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New Generation Returns to an Ancient Place

While much attention is paid to preserving wild spaces in and of themselves, there is also an increasing recognition of the value people have as part of these ecosystems. In the far north of North America, NG Fellow Jon Waterhouse has been leading a Healing Journey among traditional communities along the Yukon River (read blog...

While much attention is paid to preserving wild spaces in and of themselves, there is also an increasing recognition of the value people have as part of these ecosystems.

In the far north of North America, NG Fellow Jon Waterhouse has been leading a Healing Journey among traditional communities along the Yukon River (read blog posts). 700 miles east M. Sanjayan, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy, has been taking a similar trip along the Thelon River.


Hearing the Voice of the People

As Sanjayan (pronounced “SAHN-jin”) put it,  “I am more convinced than ever that in faraway places, for conservation to work…the people closest to the land must have a voice. It may not sound like mine (or yours) but without their voice all we can hope for is a park, while with it we have a place.”

Sanjayan came to this realization when he and his Nature Conservancy colleague Dr. Richard Jeo were recently on an expedition to one of the most remote places on Earth. They traveled with a group of young members of the Dene First Nation for two weeks up the Thelon River in Canada’s Northwest Territories to bring them for the first time to the Dene’s traditional caribou hunting grounds. The entire journey was chronicled in a blog written by Sanjayan with photos by Ami Vitale, who has had other photos published in National Geographic magazine.


Dene First Nation youth Brendan Felix Head, 14, left, Tristen Jade Lockhart, 14, center and Hawke Williams Ellis, 4, stand in the smoke to get relief form the carnage of millions of black flies and mosquitoes. (Photo by Ami Vitale)


Once he was back home, dried off, warmed up, and healed from his countless mosquito bites, I spoke with him about what this trip meant for the kids and their culture, what it meant to him, and what it could mean for the rest of us.

Keeping the Culture Alive

The expedition kicked off in Yellowknife, a city of 20,000, and the capital of the Northwest Territories. Here, wealth from oil, diamond, and gold mining and government jobs in such a remote area have helped create an economy where some thrive and others barely get by. According to Sanjayan, a gallon of milk can cost the equivalent of 7 or 8 US dollars, while a three-bedroom home can sell for over half a million. “I had nachos and a beer at a hotel,” he said, “and it was just under 40 bucks.”

In such an environment, it’s easy to see why lines at KFC will extend out the doors and onto the sidewalk. In a city in the middle of the tundra, the most affordable food isn’t always the most traditional–or the healthiest.

Most of the young high-school-aged people on this expedition were not from the city though. They were from a small village called Lutsel K’e, home to about 300 on the edge of the Thelon. The people of this village are “the only ones who’ve ever  stopped a mining project [in this area] by speaking out against it,” and the older generation works to keep the traditions alive. When the team’s guide and hunter Joseph Catholique shot a caribou, several of the kids knew just how to help him butcher it and prepare the meat.

Still, “even they don’t get out as much as you’d imagine,” Sanjayan says. Since boats and planes have replaced dog sleds, “it’s now more expensive to get out … Most of these kids had not gone into this mythical land.” In addition, many of parents hadn’t gone either. However, in the living memory of the kids’ grandparents are stories of going down the Thelon all the way out to Hudson Bay for furs.


Mike Palmer and Damian Kailek, right, drag a caribou onto the land after it was hunted along the Thelon river. (Photo by Ami Vitale)


More Than Just a Memory

This cultural continuity hasn’t only preserved knowledge and traditions though. Sanjayan also noticed a distinct attitude among the Dene youth on the trip.

Within a few days of starting the trip, the kids had devoured all the sugar the team had brought. “We saw this over and over again,” says Sanjayan, “When the food was there, they’d eat it unless someone said ‘No, we can’t eat this all–we have to keep it.'” However, once the sweets or any other food was gone, “you never heard a peep of complaint.” He sees this as a direct inheritance from the traditional feast-and-famine rhythm of northern subsistence hunters.

