Nahanni River of Forgiveness: An epic journey, a story of reconnection and reconciliation

This piece is a guest blog by Geoff Bowie, director and co-producer of the Nahanni River of Forgiveness Documentary. The Nahanni River currently lacks protections as a navigable water that is excluded from the schedule of the Navigation Protection Act. 

A large hand-made boat of moose skin and spruce surges through the white water of the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  Dene men and women work the oars and rudder, remaking a historic journey through a wild and sacred landscape. Nahanni River of Forgiveness is about climbing out of the ashes of colonialism to build a bonfire of hope for equality, respect, and protection of the earth.

For centuries, the Dene way of life has stood as an example of sound principles of conservation and protection of wildlife and natural habitat.  The Dene have been subsistence hunters for thousands of years. Their survival depended on it. Today, they want their children and grandchildren to be able to continue these cultural practices for millennia to come.  Unpolluted lakes, rivers, and wetlands are highly valued. This resource is essential for birds and other wildlife to flourish – wildlife that has sustained the Dene through time.

Dene principles and values recognize equality with the land and all living things and extend personal and collective responsibility to protecting the land for future generations. These values have been taught for generations.

Today the Dehcho Dene First Nations are world leaders in habitat and wildlife protection.  The Dehcho have developed a unique land use plan bringing traditional indigenous knowledge and science together.  It demanded extensive research that became the backbone of the Dehcho land claims process that calls for the protection of more than 50% of their traditional territory.  This is a practical example of large-scale land protection and wildlife conservation that may serve as a blueprint for habitat protection around the world.

The Dehcho were also instrumental in the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve to 7 times its original area.  The partnership between the Dene and Parks Canada to run NNPR is a concrete example of the Dene vision for co-managing its traditional territory with Canada.  Many Dene too, are among Canada’s Indigenous Guardians who walk the land and observe variations in animals, plants, water, and the landscape.

Dene values toward the natural world are clear, strong, and unwavering.  In a move to communicate the Dene worldview to a wider audience, Grand Chief Herb Norwegian and his people decided to undertake a historic expedition and to have a feature film made about it.


Nahanni River of Forgiveness

The Nahanni River runs through one of the wildest, most beautiful, and fascinating landscapes in the world.  Celebrated as Canada’s Grand Canyon, the Nahanni is within the traditional territory of the Dene of the Dehcho First Nations.  In June 2018, several Dene families (12 people) will reach back into the past to reconnect with the spirit of their ancestors, to renew their culture by re-creating an epic journey through their most sacred land.  

High in the mountains near the headwaters of the Nahanni, they will build a great boat, 40 feet long, made of moose skins stretched over a spruce wood frame.  It will be constructed in the traditional way reviving ancient, almost forgotten, engineering skills passed down from generation to generation. The moose skin boat is like a cradle, a symbol of how the natural world has carried the Dene along the river of time through the ages.  

The Dene journey, through a protected area 30,000 square kilometres in size (4 times larger than Prince Edward Island), will take 21 days.  The boat will stop at many unique natural features including Rabbitkettle Hotsprings (Gahnjhthah), the largest tufa mound in Canada, and Virginia Falls (Nailicho), twice as high as Niagara Falls.  At times, it will travel through whitewater canyons with walls 1200 metres high, or meander through the maze of the Splits, a wetlands rich in wildlife. This distinct and extraordinary Nahanni environment was one of the earliest areas that UNESCO declared a World Heritage site.

Herb Norwegian, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations explains the project:   

“This is a trip to honour our ancestors.  It is our ancestors making the trip once again through their descendants.  It is a chance to reaffirm our identity, to nourish our collective memory and values, to build pride in our young people about who they are and build hope in the communities.  It will make a statement to the world that the Dene is a people of bravery and survival.

Please donate and be part of our bold journey, to honour our ancestors, to renew our culture and our relationship to the land, to heal the spirit, inspire our young people, and foster the confidence and energy to create opportunities and advance reconciliation between Indigenous and all Canadians in this country."

While Nahanni River of Forgiveness is a story of one people’s struggle for recovery from a history fractured by the loss of land and culture, their journey of renewal raises essential questions for us all about reconciliation and the urgent need to heal our natural world, increasingly under threat from climate change and other pressures.  

How you can help

The film about this journey is fully financed and set to go.  But money needs to be raised to cover the Dene costs. We have a crowdfunding campaign underway to help pay for transportation, materials, wages, and food costs.  Please go to our GoFundMe crowdfunding page to find out more about our story, to see the video trailer for the film and to click on ‘Donate’ to give anything you can from $10 - $1000.  There are perks too!

You can also donate through the charitable Fort Simpson Historical Society Boat Project web site: