Churchill Dene Treasure – Caroline Bjorklund

Caroline Bjorklund

Caroline speaks about the Dene culture in the region. Kim Clune photo.

Caroline Bjorklund was a Dene Elder and inspirational cultural speaker living in Churchill. She survived the Dene government relocation of the 1950’s and lived a life trying to keep the Dene culture and history alive through cultural presentations to tour groups and local institutions. Natural Habitat Adventures client/traveler and photographer Kim Clune captured this wonderful perspective of Caroline last fall in Churchill. Caroline passed away last week and will be remembered in all of our hearts for eternity.

One night, after scouting polar bears on the tundra, our group huddled around a table filled with items from native cultural history. Caroline Bjorklund opened her talk with a profound statement slid in-between some caribou facts.

“I finally started learning who I am. It’s hard. Especially when you’ve lost your language, your culture and your elders.”

Caroline’s story was like listening to two intertwined narratives, one a hunting documentary and the other a memoir of personal trauma. Both were woven into a found poetry that took some reflection to decipher.

Caroline and her two young brothers were ripped from their parents at a tender age. Terrified and screaming, she was forced into a helicopter and then a school where she was separated from her brothers and punished for speaking her own language. She never saw her family and was never taught the Dene (said Den-neh) culture, Dene being the tribe from which she came.

I had read about such things before, but here was a survivor, clearly marred by such horrific events, telling me her personal account.

Caroline’s parents, like many Dene, were likely moved to uninhabitable land after being told to abandon their means for survival, including canoes, tools, dogs and sleds. Many native tribes were told that these items would be later returned. They never were.

“Then alcohol was introduced and the people forgot who they were,” she said.

After burying so much of her own painful disconnect in alcohol for years, Caroline embraced sobriety and finally began to heal her heart and recapture her identity by learning tribal ways.

She told us about the Caribou once used by her family for food, clothing, sinewy fishing nets, and how no portion of the animal was wasted. She even learned to make a child’s game from boiling a caribou foot and stringing together the knuckles.These acts are not second nature and the ingredients not readily available, as they were for her parents. It took investigative work to unearth a way of Dene life that has been intentionally stripped from her and decimated.

Caroline’s mother and sister persuaded her to learn traditional beading, which she resisted taking up until recently. You’d never know it. To see her first work on a pair of mitts shows the attention she pays to detail and the care with which she makes each stitch. It’s as if she’s making up for lost time with precise intent.

 

Beadwork and leatherwork of Caroline’s coveted mitts. Kim Clune photo.

She has also learned about tribal medicine, spruce tree gum for disinfection and dwarf Labrador tea for flu-like symptoms. Her brother tricked her into drinking it once. It tasted terrible. The expression on her face as she told the story led to a genuine chuckle at this prank. Sibling shenanigans must be cherished after so much disconnect. But who am I to guess? I can’t even comprehend how lonely her life must have been.

One on one, after her talk, I asked Caroline when she was reunited with her brother, the one who convinced her to drink the tea.

She and her young brother were never reunited. Nor was she with her biological mother. She speaks of other tribe members as sister and brother. Elders are mother and granny. She calls them all teachers and family and cherishes each one, but none are the people she was born to.

 

Caroline Bjorklund

Nat Hab guide Kurt Johnson and Caroline presiding over another amazing Dene cultural talk.Kim Clune photo.

What Caroline made so evident to me, somebody who knows only the textbook history is that this history is still very much alive and the story continues. Caroline is my sister, my mother, my granny, showing me that we can and must do better as human beings.

Sharing her most precious vulnerability, Caroline’s story is riddled with tangents. Speaking of these torments, again and again, causes her pain. Some talks are quite emotional, others more detached due to the fatigue of reliving her history. Regardless of the personal cost, she continues to educate on the very personal impact of inhumane policy and practice so that such atrocities never happen again.

Caroline is a true hero, spinning her suffering into harsh but necessary education. THIS is what I celebrated last Thanksgiving, as our own Native Americans continue to fight for their land and rights.

Arctic Landscapes – Coral Harbour

This incredible vast landscape shot near Coral Harbour by Wanda Nakoolak gives a feel of endless space in the Arctic. The Kirchoffer bridge allows access to Kirchoffer Falls which is located about 15 miles from Coral Harbour from the airport road. The falls themselves are 25 feet high and surrounded by a rugged, rocky landscape.

The bridge, which spans the Kirchoffer River, was constructed to allow hunters to cross over especially during the caribou harvest every year. Nesting sites for gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons on the cliffs near the majestic Kirchoffer River provide birders and wildlife enthusiasts.

Churchill Video of the Week – Caribou Migration

Caribou are an intrinsic part of the northern ecosystem and cover a wide area of the landscape at times when the migration is in full swing. This northern video of a massive migration across the tundra gives a glimpse of the immensity of a full-scale herd on the move. While Churchill is part of the migration route, most herd sightings occur out at Cape Churchill near Wapusk National Park.Caribou wander into the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and often can be spotted out near the coast as well. I have seen parts of migratory herds but never a full-scale herd on the land. On my bucket list for sure. Enjoy!

Churchill Summer Treasures

These amazing images from Churchill were taken last week by Natural Habitat Adventures guide Eddy Savage while exploring the tundra and water around the area. This particular group literally found some treasure under a rainbow when they came across a caribou on the tundra. Other incredible beluga whale encounters were quite close up with the zodiacs. A beautiful red fox was quite inquisitive toward the group and posed for some of the best shots we have seen in a long time.

All in all the weather for the week cooperated for the incredible wildlife viewing and a full exploration of the Churchill region was successful. What a week for seeing all the treasures around every rock or inlet in Churchill and on the water!

caribou on the Churchill tundra

A rainbow marks the spot a caribou pauses on the tundra in Churchill. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Red fox in Churchill.

A red fox is surprised by a group of Natural Habitat travelers while searching the land for food. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Zodiac of travelers in Churchill

A group of hearty Nat Hab travelers heads out on the Churchill River to view the beluga whales. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Halfway point beach in Churchill

Secluded beach at Halfway Point with hearty sea purslane growing above. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Polar Rover in Churchill.

Natural Habitat travelers pose with their massive Great White Bear polar rover in Churchill. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Fort Prince of Wales cannons.

Cannons on the walls of Fort Prince of Wales across from Churchill. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Beluga watchers from Natural Habitat in Churchill

A group of Natural Habitat travelers ready to roll and see some beluga whales. Eddy Savage photo.

 

Churchill Photo of the Week

Dorota Walkoski of Great White Bear Tours captured this harbinger of spring image in Churchill. Caribou, snow geese and Canada geese fill the landscape and feed on the bounty which the north provides this time of year! Bountiful Churchill summer will be upon us soon and avid explorers will flock to town for birding excursions, beluga whale charters and tundra exploring in search of fox, polar bears, Arctic hare and even wolves. This summer on the Hudson Bay is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent years. Stay posted for all the news and photos from the north!

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