“They were not like kids I’ve taken out in the woods in the lower 48 [U.S. states].” Given “the idea of hankering down for 3 days while a storm passed … they sort of got it.”


A Spiritual Homeland for Everyone
While the Dene kids may have been able to eat caribou back home in Lutsel K’e, Sanjayan said you could still see a difference in their faces as they ate it hundreds of miles from any other villages in the traditional hunting grounds of their ancestors. It is as though it was feeding more than just their bellies.

With more than half of the human population now living in cities, I wondered if there were any places that might hold this kind of spiritual resonance for people far removed from their last non-urban, traditional ancestors. Sanjayan agreed that this seems to be a source of tension in metropolitan culture.

“We’re so transitory–we’re migrant,” he said. “A big part of what we lose is a spiritual connection to land, and the stories that reinforce [that connection].” He did however know of one place that he thinks can help us–the cradle of human evolution, the East African Rift Valley.

“No matter where you’re from, in the East African Rift valley, you feel it. It hearkens back to cellular memory. For 4 million years we lived there, and only during the last 100,000 we ventured out. That’s what we’re designed for.

“You know the air conditioner setting in your office? It’s probably right now somwhere between 68 and 70 degrees [Fahrenheit]. You don’t like sea-level mugginess, you like it a little bit crisper–maybe at 3-5000 feet elevation. Outside your house you have a short lawn with an umbrella-shaped tree that is most pleasing to the eye. [This is all] straight from the rift valley. Go there and it’s always a homecoming, no matter where you’re from.”


Richard Jeo, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy, carries his tent through a seemingly empty landscape. (Photo by Ami Vitale)


Three Big Takeaways
In the end, there were three main things that Sanjayan says he took away personally from the experience. The first is “a sense of bigness and how small you feel in this gigantic landscape. That’s humbling. I don’t think I’ve ever been that far away from people in my life–I dont think any of us have. 275 nautical miles to the nearest village of 300 people, and then 500+ miles between villages.” Even in the Amazon, he says, you’re still mostly only 50-100 miles from people.

He adds, “You see a lot of wildlife signs. Every beach we camped on had wolf tracks, many had grizzly bears, some had wolverines. But yet when you step back on the landscape you don’t see anything. I understand why they call it “the barrens”–it’s because of how big the place is. And that bigness makes you feel incredibly insignificant.”

The second thing he took away from the experience was an appreciation of “the importance of living, breathing communities that care about a place. You only need conservation when people enter the equation, but you can’t have conservation without them.”

Finally, sounding like a bookworm with half his body in “Walden” and the other half in “Moby-Dick”, he says he was struck by “how hard the barrens can be. They can be incredibly providing and benign one day [such as when a caribou simply wandered into camp, practically offering itself up as a meal]. One caribou, just like that. But also it’s quick to turn on you. You can go through long periods of nothingness … hard storms … bugs that drive you mad … When you get into [faraway] places you’re quickly reminded about your place. And I think it’s a good reminder to have. We shouldn’t mistake being able to insulate ourselves from [nature] with being able to control it.”


What Does the Future Hold?

Richard Jeo, front, and Sanjayan paddle their canoe followed closely by another boat of youths. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

With such an inspiring and eye-opening experience for everyone involved, is this simply the end of the story for the Nature Conservancy and the people who hold the Thelon River dear? Not as long as Sanjayan is involved. “We’d love to continue our education efforts and cultural efforts with the Dene,” he says. “There is a plan to continue to help provide and support connecting Dene youth with the land as a way of also then connecting the elders to the land again. This was a first effort in what we hope is going to be an program that will focus on conservation in the arctic and sub-artic regions of North America.


See more of Ami Vitale’s photos and read more about the Nature Conservancy’s Thelon Expedition in Sanjayan’s blog posts from the field.


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Meet the Author

Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.