Behind the Lens
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The Ni Hat’Ni Dene Guardians pose in front of a sign they just set up welcoming newcomers to the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. Photo: Christine Lin
“Madame, madame!” A shrill cry followed from behind as an airport attendant hurried after me and the rest of the film crew. Here we were, about to embark on our second-to-last transfer after spending the night on the floor of the Montreal airport just hours prior. “Your bag is oversized!” With puffy eyes and several hundred pounds of camera equipment, not willing to argue, we paid a fee, then hopped on a plane to Yellowknife. The next morning, we embarked on our final destination: Łutsël K’é, a community located on the southern shore at the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake – called Tu Nedhé in the Denesuline language – in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
In July, I had the opportunity to visit Łutsël K’é for two weeks to direct a documentary about the community’s relationship with their land and how it ties in with the creation of a new 14,070 km2national park, Thaidene Nëné, and the Ni Hat’Ni Dene Guardians that protect it. Ni Hat’Ni translates to “Watchers of the Land”, a title which the upcoming film also shares. As the name suggests, these Indigenous Guardians steward their land, watching over Tu Nedhé Lake during the summer months and monitoring caribou during the winter months. In the film, the younger teenage guardians have just arrived on site to learn from the senior guardians and spend time out on the water to live off their traditional territory.
Map of Thaidene Nëné.
Thanks to National Geographic and Audubon’s support, I was able to bring a small crew of four: Victoria Guillem, Sophia Lebowitz, Jeremy Liguori, and myself. We arrived as outsiders to the community of Łutsël K’é with the hope of capturing a glimpse of their story and paying our respects. The film is about reconnecting with your homeland and what that means for Indigenous sovereignty in the face of a changing generation. In the process, I was able to connect with the people and their shared land in a way that took me by surprise. My most vivid memories are from the time spent on the water; there’s nothing quite like taking a cold sip after dipping your bottle into Tu Nedhé Lake, speeding towards the cliffs on an open boat. Each time we traveled on the water, we were taught to give an offering of tobacco, thanking the lake for providing us with resources and safe passage. Whenever we camped out with the Ni Hat’ni Dene Guardians and the community, we would end the night exchanging stories by the fire and hearing from the elders.
The film crew (plus canine member Nala) in transit on the summer vehicle of choice: wieldy boats. Photo: Iris Catholique
I distinctly remember the last night on the boat as we traveled back from Fort Reliance to the town with Iris Catholique, the fearless Thaidene Nëné manager, at the helm. Jeremy and I were covered head to toe in tarp, water splashing in every few seconds as we tossed around like cargo from the currents – we looked like human spring rolls! It was at once cold, dark, and exhilarating. Hours later under the moonlight, right as I was falling in and out of a very rocky slumber, a muskox looked towards us from a distance. In that moment, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the Ni Hat’ni Dene Guardians and all the days we spent with them on the land, my best friends and crew members, the birds and fish that surrounded us each day, and the chance to experience just a small slice of this ancestral home.
“To be in Łutsël K’é, you had to be present,” I wrote in my journal upon returning. “It’s both difficult and easy to adjust back to life here in New York. It’s easy because it’s so comfortable, so predictable, so familiar. But I really f*ck!ng miss them. I can only try my best to bring some of Łutsël K’é with me wherever I go.”
Mahsi’ cho (thank you), Łutsël K’é! May we meet again one day.
Sunset over Łutsël K’é. Photo: Christine Lin