The NWT On The Land Collaborative Fund 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 funding decisions. This is the second in a series of profiles of the people and organizations that make the Collaborative possible. You can read the other profiles here.
Steven Nitah’s resume is longer than your arm: trapper, recreation coordinator, guide, forest fire fighter, CBC television producer, community liaison officer, MLA, chief, CEO. These days, he is the Northwest Territories Advisor for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), the Chief Negotiator for the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN), and the head of Nitah & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in negotiation and communication. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also ILI’s representative in the NWT On The Land Collaborative Fund.
Steven grew up on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake: “I was raised on the land with grandparents and great grandparents, in and around Łutsel K’e: south side, east side, north side, west side, depending on the season.” Although Steven occasionally attended the local school in Łutsel K’e, his true education came travelling and living on the land with the Elders: “The Elders I grew up with were never exposed to residential schools, were never exposed to the assimilationist policies of the Indian Act. They lived their lives as independent people, in harmony with their lands and they took care of each other…That’s shaped who I am.”
Between 1999 and 2003, Steven served as the MLA for Tu Nedhe. In 2008, he was elected Chief of Łutsel K’e, a position he held for two years. While in that role, Steven formalized negotiations with the federal government on the creation of Thaidene Nëné (Land of Our Ancestors in Dënesųłiné), a park preserve covering more than 33,000 square kilometres of the East Arm and forests beyond. Steven continues to be involved in the process today as a negotiator for the band.
Steven just celebrated his one-year anniversary with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), a non-profit organization committed to “help strengthen Indigenous nationhood and fulfill Indigenous cultural responsibilities to the land.” ILI counts Stephen Kakfwi, Bev Sellars, and Ovide Mecredi amongst its Senior Advisors. In Steven’s own words, ILI is a “body that can help restore what was taken out of Indigenous communities and families through residential schools and assimilationist policies.” Central to restoring traditional forms of governance and social organization is “reconnecting with the land” because, as Steven notes, the land is and has always been “the basis of identity of Indigenous people.”
To this end, ILI supports a variety of initiatives across the country related to governance and land use planning. At present, they are lobbying the federal government to fund a national network of Indigenous Guardian programs. Building on the success of programs in Australia and British Columbia, ILI is urging the federal government to invest $500 million over five years in a pilot project that would see Indigenous people across the country engaged in environmental monitoring and protection, stewardship, and emergency response in their traditional territories. Locally, ILI has worked with guardian programs in Łutsel K’e (Ni Hat’ni Dene) and the Dehcho (Dehcho K’ehodi). ILI also supported the Sahtúgot’ine Dene people of Délįne in their successful pursuit of self-government and the designation of the Great Bear Lake Watershed as a World Biosphere Reserve.
When Steven started with ILI in 2015, it was a natural fit for him to represent the Initiative on the Collaborative. Steven is keenly aware of the value of land-based programs: “Land. It’s the land. It’s giving people an opportunity to get onto the land, giving kids and their families and opportunity to get back onto the land…as a group...to help promote the stories of the land, the understanding of those lands, and to transmit that knowledge to younger generations.”
But sometimes, the work is easier said than done. As Chief of Łutsel K’e, Steven saw firsthand the time spent on funding applications and reporting: “It takes more energy than the program that you’re applying for funds for.” The Collaborative, by contrast, functions as a clearinghouse for funds, information, and resources. The intention is to remove some of the administrative burden from program coordinators and leaders so they can focus on getting people out on the land.
Going forward, Steven would like to see more family-centred initiatives and programs that engage language speakers apply for the fund. Given his experiences growing up on the land and in his language, this makes sense, though he is quick to note that each community must identify what land-based initiatives are a good fit for them.
These days, Steven divides his time between Łutsel K’e and Yellowknife, where two of his three kids are attending school. His responsibilities to his community and ILI mean he has less time now than he would like to spend on the land. When he is able to get away, he enjoys being out on Great Slave Lake with his kids, retracing the routes he travelled with his grandparents as a child: “Just being there…I can see my grandmother doing her thing. I can see my grandfather doing his carving, and the places that he hunted.” Revisiting old campsites and hunting grounds links Steven to his past and is part of preparing his children for their future.
The NWT On The Land Collaborative depends on partners like the Indigenous Leadership Initiative to support land-based programs in the NWT. If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please contact Steve Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org).