Dechinta grads build on tradition in modern context

Dechinta grads build on tradition in modern context
The crew of students, program staff, elders and instructors depart from another fall semester learning on the land at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning.Photo: Erin Freeland-Ballantyne.

Students graduating from the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning last Wednesday received more than a piece of paper for their accomplishments, taking with them a sense of individual and cultural empowerment after spending six weeks on the land learning practical and theoretical tools for decolonization.

Four students completed their fall semester program last week with a celebration at K’alemi Dene School in N’Dilo, meant to recognize their growth and accomplishments over the last month and a half at Blachford Lake, where traditional land-based activities like hunting, fishing and moosehide tanning were mixed with lectures on indigenous self-determination, the history of colonization, research methodologies and creative writing.

“It was really lovely, really positive,” student Peyton Straker, originally from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan but now living in Yellowknife, said of her first experience at Dechinta. “I actually was raised in a white family, so I’ve been kind of disconnected from what it means to be an indigenous woman in 2013. That was kind of what made me want to go, just the disconnect. I was just curious as to how am I colonized, how do I decolonize?”

Those critical and personal questions were at the heart of the autumn session, with instructors like Idle No More founder Tanya Kappo, Dene elder Francois Paulette and artist-educator Jane Dragon, among many others, prodding students to explore ways of living traditionally in the modern world by teaching on-the-land activities and starting discussions on decolonization.

“All of these concepts are challenging at first to start to understand, and usually they’re not concepts the students have had the opportunity to delve into meaningfully. At Dechinta, we have the community to support that process,” said Mandee McDonald, whose role as team leader at Dechinta sees her providing personal, logistical and academic support to the students.

McDonald said she was able to see each student progress uniquely, but noticed a general increase in self-assuredness over the six weeks.

“Really, each week was a huge increase in confidence for all of them, from speaking in class when we had lectures and going for it with the bush skills, just picking up a fish, going down to the water and cleaning it off,” she said.

Jennifer Neyando, Mandee McDonald and Peyton Straker scrape a moosehide as part of their indigenous sovereignty course at Dechinta.

Photo: Erin Freeland Ballantyne

Jennifer Neyando, Mandee McDonald and Peyton Straker scrape a moosehide as part of their indigenous sovereignty course at Dechinta.

Despite people bringing different levels of experience to the table, McDonald said the group found ways to use those differences to support one another.

“When everyone comes from such different backgrounds, collectively we have a huge base of knowledge to draw from to do all the work and learning that we have to do together,” she said.

Sam Mantla of Gameti was one of the students with existing hands-on experience participating in traditional bush activities, who decided to pursue the program to both boost his academic credentials and give him some additional real-world experience.

He said the experience has given him a stronger understanding of who he is as a Tlicho person and where he fits into the world, especially thanks to the several elders who were onsite for the six weeks to pass on their teachings.

“Having the elders there to ground us, for me, they were like the centre of our program,” Mantla said. “Whenever I needed help doing something, like cutting fish, or just even talking or telling stories, it made me feel like everything was going great, everything is fine. Just having them around all the time was the best.”

Straker also expressed her thanks to the elders for being on hand and providing a wealth of knowledge.

Peyton Straker, Sam Mantla, Mandee McDonald and Jennifer Neyando take wilderness first aid at Dechinta.

Photo: Erin Freeland-Ballantyne

Peyton Straker, Sam Mantla, Mandee McDonald and Jennifer Neyando take wilderness first aid at Dechinta.

“It kind of changed the vibe at camp with the elders being there; there was a gentleness and a different understanding,” she said. “They were so patient with us, just super gentle and very positive, and gave us very explicit full disclosure of their experiences with colonization and decolonization, and went into detail about all their personal residential school experiences, which humanizes your academic experience.”

Dechinta is a land-based, University of Alberta-accredited educational institute led by Northern leaders, experts, elders and instructors, with courses open to people of all educational and cultural backgrounds.

Applications are now being accepted for winter/spring semester, with 10 spots open. For more information, visit

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