Caroline speaks about the Dene culture in the region. Kim Clune photo.
Natural Habitat Adventures client/traveler Kim Clune captured this wonderful perspective of Dene Elder Caroline Bjorklund last fall in Churchill.
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.
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 celebrate this Thanksgiving, as our own Native Americans continue to fight for their land and rights. Standing Rock was a battle zone this time last year. When will we ever learn?
Caroline Bjorklund (far right) and her sister Nancy with a couple of old Nat Hab guys. Brendan O’Neill photo.
Churchill and the world lost an amazing Dene elder this weekend. Caroline Bjorklund was a friend and quite an inspiration to the whole community and everyone that was lucky to meet her and hear her story. More will be posted in the coming days regarding her and her life in Churchill.
Natural Habitat Adventures guide Drew Hamilton reports that northern lights season in Churchill got off to a roaring start this week! Awesome aurora borealis and fine first looks from Natural Habitat’s Aurora pod and the Aurora Domes warmed the hearts and hands of his group of hearty travelers. The season started with -40 degree temps though the groups spirits were sky high as one could imagine. The trip is superbly outfitted with high – tech gear to keep all travelers warm while they patiently and excitedly wait for lights in the northern sky. The advantage to the colder Arctic air is it usually ensures crystal clear skies for exceptional visibility. A spectacular moon and stellar sun dogs each day added “icing” on this past week’s phenomenal start to the season.
Northern lights over Churchill. drew Hamilton photo.
Natural Habitat guide Drew Hamilton with an icy beard. Drew Hamilton photo.
Days were filled with incredible cultural presentations on the history and ecology of Churchill from local native elders Caroline Bjorklund and Myrtle de Meulles as well as Parcs Canada interpreter Duane. Snow sampling out at the Churchill Northern Studies Center with Matt and Igloo building with Harry Tootoo supplemented th esub – Arctic experience quite well. A supreme highlight of the trip was dog sledding with Dave Daly at Wapusk Adventures. The Ididamile is still going strong! What a start to the new season!
Doing the Ididamile with Wapusk Adventures. Drew Hamilton photo.
The dogyard at Wapusk Adventures. Drew Hamilton photo.
A swirl of aurora borealis over Churchill’s boreal forest. Drew Hamilton photo.