The Fort Simpson Historical Society's exhibit "Dehcho: River Journeys" is now open at the Dehcho Heritage Centre. The two-story multimedia exhibition that combines past and present experiences on the Mackenzie River debuted on Tuesday in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.
Martina Norwegian, the president of the Fort Simpson Historical Society said the project was three years in the making. It was first delayed by a global pandemic in 2020 and then a devastating flood in 2021.
She said although the two events changed the trajectory of the project, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
"That slowed us down to really think and refocus. It's through those setbacks that we are where we're at," said Norwegian. "There are all kinds of little challenges but we overcame them."
The idea for the exhibit developed after former CBC reporter Drew Ann Wake contacted the historical society about some tapes she had recorded during the Berger inquiry in the 1970s.
The group partnered with the Gwich'in Tribal Council, which brought Sharon Snowshoe and Arlyn Charlie on board. Brian and Terry Jaffray then joined the project, both bringing extensive experience in education to the team.
The team then applied for and won a 2019 Arctic Inspiration Prize worth $370,000.
Dehcho: River Journeys has nine exhibits that explore the history of the Dehcho region through elder stories, artifacts, and artwork from Gwich'in, Sahtu, and Dehcho artists. All of these are shared with the viewer through interactive tablets.
The first floor focuses on the signing of Treaty 11 and the subsequent caveat brought by the Indian Brotherhood in 1973, which stopped all action on the land. The second floor focuses on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry that saw voices rise up in opposition to the development.
The exhibit will be at the Dehcho Cultural Centre for two years but Norwegian hopes it will get bigger instead of going away. She said the Dehcho Divisional Education Council is also making it part of the curriculum for the Northern Studies program in N.W.T. high schools
"You have to know where you've been and where you are at to know where you are going," said Norwegian.
She said her generation learned through oral teachings but one of the most important aspects of the exhibit is that it can now be shared with the youth.
"My generation wants to bring that alive to the next generations," said Norwegian.
'This is the real story of the people that live here'
Fort Simpson mayor Sean Whelly also attended and spoke at the exhibit opening. He said it's important for the community because it's the story of the Indigenous people who lived on and utilized the river and the land.
"It's a telling of a story that people need to know, it might be a bit of an alternative history that people aren't familiar with and they should be," said Whelly. "This is the real story of the people that live here."
Whelly said if these stories had not been recorded they could have been lost forever and instead they are now on display. He said showcasing the history of the region and involving youth in the process gives strength and pride to future generations.
"This type of history that's been captured while there's still people here to verify that this is the truth is so important," said Whelly. "It guides the future."
The event opened with guest speakers such as Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Kele Antoine, Métis Council president Darlene Sibbeston, Dehcho First Nations Grand Chief Herb Norwegian and elder Rita Cli.
"This is Dehcho land and we will share it with you," Cli said in her closing remarks.