A film shows how Canadian Indigenous paddled over 500 km in a handmade mooseskin boat

Two years ago, a group of 12 Dene adventurers set out on a life-changing river voyage in the remote Nahanni National Park Reserve. Now, they’re banking on a film about their journey changing viewers’ lives too. (River of Forgiveness Productions Ltd.)
Lawrence Nayally had never been in a mooseskin boat himself, but he grew up hearing about his grandfather’s adventures in huge canoes made from as many as 14 moosehides.

So when former Dehcho grand chief Herb Norwegian and documentary filmmaker Geoff Bowie invited Nayally to be part of a 2018 recreation of a traditional Dene voyage by mooseskin boat, he didn’t hesitate.

“The unity and harmony and peace and love and friendships that were made on [those journeys] was always something that I wanted,” Nayally, host of CBC Radio’s Trail’s End in Yellowknife, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to be part of something as powerful as the journey we took.”

That journey is now the subject of a documentary by Bowie called Nahanni: River of Forgiveness, premiering Sunday, Aug. 9, on CBC’s Documentary channel.

Listen to the CBC program As It Happens (22:11)

Following the path of their ancestors

For centuries, Dene providers in what is now the Northwest Territories would spend their winters hunting and trapping near the headwaters of the Nahanni River. When spring arrived, they would rely on boats of moose skin and spruce to take them home.

As far as Norwegian was concerned, recreating that historic annual voyage became a way of “picking up the bits and pieces, crawling out of the ashes of colonialism,” he said in a press release.

“He wanted to do something to boost his people,” Bowie said. And as one of the participants chosen for the voyage, Nayally says he succeeded.

“It was [about] connecting with my past, with my elders and ancestors that have used that area for countless generations, to say that we’re still here — that we’re still carrying on these traditions, these cultures. We still know who we are.” Lawrence Nayally
‘So much work went into it’

While the bulk of the film chronicles the group’s journey downriver, a significant portion is also devoted to the painstaking work of building the boat that carries them.

Nayally and other Dehcho Dene participants were guided in the process by Mountain Dene from further north, who still possess the traditional skills required for this labour-intensive boat building. 

The canoe is made from moosehides, young spruce, willow and sinew. (River of Forgiveness Productions Ltd.)

“The techniques that they use, the care and respect that they had for the hide and the wood — everything around us — was just amazing,” Nayally said.

“And to see the final product be put into the water was just an overwhelming feeling of joy and happiness … it’s just overpowering.”

Norwegian was not available for an interview, but he told CBC North last year that building the canoe was “quite an undertaking.” Just stitching together the moosehides took about four days, he said.

“Just stitch by stitch and it slowly came together,” Norwegian said. “It was an incredible, incredible moment, every step of the way.”

As an observer on the trip, Bowie says he was struck by the camaraderie and joyfulness the group brought to their often gruelling labour.

“There’s moments in the film — like one time they’re trying to lift this really heavy hide up onto a pole and it falls down — that I could imagine myself saying, ‘Jeez. This is terrible.’ And they just instantly burst out laughing,” Bowie said.

“It was wonderful to watch them.”

Highs and lows

Despite the eventual successes, there were moments of real hardship on the voyage.

At one point, the group’s boat became so riddled with holes it wasn’t clear whether it would make it to their final destination in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. But Nayally says he never believed the doubters.

Former Dehcho grand chief Herb Norwegian says completing the boat was ‘quite an undertaking.’ (John Bingham/90th Parallel Productions)
“Boy, were they wrong! We persevered. We did not give up. And that is an indication as to the strength of the spirit of the Indigenous people of North America. We’ve overcome so many obstacles.” Lawrence Nayally

Another of those obstacles were the mighty Virginia Falls in the Nahanni National Park. Nearly twice the height of Ontario’s Niagara Falls, they would traditionally have been portaged by foot. But on this trip, the group relied on a helicopter to carry their boat.

Asked what he thinks his grandfather would have made of the method, Nayally laughed.

“He would have been like, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way!'”

A healing journey

For Nayally, the trip was also an opportunity for healing. In Nahanni: River of Forgiveness, he recalls his time in foster care as a child — as well as subsequent stints in juvenile detention and suicidal thoughts.

The CBC host says it was difficult sharing those chapters of his life on camera, but he “did it for a reason.”

He says he wanted young Dene people and other Indigenous youth to know.

“We can go through a lot. We can go through hell. But we can also come out of it even stronger. Never lose sight of who you are.” Lawrence Nayally
Lawrence Nayally, one of the stars of the documentary Nahanni: River of Forgiveness, is the host of CBC Radio’s Trail’s End in the Northwest Territories. (River of Forgiveness Productions Ltd.)

That message seems to be getting through.

Bowie says he’s already heard from Ruby Jumbo, the band manager of the Sambaa K’e First Nation at Trout Lake, where local Dene youth were able to see the documentary.

“It was really an important film [for them],” he said. “And she did point out that Lawrence, especially, the kids could relate to.”

Bowie says that affinity is one he understands intimately. He described one moment that unfolded on the beach in Fort Simpson, after the group’s long-awaited arrival in their now hole-riddled moose-skin boat.

“Suddenly Lawrence sort of drifts up to where we are and he says, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this.… This boat’s full of holes. And they stand for the promises that have been broken by Canada towards Indigenous people, and it’s up to our generation to repair it. And we have to do that together,'” Bowie said.

“And it was just like, ‘Wow, Lawrence, thank you. What a perfect ending.'”

For his part, Nayally says despite its challenges, the journey is one he’d repeat again in a heartbeat — and one he hopes inspires his own children.

“My hope is that one day they’ll take a similar journey as I did,” he said.

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut, Canada writer wins Indigenous creative non-fiction award, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Walt Disney Animation Studios to release Saami-language version of “Frozen 2”, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Russia adds ancient sites along Norway’s border to cultural heritage list, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Can cross-border cooperation decolonize Sami language education?, Eye on the Arctic 

United States: Alaska Indigenous woman has become ‘TikTok famous’ for celebrating her culture online, CBC North

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