The NWT On The Land Collaborative is a collective of partners from government, industry, philanthropy, and beyond, working together to support land-based programs and projects in the NWT. Each of these partner organizations has a representative that participates in quarterly meetings and annual funding decisions. This is the eleventh in a series of profiles of the people and organizations that make the Collaborative possible. You can read the other profiles here.
John B. Zoe describes his current responsibilities as a Senior Advisor to the Tłı̨chǫ Ndek’àowo (Tłı̨chǫ Government) in this way: “I go to lend support to keep things moving. Sometimes people need to be reminded of their strengths and responsibilities.” John B. uses the same mentorship skills in his role as the Community Advisor for the Tłı̨chǫ region with the NWT On The Land Collaborative. Community Advisors are appointed by Indigenous governments in each region to serve as their representative to the Collaborative. They are available to applicants throughout the process, while also assisting in the annual selection of grant recipients.
As valuable as John B.’s mentorship skills are to the Collaborative are his experiences developing and supporting land-based programs in the Tłı̨chǫ. He has played a pivotal role in the creation and ongoing success of Wha Dǫ Ehtǫ K’è (Trails of Our Ancestors), an annual canoe trip that keeps Tłı̨chǫ history and culture alive by retracing traditional routes. In the early 1990s, John B. spent his summers travelling through Tłı̨chǫ territory with Elders, including the late Harry Simpson, and archaeologist Tom Andrews: “We were gathering stories, but there was no one to share them with. We didn’t see our own people travelling these rivers. So we began organizing canoe trips for youth so they could travel with the Elders and hear the stories.”
The first Trails trip ran in 1995. Over the course of 15 days, five 22-foot canoes paddled from John B.’s home community of Behchokǫ̀ to Gamètì, arriving in time for the Tłı̨chǫ Annual Gathering. This summer marks the 23rd anniversary of the program. In mid-July, flotillas of canoes from each of the four Tłı̨chǫ communities will set out for the Gathering, which is scheduled to take place in Behchokǫ̀. Wha Dǫ Ehtǫ K’è has not only continued, it has prospered, John B. shares: “Each year, we receive more applications than we have seats in the canoes!”
To understand the cultural importance of these canoe trips, you have to know something about the importance of stories for the Tłı̨chǫ. Stories contain knowledge about how to be Tłı̨chǫ and live in respectful relation to the land. Stories are not disembodied; they are tied to specific places. John B., borrowing from Elder Harry Simpson, likens the landscape to a book: “The pages are your travels.” To understand the book’s teachings, in other words, you need to be on the land, hearing the stories in the places that they belong. A recent history of Wha Dǫ Ehtǫ K’è captures it best: “By travelling traditional trails, which link places like beads on a string, Tłı̨chǫ youth are told stories as each place is visited.”
The Trails trips, like land-based programs more generally, are about looking back in order to move forward. By returning to older ways of doing things, in this case travelling by canoe in community and hearing the stories, the hope is that youth will be grounded in the Tłı̨chǫ way of life and able to chart a way forward for themselves as individuals and as a people. If Tłı̨chǫ youth are to “be strong like two people,” a vision first articulated by Chief Jimmy Bruneau, but which is best known in the words of Elizabeth Mackenzie, they need this education on the land alongside Elders and community leaders.
While participants experience the canoe trips in their own way as individuals, ultimately Wha Dǫ Ehtǫ K’è is about collective experience and collective knowledge. John B. explains it this way: “If somebody from this group of 100 canoeists learns something it will stay with them and when it’s time to fill the gap, they will fill that gap. The more people that have these bits and pieces of information, they become an army of knowledgeable people about our collective story.” It’s hard to ignore the parallels with the Collaborative and the value that each individual member through their knowledge and experiences brings to the collective.
While the Community Advisors share certain responsibilities, they all approach their role in different ways, depending on their personalities and the needs of their region. For John B., being a Community Advisor is about reminding Tłı̨chǫ people and communities of their strengths and abilities, not the least of which is the knowledge of the land, the animals, relationships, and governance: “Our communities have this knowledge, held by our professors and they seek to pass on this information.” Land-based programs that engage Elders are vital to this work of reviving the old ways and ensuring continued stability for the future.
More than once during our conversation, John B., in reference to the Tłı̨chǫ, noted, “Our work is to acknowledge what was there before and use it as a basis for application in a modern way.” One example of this meeting of old and new is the Reviving Trails Project, which seeks to revitalize ancient Tłı̨chǫ canoe routes. Most recently, an 18-person group, which included John B., travelled the Mowhi Trail by canoe from Behchokǫ̀ to the barrenlands and back to Wekweètì, plotting their route and important cultural places with GPS. Not only did the trip improve the conditions of the trails and result in a digital map of the route, making it easier for future travellers, but it also enabled the sharing of stories about the places visited along the way and generated new experiences for younger Tłı̨chǫ on their territory.
The NWT On The Land Collaborative depends on partners like Tłı̨chǫ Ndek’àowo (Tłı̨chǫ Government) to support land-based initiatives in the NWT. If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please contact Steve Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org).