Dehcho River Journeys exhibit set to open in Fort Simpson

After three years of work, the Fort Simpson Historical Society will unveil its first major exhibit: a celebration of Dene history and heritage called Dehcho River Journeys.

Long delayed by the pandemic and catastrophic flooding in the Northwest Territories village in 2021, the collection, which features art, historical artifacts and audio-visual elements, will finally open to the public this month.

Organizers collected one of the biggest awards in Canada – the Arctic Inspiration Prize – in 2020, along with $370,000 in prize money. While the collection's link is the Mackenzie River, the exhibit will be a four-part look at the signing of Treaty 11 in 1921, the Paulette caveat case, the Berger Inquiry and reflections on the present and future.

"It's been so many evenings, weekends... I've been pushing for this moment for 30 years," said Martina Norwegian, who co-led curation of the project with Sharon Snowshoe.

"It's so dear to my heart, capturing these stories and looking back at our own history from a Dene perspective. Because, you know, some of our other exhibits are about the Franklin expedition, about other people, or written by an anthropologist. So I wanted to change the focus, start looking at our own Elders and what they did."

The project began with a call to Drew Ann Wake, who travelled with the Berger inquiry in the 1970s as a reporter for the CBC. Years later, residents of Fort Simpson invited her to bring those tapes back to the N.W.T.

"We decided to go on a tour of the communities, and I think it was the second day, at two or three o'clock in the morning, we heard a knock at the door," said Wake.

"And it was a family that had heard that we had the voice of their great-grandfather, and they had come 30 miles down the river to hear the voice of somebody from generations ago in their own family.

"That's when we realized that people in the North were really excited to hear these voices of their grandparents and great-grandparents."

Wake's audio recordings, along with photos of the speakers and what they were talking about, have been combined into short films and form the backbone of the exhibit.

The multimedia project will be available online later this year, and Norwegian hopes it will eventually form part of the curriculum in Dehcho schools. For the moment, she said what's most exciting is that the exhibit, housed in Fort Simpson's newly renovated heritage centre, is days away from being shared with the public.

"Just for me personally, it gives me so much pride to be Dene, you know? The things our Elders have done," Norwegian said. "And it makes me so proud to be able to have the resources to share these stories."

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio