Setting Sail with Emerging Leaders in the Northwest Territories
Aboard a research vessel on Great Slave Lake, Indigenous youth from Łutsël K’é Dene build skills to become stewards of their lands and waters.
Last Fall, a research vessel set sail on Tu Nedhé (also known as Great Slave Lake)—the deepest lake in North America and one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies. The ship, the Nahidik, once sailed the Beaufort Sea, collecting data on the impacts of offshore oil wells 20 years ago. It is once again undertaking scientific explorations. But this time, the crew of scientists also includes students from nearby Indigenous communities.
For the past 10 years, Nature United has supported youth programs in the Northwest Territories with our partner the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. The learning model, which Łutsël K’é developed, pairs young people with experienced environmental monitors, super-skilled adults and knowledgeable Elders of their community, to become Ni Hat Ni Dene Rangers for the summer.
The Depths of Climate Change
Working alongside oceanographer Dr. Eddy Carmack, students surveyed the extreme depths of Great Slave Lake. Large, cold lakes are valuable to understanding climate change in the north. Scientists study how a lake turns over and mixes, monitor the cycles of ice freezing and thawing, and measure the presence of dissolved organic carbon to learn about changes happening between the land and the water.
Nature United collaborated with partners from the Northern Youth Leadership and the Arctic Research Foundation to launch this program last October. During that one-week expedition, youth worked with scientists, hydrographers, technologists, conservationists, and professional mariners, gaining a new understanding about the daily routine that makes a successful voyage. It was a lesson that resonated well with this group of students.
With the small population here in the North, everyone must work together—just like on a ship. The kids were encouraged to think about what we were learning about on the voyage within the framework of their own interests and their community’s traditional knowledge. They recorded place-based observations and helped collect data for the scientific survey of the lake’s processes being studied on this research vessel.
But the student-teacher relationship is not one-sided. The youth shared stories and legends of the lake and their knowledge of its behavior and ecology with the team of researchers, technicians and the Captain. This exchange of local and traditional knowledge proved that there is more than one way of knowing and observing the world.
These experiences expose young people to stewardship jobs where on-the-land knowledge is critical; they become singular touchstones for the students to further their education in new and unforeseen ways that benefit themselves, their culture, and their communities. This is incredibly important in Łutsël K’é, where the First Nation is responsible for co-governance of Thaidene Nëné—a 6.5-million-acre protected area. The intergenerational transfer of knowledge that occurs through Emerging Leaders programs like this one ensures that Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation's rights and responsibilities in the management of Thaidene Nëné be recognized and exercised into the future. That is why Nature United will continue to support regional, community-led youth programs in the Northwest Territories and elsewhere.
Now, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, this community-led approach to support emerging youth leadership is more important than ever to ensure lasting success, with resilient adult leaders of the future. With a small population, and 33 remote communities, the Northwest Territories has taken bold steps to contain the virus. And small communities across the territory, like Łutsël K’é, continue to balance safety with ongoing priorities. Decisions about how and when programs like the one onboard the Nahidik move forward will be informed by the communities themselves.
The experience onboard the Nahidik is a deep dive on the importance of multiple ways of knowing and how that varying expertise, those different skills, can work together to run a research vessel—and perhaps someday something even larger.