“I think as Dene people we've changed the world many times. We've changed this entire world…and it's not because we want to, it’s just because it's needed,” says Deneze Nakehk’o. He is Dene, originally from Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories and is related to the Antoine family. He took steps to reclaim the traditional name that was taken from them. “It's not that I'm ashamed of Antoine and my family, it's the opposite. I'm so proud and I'm so happy to be part of the family that I wanted to have our own name, because I'm Dene and it's a big part of who I am in my identity,” he reflects.
“That's a part of the thing about colonization, other people telling us who we are, what we are. I think part of the process for a lot of Dene and Indigenous folks out there is to do a deep dive within their own self and their own families and their own family histories…the more you do the little research talking to relatives and aunties and uncles… the more amazing stories you find and the more you just learn how strong, how smart, how intelligent, and how freaking amazing Dene people are,” he continues.
His journey in uncovering his true family name made him proud. Growing up, Nakehk'o faced a lot of discrimination and racism and went through a period where he was ashamed to be Dene. He felt being white would be easier but he overcame that phase with the help of his family.
After high school, Nakehk’o wasn’t sure what he wanted to do until he saw actor Gary Farmer present about Indigenous representation in media and how Indigenous people needed to be able to tell their own stories. He shared how all media about Indigenous people at the time was from a non-Indigenous perspective. The presentation inspired Nakehk’o to figure out how to become a filmmaker. He went to school in Oregon and Chicago and planned to come home to share the stories of his community. He ended up becoming a parent and while traditionally Dene men live with their spouse’s family, they decided to move up North to give their child the best possible chance.
"Traveling really helped me appreciate my home more."
With nobody in his home community hiring documentary filmmakers, he eventually got a job with the Native Communication Society and CKLB. He was hired by the TV department and he helped with radio production, making ads and cleaning up audio, working his way up. He worked at a country music station and found it was a steep learning curve, sometimes filling in for the announcer while knowing nothing about country music. He did his best and ended up becoming a video journalist with APTN, then with CBC.
From broadcasting, Nakehk’o went into education and worked in the high schools. Then, when Idle No More was taking place, he and some others organized some events and were recognized for their good work. They established the organization, Dene Nahjo, which means “someone who's smart and capable, but also innately talented.” That was what they aspired to, being smart and capable on the land as a group and to work together in a good way. Together, they created cultural programming, creating safe Indigenous spaces where people could learn the skills they didn’t get a chance to learn due to colonization.
“Everything has a spirit, even money has a spirit. So how our spirit connects with those spirits, it's the basis of our spirituality.”
Dene Nahjo is somewhere Indigenous people could reconnect with their culture and learn what was not passed down to them due to the disruption in culture they experienced. Their programming targets women and children as they have been most often impacted by colonization. “The women are actually the center and the heart and the strength of who we are as Dene people,” he explains, reflecting on the way they look to put power back where it should be by empowering women. Similarly, they empower young people with Indigenous leadership workshops.
“These colonizers, they knew to take away our power through the women and the kids.”
Now, Nakehk'o works with organizations facilitating and hosting conferences, providing training in cultural competency, cultural safety and anti-racism. He does cross cultural facilitation, strategic planning and visioning, tending to be selective about what he takes on and is inspired by young people like his children. He wants to leave something good for them and to make a good path for people to follow and expand on themselves.
“Learning from other people makes me want to learn more about our own ways.”
Something he hopes youth will learn is that colonial ways of knowing and understanding aren’t the only ways of knowing and understanding. “We have our own ways of knowing, … and gaining knowledge and information within that way of knowing. There's protocol, there's culture, there's things that we need to do in order to gain knowledge within our system and it's not just about reading books,” he shares, elaborating on his people’s kinesthetic way of learning. He sees reconnecting with those practices as a way of healing.
“As a Dene person, the source of my powers is when my feet are on the ground of my traditional places.”
As he travels for work, Nakehk'o is learning to help his community back home, even if he has to face some silly questions. That’s why he thinks travelling is good for young people, particularly for education. “Life experience and being away from home, really helps you out in a lot of different ways, make you a better person, and a person that appreciates where they come from a little bit more, if you have that opportunity to travel and to live in another place,” he explains.
“As Indigenous folks, we're kind of tied to place and that place is really the source of our superpowers as Dene people. That's why we're drawn so much to the land up here.”
Overcoming obstacles in his life, Nakehk’o has been working to understand his own trauma responses, like trauma survivors in his community do. He takes responsibility for his own wellness and carries with him good lessons he’s learned. Those lessons have allowed him to do what his people have done for so long - change the world, not because he wanted to, but because it was needed. Creating cultural connections, organizing for Idle No More, telling the stories of his people, Deneze Nakehk’o is making change and centering what matters: women, children and the land.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.