Natural Habitat Adventures is sad to share the recent passing of a beloved Sayisi Dene elder. Caroline Bjorklund spoke to our Churchill travelers about the culture of the Dene people, and the hardships they have faced. She highlighted her ancestor’s ability to live off the land, showing traditional medicines and speaking of their reliance on caribou. She is a survivor of the government-forced relocation of the Dene from Duck Lake to Churchill in the 1950s, and spent her life striving to preserve the history and traditions of her people through educational initiatives and storytelling. The northern lights shone particularly bright last week in a fitting tribute to Caroline, honoring her life’s work.
Natural Habitat Adventures traveler and nature photographer Kim Clune wrote this wonderful story about her group’s visit with Caroline in Churchill last fall.
One night, after scouting polar bears on the tundra, our group huddled around a table filled with items from native cultural history. Caroline Bjorklund opened her talk with a profound statement slid in-between some caribou facts.
“I finally started learning who I am. It’s hard. Especially when you’ve lost your language, your culture, and your elders.”
Caroline’s story was like listening to two intertwined narratives, one a hunting documentary and the other a memoir of personal trauma. Both were woven into a found poetry that took some reflection to decipher.
Caroline and her two young brothers were ripped from their parents at a tender age. Terrified and screaming, she was forced into a helicopter and then a school where she was separated from her brothers and punished for speaking her own language. She never saw her family and was never taught the Dene (said Den-neh) culture, Dene being the tribe from which she came.
I had read about such things before, but here was a survivor, clearly marred by such horrific events, telling me her personal account.
Caroline’s parents, like many Dene, were likely moved to uninhabitable land after being told to abandon their means for survival, including canoes, tools, dogs, and sleds. Many native tribes were told that these items would be later returned. They never were.
“Then alcohol was introduced and the people forgot who they were,” she said.
After burying so much of her own painful disconnect in alcohol for years, Caroline embraced sobriety and finally began to heal her heart and recapture her identity by learning tribal ways.
She told us about the Caribou once used by her family for food, clothing, sinewy fishing nets, and how no portion of the animal was wasted. She even learned to make a child’s game from boiling a caribou foot and stringing together the knuckles.These acts are not second nature and the ingredients not readily available, as they were for her parents. It took investigative work to unearth a way of Dene life that has been intentionally stripped from her and decimated.
Caroline’s mother and sister persuaded her to learn traditional beading, which she resisted taking up until recently. You’d never know it. To see her first work on a pair of mitts shows the attention she pays to detail and the care with which she makes each stitch. It’s as if she’s making up for lost time with precise intent.
She has also learned about tribal medicine, spruce tree gum for disinfection and dwarf Labrador tea for flu-like symptoms. Her brother tricked her into drinking it once. It tasted terrible. The expression on her face as she told the story led to a genuine chuckle at this prank. Sibling shenanigans must be cherished after so much disconnect. But who am I to guess? I can’t even comprehend how lonely her life must have been.
One on one, after her talk, I asked Caroline when she was reunited with her brother, the one who convinced her to drink the tea. She and her young brother were never reunited. Nor was she with her biological mother. She speaks of other tribe members as sister and brother. Elders are mother and granny. She calls them all teachers and family, and cherishes each one, but none are the people she was born to.
What Caroline made so evident to me, somebody who knows only the textbook history, is that this history is still very much alive and the story continues. Caroline is my sister, my mother, my granny, showing me that we can and must do better as human beings.
Sharing her most precious vulnerability, Caroline’s story is riddled with tangents. Speaking of these torments again and again causes her pain. Some talks are quite emotional, others more detached due to the fatigue of reliving her history. Regardless of the personal cost, she continues to educate on the very personal impact of inhumane policy and practice so that such atrocities never happen again.
Caroline is a true hero, spinning her suffering into harsh but necessary education. THIS is what I celebrated last Thanksgiving, as our own Native Americans continue to fight for their land and rights.