We wanted conversation and information from those who were interested and able. We would tell them what we knew from the historicalrecord, and speak with them informally about anything they wished totell of their own experiences. This kind of explanation of our interestmakes us appear as amateur (or naïve), as in fact we are with this kindof thing, but he seems to feel that it is worthwhile work.
And then hesays, looking right at us, "You must be careful with the stories that theelders tell you ... they do not want to repeat themselves." This is clearlya significant thing he is telling me in that moment in his office, and ittakes considerable strength to stop myself from pursuing it with him.Why, I wonder, would a story only want to be told once? This makes nosense. In fact, the only way to make sense of it is to see this injunctionas not at all about stories, but about us, and about the elders. I will letyou bother them once, but don't do it twice ... have the courtesy toremember. The group of people we are to visit this February are all veryold, and most are not in very good health. In this setting, stories are gifts, and cannot be wasted on forgetting.
Other visitors to the community during our visit included severalenvironmental consultants working with SENES, at the time themain contractor involved in establishing the radiological situationand history at Port Radium and other significant sites; several academics from the University of Alberta; and the then lawyer for theland claim settlement, Geoffrey Grenville-Wood.
With clearance from the Chief to speak with people in the community, we were able to set up several visits with elders. One of theconditions that we agreed on at the outset was that we would haveno formal interview protocol, would not record any interviews(which were really just conversations), would not take notes, andwould not cite people in any correspondence or publication that resulted from our meetings. During our time there we spoke with asmany people as we could.
I would like to note in particular the hospitality we received from six individuals who welcomed us into their homes. Elizabeth Kodakin, Theresa and Peter Baton, Rosie Sewi, Isadore Yukon, and Moise Bahya were gracious hosts and very patient with our questions and interest. I mention them by name here as a measure of my gratitude, but I will not cite them directly --- none of them wished to be our authorities.
There was an astonishing indirectness with which people dealt with our questions and conversation. I had come prepared only with a few archival photos and a set of maps of the lake, including the Bear River and Tulita. It seemed to me that having something to work with that pictured the lake and, in particular. Port Radium might make the process of talking about this long-ago time somewhat more straightforward. We hired a young translator, Mark Modeste, to help with the Slavey that invariably peppered the recollections from our hosts.
What I learned from these visits was not at all what I had expected to learn. It didn't really clarify any of the historical record,because none of what I was told was indexed to particular points intime. The reasons for this are many. Certainly, it has something tosay about the retroactivity of this entire story. Things were not remembered clearly often because they were not experienced as significant in the first place. Things gained their significance only afterthe fact, and so for this reason it is as though all the valences ofmemory have to be reassigned and reconfigured in light of the recentrevelations.
It is to discover that what one was apparently doingwas not in fact what one was really doing --- a traumatic experience,and perhaps particularly so for the elderly. But it is also particularto a kind or mode of speech that the Dene used with me. I can't exactly generalize this, and I am not the first to note it, but the kindof speech that I found myself involved with in my various trips toDeline had such an astonishing indirectness that I frequently cameaway from a conversation wondering about exactly what I had beentold.
When I asked a question of one of my hosts about where helived when he was employed by Eldorado loading and unloadingbarges at the mine site --- I know this from oral histories collected bythe community --- I was told that what I really needed to understand was something about caribou. He then went on to tell me a greatdeal about caribou and their movements on the east side of GreatBear Lake; how the caribou would move across from the BarrenLands, where the Dene would set up their camps, when they wouldbe plentiful and easy to hunt, and where they would travel to huntthem. And none of this, on the face of it, had the slightest thing todo with details of life at the mine, the nature of the work, and so on.But it was as though the specific and located experience of knowingabout caribou --- of which my interlocutor knew very well I had noconceivable experience --- was the kind of knowledge that one neededin order to approach my other question. In a way, this was not hostile in the least: such responses were a critical claim to an experiential authority that I did not possess. It is hard to imagine how onewould approach someone so completely inexperienced.
I began to get the sense that my hosts were simply telling me thatthere was a great deal to know before I could approach what it wasI thought I was interested in, and that what I thought I was interested in could not be addressed directly. In this sense I was severelylimited in what I would be able to glean from these conversations if,and I stress if, I were to cling to the idea that questions are the thingsthat determine answers, whereas it may well be, to paraphrase Deleuze (that great Parisian questioner) that a question or problemalways gets the answer it deserves.
The universe of questions and expectations I had brought withme from the south did not correspond to the universe of answersavailable to me there. I received much the same kind of replies to myquestions about place names in and around Port Radium. I knewthere were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Slavey place names that atleast some of these elders would recollect, but no one was interestedin speaking to them directly, even while looking at a map of thearea. Toponyms, I was quickly reminded, are not just names --- they are forms of knowledge that pertain to a way of life; they have their own stories, histories, and practices.
Most of the elders I spoke with were very concerned to conveytheir sense of sadness and loss that their knowledge --- about thebush, their language, places names, trapping and fishing, and theirtraditional way of life --- was not being taken up by their children andgrandchildren. Instead, they found themselves answering dumbquestions posed by journalists, researchers, and others who somehow wanted to know things apart from the experiential knowledgethat would make such things meaningful to begin with. Knowledgeis embodied, accumulated through experience, and supportedthrough narrative. This is not traditional ecological knowledge (TEK),as it has come to be called. TEK: a telling homonym, ironic, parodic,concealing perhaps just another kind of discovery narrative, anothergesture of cultural condescension, another gesture of the burden ofresidual and southern postcolonial guilt. Not TEK, then, but listening and thinking and knowing that there is something to be learnedthat requires effort and willingness. This is the kind of listening thatexperienced fieldworkers such as Cruikshank and Ryan have spentdecades problematizing and refining. It is no easy task.--- From The Highway of the Atom
Peter C. van Wyck
©2010 McGill-Queen's University Press