fish camp

From the moment I jumped into the boat to head my Jijuu’s fish camp, I could literally feel my mind ease and my body begin to let go of tension and stress. I can honestly say that our fish camp is my happiest place on Earth. It is where I can think my straightest and find my balance all while learning about my Gwich’in heritage and spending time with my Jijuu.

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While at fish camp, there is always work to be done. The nets have to be checked all day long, the fish need to be scaled, gutted, cleaned and cut to be dried, we need to gather the right type of wood to be burned for the fish to dry properly, fetch water from the creek, cook meals, keep the place clean and we always end our nights with a game of soccer. Some would say that the best part of fish camp is the nightly soccer game – it can get pretty crazy sometimes, especially when everyone is out on the field. It isn’t so much about the score or who’s winning, but the laughter and teasing that we all share together, especially my Jijuu who stands on the side lines coaching and laughing like it’s going out of style.

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It is a really great feeling to be up there with my family and seeing everyone working together as a team to get all of the work done. And it really fills me with so much pride to watch my Jijuu pulling fish out of the net, cutting it up and hanging it in the fish house that her father had built when she was just a child.

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I can never stress enough, how much I admire and appreciate this little woman who I call my Jijuu. She is the epitome of strength and resilience. She is the hardest worker I know. Although she is in her late 70’s, she is always working, always moving, always doing something – right from the moment she rises right until she lays her head back down to sleep. In the time it takes me to cut one fish to dry, she’s finishing off her fourth. While I’m struggling to get up the hill, she’s already pouring herself a cup of tea and lighting her cigarette. She amazes me beyond words with what she is capable of. I can only hope and pray to one day be half of the women that she is. She is my truest friend.

 – shayla snowshoe

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My Jijuu

Today is just one day shy of my Jijuu (grandmother) Mary Effie’s birthday. Tomorrow, she will be turning 78 years old. I would just like to share a little bit about my Jijuu because this beautiful woman deserves to shine bright, not only on her birthday, but every damn day of the year.

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My Jijuu is the most respectful and humble woman I know. She carries herself with dignity, grace, and resilience. She’s a hunter, a fisher, a sewer, a teacher, a mother, a Jijuu, and my best friend. She is a strong believer in God, she likes to smoke cigarettes. and she’s crazy as hell. Although my Jijuu is an elder, she’s a little bit of a daredevil. I have some crazy stories of her and I travelling on white caps to get back to our family at fish camp, or crossing the melting ice road too close to it breaking up and her going along with just about any idea that I can conjure up. One of my favorite things about her is that she is always down to come on road trips with me.
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My Jijuu has given birth to eight children, two of whom have unfortunately passed away. She lost a daughter who was only a few months old and then her youngest son who passed away twenty-five years ago at the age of nineteen. Today, I want to tell you a little bit about my uncle Geejam and how even though he passed away, he is still close to her heart and binding her and I together.

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My Uncle Geejam was buried on October 19, 1991 and it just so happened that I was the first baby born on October 19, 1992. On the day that I was born, my Jijuu Christie Thompson gave me my Gwich’in name, “Gwikitch’ihkh’eh”, which means “In Return” because, as she said, I was the life given after his life was taken.

When my Jijuu talks about my Uncle Geejam, she speaks so fondly as she describes his love for the game of hockey, for his family – especially his siblings and cousins, and for her. He was a crazy guy who was always happy and everybody loved to tease. As she tells me about my Uncle, I can hear the pain in her voice as if it happened just yesterday.

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This one time, my Jijuu and I were driving the Dempster Highway on the way to our very first Moosehide Gathering in 2014. She was telling me about how my uncle would drive her wherever she wanted to go – all over the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. And then she looked at me with the sweetest look that only a Jijuu can give, and said “and now look at my Gwikich’ihkh’eh driving me around, just like my Geejam did”.

Oh my Jijuu, I hope and pray that I can drive you around for many many years to come.

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Gwiintl’oo Nahtinithan & Nidrin dagoonch’uu gwiinzii srigoojanhch’uu.

 – shayla snowshoe

Yellowknife known as Sǫ̀mbak’è (money place)

I daydream a lot about the North.

Perhaps it is because of all the stories my dad has told me about when he worked up there in his twenties. My dad still has a beautiful hand-made parka which he bought when he was up North. It has got to be at least 40 years old. From what I can remember, he worked on a ship, spending time in Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Yellowknife, Hay River, and many other places in the territories. Even though my dad denies it, I’m pretty sure that I’ve got some half-siblings somewhere up North (good thing my dad doesn’t do the internet and to my aunties out there who read this – shhhh). It was a time in his youth when he had money, no wife, and their was lots of work up in the territories during the 60s. For example, the mining industry near Yellowknife was thriving.

It looks as though someone took their finger and dug it into the earth and drew that river.

It could be that I am drawn to the North because of the stories my friend Elaine shared with me during our time at the University of Victoria. She’s from Fort McPherson. She told me about the caribou, geese, and life on the Peel River. And for a short while, my son and her nephew were pen pals. Adorable. We need to start that up again.

