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The way life used to be

Marcellais shares insights with park's tourists

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Aug 16/02) - It's just after 9 p.m. and the sun is setting on Nahanni National Park Reserve.

A dozen people sit on wooden benches, arranged pentagonally, as the shadows of the tall trees grow longer and a fire burns in a pit before them.

With Virginia Falls roaring faintly in the distance, park interpreter Trina Marcellais welcomes everyone and serves minty-smelling Labrador Tea, which she explains was traditionally used by the Dene to treat stomach cramps and body aches.

Her father, Jonas, and mother, Elsie, used to live not too far away, near Yohin Lake. Jonas hunted for moose and sheep in the nearby mountains.

"Basically at a young age my dad had to know all the river systems that went into (what is now) the park," she tells the visitors.

Jack Laflair was the first trader to come to the area. He was followed by Dick Turner, who was also a prospector. Trina's father used to trade lynx and beaver pelts for items like shells, coffee and sugar. She says her father remembers having to harvest enough lynx pelts to stack equal height to an upright rifle in order to trade for that very rifle. Yet her parents didn't think of life as arduous.

"For them it was just a natural thing," she says.

Elsie, who had nine children -- seven of them were born in the bush -- would teach her kids about medicinal plants, such as moss to alleviate skin rashes. She also passed on her ability to tan hides and sew, according to Trina. Jonas, on the other hand, would imbue his children with hunting, trapping and skinning skills.

Eventually the government began pushing aboriginal people to move into communities.

"At first my parents were reluctant. They didn't want to leave the land," Trina says, adding that Jonas and Elsie feared the loss of traditional practices. "But my dad wanted to give us kids a fair chance at getting an education."

So the family moved to what is now Nahanni Butte. Homes went up and a church and store were constructed. A "tent school" was also established for the kids. Then came float planes and, eventually, a winter road.

Trina, who spends alternate nights telling visitors of Yamoria (the Dene creator) and the Naha (the mountain people) hands out birch-bark baskets, moose-hair tufting, a miniature canoe made of caribou hide and wood and other traditional crafts and tools for everyone to see.

About to enter her second year at Grande Prairie College this fall, she says her mother is encouraging her to speak Slavey more often.

"My mom still raised me very traditionally. Now that I think of it, I'm really glad my mom did that because now I have the skills to live on my own," says Trina. "I thank (my parents) every time I go back."