Editorial Note: This post is the fourth of four in a series about a community-led history of Wood Buffalo National Park and its violent relations with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and their ancestors.
My name is Dr. Ave Dersch, and I am an anthropologist who works with Indigenous groups in the sub-arctic region of Alberta. In this post, I want to briefly discuss placed-based Indigenous Knowledge and the role it plays in understanding the implications of Canada’s decision to kick Athabasca Chipewyan families out of Wood Buffalo National Park in the 1920s.
Indigenous Knowledge has been described by F. Berkes (1993) “as a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings with one another and with their environment.” Indigenous Knowledge is context specific, meaning that it is tied to a certain place.
“Indigenous Knowledge is context specific, meaning that it is tied to a certain place.”
The Dënesųłıné families living in Wood Buffalo National Park at the time the Park was created would have known the area intimately well. They would have known areas where there was current in rivers that left the water open year-round so they could set fishnets without having to chop through the ice. They would have known special natural topography on the landscape where they could ambush animals like bison, caribou, and moose. They would have known where springs were with drinking water and where rare medicinal plants could be found. They knew fish spawning areas, mineral licks that drew in animals, and the best acoustic locations to call moose from. They knew places to collect just the right size and shape of birch wood to build canoes and which muskegs had the right moss for diapers. They knew the places on the landscape where their grandparents and great great grandparents camped. They knew where their ancestors’ remains rested and other places that were imbued with special power. They knew every winter and summer trail and how to navigate the dangers of certain lakes and rivers. They knew the Dené names of every feature on the landscape including features left by Pleistocene megafauna like giant beavers. This intimate knowledge of the landscape took since time immemorial to develop and it was critical to the Dënesųłıné way of life on the land.
Now imagine the federal government telling Dënesųłıné families that they had to leave Wood Buffalo National Park. Although some of their Indigenous Knowledge was transferable to a less familiar landscape (i.e., their knowledge of animal behaviour, and what plants were edible) their ability to derive their livelihood from the land and connect with their ancestors was up-ended. Hunger and hardship ensued as families scrambled to start anew in establishing harvesting areas and homes. The outfall of this event can be seen today and contributes to the intergenerational trauma born out of this and other colonial policies.
“This act by Canada not only illustrated their lack of understanding of the Dënesųłıné relationship with the land, but also showed that their priorities rested with protecting wood bison rather than living up to their promises to uphold Treaty rights.”
This act by Canada not only illustrated their lack of understanding of the Dënesųłıné relationship with the land, but also showed that their priorities rested with protecting wood bison rather than living up to their promises to uphold Treaty rights, outlined in Treaty No. 8, and signed only a few decades before.