Decades ago, the Dene of the Northwest Territories would travel every fall for five hundred kilometres up the Nahanni River to spend the winter in their hunting grounds, and in the spring, they’d build large boats from moose hides for the risky trip home. With the fading of traditional Dene ways, there has been no animal-skin boat down the Nahanni in over a century. Now, a group of twelve Dene return to the magnificent landscape of the Nahanni to recreate their ancestral trip. It’s both a thrilling once-in-a-lifetime adventure and a very intimate journey of reconnection and healing. Viewers are invited to join this landmark trip in the beautifully filmed, Nahanni River of Forgiveness, makes its broadcast premiere on Sunday, August 9 at 9 p.m. ET/ PT on documentary Channel.
This trip on the Nahanni isn’t only about bringing back traditional Dene skills, the river with its sacred sites holds spiritual significance for the Dene and for the participants this is a chance to connect with their cultural roots and find solace. The issues and traumas these Nahanni River voyagers confront are similar to those facing much of Canada’s Indigenous population.
“When colonialism began, they basically drove the faith out of the people,” says Grand Chief Herb Norwegian, who initiated the trip, fulfilled a lifelong dream, and came up with the film’s title. “Now what we want to do is to have the land bring that back to us. And to make us feel like Dene again. Picking up the bits and pieces, crawling out of the ashes of colonialism.” For Norwegian this Nahanni voyage is a message of hope for the future of the Dene as a vibrant and thriving people and for a repaired relationship with Canada.
In Nahanni River of Forgiveness viewers will see Dene survival skills brought back to life. Mountain Dene from the north join Dehcho Dene for this project because they still have the traditional knowledge for constructing a moose-skin boat. It’s very painstaking work as the boat takes shape. But will this handcrafted vessel actually make it down the wild Nahanni with its narrow gorges and massive Virginia Falls?
Director Geoff Bowie notes the Mountain Dene are great boat builders. “They passed on their knowledge to the Dehcho Dene and they worked really well as a team. But on an adventure like this sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan. Then again, maybe every documentary needs something to go wrong?”
Preparing for the trip is a fascinating part of Nahanni River of Forgiveness, and viewers will marvel at the visual splendor of the Nahanni, but the heart of this documentary are the stories of the people who made the journey. A few of them are:
***Lisa Williams, Dene arts and craftswoman who has faced family upheaval and addiction issues: “I don’t feel away from home at all. I feel like I’m in my own backyard. Going down this river and having a thought of being forgiven and to forget about any heavy load that I’m carrying around, it’s awesome…”
***Lawrence Nayally, a well-known radio broadcaster who has struggled to exorcise his demons: “Being on the land like this, it makes me feel like I want to be the best Dene I can possibly be. All the sadness, all the struggles, all the pain, all the anger, all the frustrations, all of the mishaps, mistakes, rejections, bullying—all of this just….mmm! Got me to this point. That’s all part of the journey and we’re here on this river to share some of that… There’s still a lot of forgiveness that needs to happen. But there’s also still a lot of apologies that need to happen, as well.”
***Rochelle Yendo, she never had a role model, experienced discrimination and is now the first in her family to attend university: “I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety, and being on this trip, I noticed that I was still hurting because I haven’t let some things go. You know, I have to forgive a lot of people, you know, to move on.” She hopes the trip will inspire other young Dene to preserve their culture and language.
***John Sabourin, an accomplished sculptor and painter whose work is based on his Dene culture: “ I think once people start to heal then maybe…maybe they can have a sense of control and a sense of belonging.”
Nahanni River of Forgiveness is a record of the voyage twelve people take to reconnect with the land and with their ancestors and it’s the story about their efforts to find a way forward. As Herb Norwegian says, “Forgiveness means to put back, to repair, to reconcile. Forgiveness is a journey. It is a confession of what has happened to the land, about what has happened to us, and about taking responsibility.” Viewers will not soon forget the story of this very special trip down the Nahanni and the people who were on it.
WATCH THE TRAILER:
Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/RiverofForgiveness/
documentary Channel webpage: https://www.cbc.ca/documentarychannel/docs/nahanni-river-of-forgiveness
NAHANNI RIVER OF FORGIVENESS is directed by Geoff Bowie and produced by Geoff Bowie and Michael Allder. Associate Producers are Herb Norwegian, Caroline Cox and Rita Kotzia. Executive producers are Gordon Henderson and Geoff Bowie. It is produced by River of Forgiveness Productions Ltd in association with the documentary Channel.
NAHANNI RIVER OF FORGIVENESS is produced by River of Forgiveness Productions Ltd (90th Parallel Productions Ltd and Elan Productions Ltd), in association with the documentary Channel and with the participation of the Canada Media Fund (CMF), Rogers Documentary Fund, Rogers Cable Network Fund, HotDocs Forum, the Government of Canada – Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit Program, the Ontario Creates – Tax Credit Program, Government of Northwest Territories and the Northwest Territories Film Commission.