Images of life up there were almost entirely conceivable after watching Ice Lake Rebels, Arctic Air and Ice Road Truckers. Ha. Joking. No, it was Shawna, Caroline, and Shayla’s images from their home communities which drew me to take my family to Yellowknife for Spring Break. I know – even Shawna’s mom thought we were a bit strange spending our Spring Break up North. But with friends and family living up there and the chance to show my West Coast babies a REAL winter, we did it. And all of us southerners fell in love with the North. We fell hard. Honestly, how could you not? So much sunshine and no need to worry about slathering the kids with sunscreen because you are layered upon layer with clothing to stay warm. No heat stroke. It was wonderful.

-10C is better for my family than 30C.

We got to stay on a houseboat with a couple of those Ice Lake Rebels, Stephan and Allyce, at Vee Lake. What’s up with all these reality shows? We drove on ice roads. We went snowmobiling. We made snow forts and demolished snow forts, we saw the Aurora Borealis while we felt our hands and feet freezing. My sons adopted a new uncle.  We got snowed in, learned a bit about kite skiing and we learned our most valuable lesson – you must remember to plug in your vehicle when it is -30C overnight. Whoops. Wait, the valuable lesson I took from staying on their houseboat was how much we waste water and electricity in our homes on the grid. My kids loved not having to wash their hands after every time they used the compost toilet with the pee and poo hole. Don’t worry, I was there reminding them about the hand sanitizer.

Houseboat at Vee Lake.

Isn’t that snow so pretty?

This kid isn’t tired of me taking his photos all the time, yet.

He loves having a mom as a photographer.

I googled how to take photos of Northern Lights and this was my first image. I was so excited that I forgot to lower my ISO and adjust my shutter speed.

We woke up around 1am to see the Aurora Borealis and let me tell you it was freeeezing cold. I couldn’t stop clicking my shutter release because the lights were moving quickly. It was beautiful.

Meet Dora the dog.

Afterwards, we stayed with my husband’s cousin and his lovely family. They invited us into their home and we are will be forever grateful for their hospitality. I gave them the option to throw us out if we were out of hand but they actually kept us around. At their home, we got to watch the cousins bond with each other which was a memorable experience for all. I also earned my aunty pin: sent kid out into freezing temperature with rubber boots and those silly stretchy mittens (she had me convinced that all her other gear was wet and she’d be okay), woke toddler up from afternoon nap by walking into her room and banging open the door and abruptly turning on the lights, forgot to change toddlers poopy bum, listened to the kids talk non stop about poo, took lots of pictures, bruised up my knees crawling after baby in the kid tunnels at the ice castle and tried to earn trust from the sweet & spicy niece who wouldn’t have anything to do with me until I came home with a beaded pink necklace. Then she told me we were best friends. I knew the pink beads would work. Our family took us to see the Northern Heritage Centre where the kids ran through and spent most of the visit trying on homemade “Northern style” clothing. I went shopping for some Northern wear for myself at Weaver & Devore and Just Furs. Let me just mention here that I can still smell the smoked moose hide and feel the soft seal skin on my skin. My husband and I went on a date to the Salvation Army Thrift Store where I saw an old man wearing beautiful beaded moccasins with galoshes as he spoke to his wife in their language. I found a stylish mustard coloured sweater vest and my husband bought some Stephen King books. We then went for a walk though the mall which was a good representation of the changes in the North. Afterwards we walked holding mittened hands to do some t-shirt shopping at the family owned Erasmus Apparel. Best date yet because honestly we don’t get many (dates, that is). Our last couple of days were spent going to Aurora Village where we did touristy things like being instructed on how to roast a marshmallow by an Australian tour guide, drank hot chocolate in a teepee, tobogganed down a man made hill, and went for a lovely dog sled ride while listening to my kids complain about the dogs farting.

Our cousins and Brody’s wall of drawings.

Those moccasins with all that moose hair tufting!

Look there is a moose and you can even see the drool.

Astum, Astum!

My husband never gets tired of me asking him to pose for another photo.

This snowcastle was impressive. To see more photos you can read Caroline’s blog post from last year’s Snowking’s festival. They change the design every year.

We loved every moment about our trip up North. It went by so quickly that Shawna and I had the good intentions of collaborating on something but the only thing we collaborated on was attending a Booty exercise class (yassss did we ever burn it while looking like monkeys) and then talking about parenting and photography over a cup of hot cocoa with a peppermint tea bag. Shawna and I hadn’t seen each other since we finished our diplomas in photography at Western Academy in Victoria, BC. Back then she was fresh out of high school (perhaps not that fresh) and I was already pregnant with my second son. Over the years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing her grow as a photographer but also as a young woman and now mother. All these connections are so important for the growth of my young family and for me, as an artist, friend, mother and aunty.

Look – it’s the talented and lovely Shawna McLeod.

These are a few more stories about the North, that I can add to my daydreams for years to come. While my children can share their own stories about that time we went to Yellowknife for Spring Break.

We miss you.

*In the Dogrib language, the city is known as Sǫ̀mbak’è (Sawm-ba Kay) (money place)

-Amanda Laliberte