife and rested. 

That kind of collaborative effort is invaluable in a land that’s inhospitable, even potentially dangerous, despite being so full of beauty. 

Reaching back into a rich reservoir of Traditional Knowledge, these individuals are charting a new way forward when it comes to researching and managing the creatures that share Indigenous lands.

The Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è: Boots on the Ground program is founded on the belief that local people who rely on the land are in the best position to determine the health of caribou.

Drummers sing while Louis Zoe feeds the fire with an offering of bread and tobacco, a way to ask The Creator for safe travel and offer thanks before the day begins.
A caribou walks near the former Lupin gold mine, which operated from 1982 to 2005. The mine, which is currently under care and maintenance, sits along the migration path of the Bathurst herd.
Ahri Ekendia, a youth research assistant, hangs trout over a post to make dry fish.
Joe Lazare-Zoe holds up a wolf skull near a caribou crossing. The research team has found several wolf dens around the lake.
The research team monitors a herd of caribou at Sun Bay. They estimate 300 caribou, many hidden on the other side of the ridge. This is by far the largest herd spotted over the past few weeks, but it is still much smaller than what they have seen in previous years.
A view of the Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è camp at Kokètì.
Louis Zoe, an Elder from Gamètì, watches the sun set over camp. Zoe has decades of experience to offer the researchers on where to camp, how to stay warm, how to walk on the tundra, where to find food, how to track caribou and how to survive through rough conditions. The research team relies on Elders for their knowledge, which in many instances is considered more valuable than western science.
Therese Zoe snacks on dry fish while travelling from camp to another part of the lake.
John Franklin Koadloak and his partner, Mercie, meet with the research team near the former Lupin mine. John and Mercie live year-round at Contwoyto Lake in their makeshift home on the Nunavut side of the lake. They often join the research team and offer guidance, giving updates on the herd’s movements, weather and any dangers.
Head researcher, Stephanie Behrens, records data on a few caribou spotted near the shoreline. The information is collected, saved and shared with the Government of the Northwest Territories to track the health and population of the Bathurst caribou.
“This program is unique in the world. We should be very proud of what [the Tłı̨chǫ people] are doing.” Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie
The skull of a young caribou is covered in moss and lichen after a long period of time on the tundra.
Therese Zoe walks along a trail packed down by caribou herds moving toward a narrow crossing at an inlet.
The flag of the Tłı̨chǫ Government flies at the main camp as the season’s first snow falls. The teepees on the flag represent the four Tłı̨chǫ communities of Behchokǫ̀, Whatìi, Gamètì and Wekweètì. The sun and water symbolize a 1921 quote by Chief Monfwi: “As long as the sun shines and the river flows and the land does not change, we will not be restricted from our way of life.”
Tłı̨chǫ researcher Stephanie Behrens, along with government biologist Karin Clark and guide Roy Judas, plots out where the caribou herds might be travelling.
Every morning after breakfast, the research team prays together in the Tłı̨chǫ language to ask for safety and good health. Elder Therese Zoe holds her rosary before prayers begin.
A map of Kokètì (Contwoyto Lake) shows how the caribou have moved from their Nunavut calving grounds in July to the western side of the lake in the Northwest Territories.
Louis Zoe and Therese Zoe rest in their wall tent at the main camp. The couple are respected knowledge keepers who play a critical role in helping researchers understand the history, land, language and relationship to the caribou.
Ahri Ekendia’s sketchbook reveals a well-known saying and unofficial slogan of the Tłı̨chǫ. In 1936, Chief Jimmy Bruneau set out a vision for his people to learn the worldview of the white man but to never lose the skills, teachings, ceremonies, languages and traditions of the Dene. His words were later interpreted to mean “strong like two people.”
Youth researcher Ahri Ekendia holds a caribou antler while scouting the landscape for a herd. One of the goals of the Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è: Boots on the Ground program is to train youth in research techniques, biology and natural sciences. Another priority is to teach them traditional Dene skills needed to survive on the land.
Ekendia sketches a caribou and the Tłı̨chǫ flag in his notepad while taking a break from hiking the tundra.
“When we first started, we didn’t have all the luxuries we have now. All we had was our tents and sleeping bags, some clothes and a bit of food. We mostly ate fish and we hiked all day and set up camp when we were tired.” Petter Jacobsen, program coordinator of Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è
Brothers Joe Lazare-Zoe and Louis Zoe boat back to the main camp after a cold few hours on the lake.

Editor’s note: Pat Kane’s documentary photography of the Ekwǫ̀ Nàxoède K’è: Boots on the Ground program was supported by funding from the Tłı̨chǫ Government. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, the Tłı̨chǫ Government did not have any influence on the production of this work.

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