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He yearned for the land

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 09/05) - Spiritual contentment and dispensing advice with confidence are qualities that define an elder, according to Jonas Antoine.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Jonas Antoine strongly believes in the preservation of the land and Dene culture. He brings a broad range of experience to the elders' table. - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

"One day people will come to you seeking that knowledge, and that is the greatest privilege of being an elder," he said.

At age 64, he considers himself a student to the senior elders, but "all of a sudden I'm starting to feel that responsibility," he said while taking a break from an elders committee meeting in Fort Simpson on Nov. 24.

An accomplished hunter, trapper and fisherman, Antoine has attended many meetings as a Deh Cho harvester.

He has only recently begun to sit among the elders.

He spent the first 17 years of his life at his birthplace, Rabbitskin, located approximately 30 km upriver from Fort Simpson. His father, grandfather and uncles helped shape his traditional lifestyle, he recalled.

In and out of school as a boy, he eventually attained his high school diploma in Yellowknife and spent a year at Ryerson College in Toronto.

After working for CBC in Yellowknife for a few years, Antoine began to travel abroad.

He played guitar and managed a band that toured the U.S. in the late 1960s, even landing a gig at President Richard Nixon's inauguration.

He met musical superstars Marty Robbins and Neil Diamond along the way.

In 1969, Antoine married his girlfriend and settled down in Wisconsin.

Over the next 20 years he served as a cameraman for a TV station, toiled for a company that assembled packaging equipment, was a plant electrician, worked for a plastic-injection moulding company, and got involved with unions.

"But there was not a day that went by when I wasn't homesick," he said inside his modest Fort Simpson abode.

For personal reasons, he came back to the Deh Cho in 1989. He gradually resumed his harvesting practices and began speaking the Dene language once again.

"I love this life," he said. "That's what I was born into and that's where I'm going to be for the rest of my life."

Now involved in conservation initiatives, Antoine firmly supports the Dehcho First Nation's land-use plan.

Drafted with input from the elders, that plan will protect half of the region from forms of industrial development. Clean water, he contended, is more valuable than gas.

Any nation that lives in balance with nature "will be a great nation," said Antoine.

He is troubled by the effects that today's technologies and junk food are having on sedentary youth.

He puts great emphasis on young people becoming aware and proud of their Dene culture and heritage. He likes the idea of a Dene school, which would offer South Slavey immersion and traditional lessons.

"I think it would be positive to build a learning centre for cultural skills and beliefs," he said.