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Next generation of elders

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 02/05) - A changing of the guard is taking place among the Deh Cho elders.

Rita Cli, a 59-year-old former Liidlii Kue First Nation chief and a grandmother, has been sitting with the regional elders' committee since September.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Rita Cli, always one to champion the benefits of a paper trail, takes notes at an elders' committee meeting in Fort Simpson. - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

"We have to start using the elders who can read and write. It is essential now. It's so critical so we can leave proper documentation," she said. "I'm not saying we're going to push the old ones out of the way. We will be the scouts to gather the information and then get their input."

In her six years as chief, Cli said she felt some of her male counterparts "tried to put a lid on" her but she refused to be silenced at the assemblies and meetings.

"It got to the point where they said, 'There she goes again,'" Cli recalled. "You have to be very vocal. You can't agree with everything."

Current Chief Keyna Norwegian requested that Cli, who also has more than 20 years experience as a civil servant and now works as a community liaison for Canadian Zinc Corporation, sit as an elder on behalf of the Liidlii Kue First Nation.

To be considered a respected elder, a person must lead a healthy lifestyle, according to Norwegian.

"Those are the people that I tend to listen to today," she said.

It is also important that any elder-to-be is familiar with the traditional Dene lifestyle, Norwegian added, but she acknowledged that many people in their 50s only lived on the land as children.

That was the case with Cli. She was born in the bush down-river from Fort Simpson and lived there until age 6 or 7.

But even after moving into town, she continued to speak Slavey and practice bush survival skills. She used snowshoes, hitched a dog team and split and hauled wood. So she knows what it's like to live a "hard life" on the land, she said.

Most of today's youth, preoccupied with television, computers and video games, seem to have very little interest in experiencing the Dene culture and practising the Slavey language, Cli acknowledged. She isn't sure how to change that, but suggested that the solution must begin at home. Having youth spend more time with elders and holding more cultural camps might be useful, she noted.

"We have to pull up our socks if we want to maintain our culture," she said. "We've got a big battle ahead of us."

An advocate of controlled industrial development, Cli also advises that today's youth need to stay in school or they will suffer.

"If they don't want to get out on the land, dammit, get an education," she said emphatically. "There's life beyond Fort Simpson. This is a big world."

One of her other concerns is social ills, particularly the perils of crack cocaine. The elders must make sure today's Deh Cho leaders safeguard the communities as best they can against such dangerously addictive drugs, she said.

"I really think the next crop of elders have a fight on their hands," said Cli.